#Shortstops: The Emperor’s Game

Written by: Luke McDonald

One evening in the summer of 1959, the Korakuen Stadium in Tokyo, Japan was ablaze with activity. It wasn’t just that the Yomiuri Giants and Osaka Tigers, two of the fiercest rivals in Japan’s Central League, were facing off against each other. It wasn’t just that some of the best up-and-coming players of the era – Shigeo Nagashima, Sadaharu Oh, and Minoru Murayama – were set to take the field. And it wasn’t just that suspense would permeate the game itself from start to finish.

Black and white portrait of Shigeo Nagashima
Shigeo Nagashima's home run in the presence of Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako gave the Yomiuri Giants a 5-4 victory. (National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

This was the “Emperor’s Game,” billed as the first professional baseball game attended by Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako, and the crowd’s attention was divided between the diamond and the skybox, where the royals looked down on the action. According to author Robert K. Fitts, “For many of the players, performing in front of the Emperor was more significant than playing in the Japan Series.” And sure enough, the game did not disappoint. The Giants and Tigers were neck-and-neck all evening, with both teams gaining a lead at various points before losing it again. Finally, in the ninth inning, the score stood at 4-4.

The tension reached a crescendo, not only due to the score, but also because the Emperor and Empress were set to leave the stadium at 9:30, which was quickly approaching. They would not stay for a 10th inning. The Giants’ Nagashima walked up to the plate to face off against Tigers pitcher Murayama, a young phenom who had led his college team to an All-Japan University Baseball Championship victory in 1956. As a pro, Murayama would go on to achieve a 1.19 ERA for the season. But on that evening, Nagashima came out on top, hitting a Murayama fastball squarely over the outfield for a legendary home run – just in time for the royals’ curfew.

The emperor’s attendance served as a tacit endorsement of the American sport that had come to dominate Japan. Though baseball had been played in schools and universities for decades, professional baseball was more of a recent phenomenon. The first professional league started in 1936, and Japan’s modern MLB equivalent, Nippon Professional Baseball, officially formed in 1950. By 1959, the sport finally appeared to have reached all strata of Japanese society.

Although the Emperor’s Game was momentous for Japanese baseball history, sources vary about the details. The date of the game, for example, is a topic of contention. Various historians describe it as taking place on June 19, June 26, or an unspecified date in May. And even though sources appear to unanimously label the game as the first attended by Japanese royalty, this is only partially true. A New York Times article dating to 1947 documents the Emperor’s attendance at a Japanese semi-pro championship game.

But despite the uncertainties surrounding the Emperor’s Game, Nagashima’s ninth-inning “sayonara” hit – so-called for ending the game – remains a legendary moment for the Yomiuri Giants.

Luke McDonald is a 2024 Library-Giamatti Research Center intern in the Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Leadership Development