Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Emperor's Game

Today is the 55th Anniversary of what is probably the most famous game in Japanese baseball history. On June 25, 1959, the Emperor of Japan for the first time ever attended a professional baseball game. That evening, Emperor Hirohito and his wife Empress Nagako took in the contest between the Giants and Tigers at Korakuen Stadium in Tokyo, just a few miles north of the Imperial Palace.

As you might imagine, this was a big deal. The teams lined up on the field prior to the game and bowed to the Emperor. Both teams were tense. As Rob Fitts related in his biography of Wally Yonamine, who played in the game: "For many of the players, performing in front of the Emperor was more significant than playing in the Japan Series".

1959 Marusan JCM 12A Motoshi Fujita (left) & Kazuhisa Inao (right)

1963 Marukami JCM 14F Masaaki Koyama
The pitching matchup pitted the top two pitchers for each team - Masaaki Koyama for the Tigers against Motoshi Fujita for the Giants.  The Tigers dew first blood, taking a 1-0 lead in the top of the third on an RBI hit by Koyama.

1958 Yamakatsu JCM 33A Shigeo Nagashima

1958 Marukami JCM 31B Kazuhiko Sakazaki
The Giants took the lead in the bottom of the fifth on back to back home runs by Shigeo Nagashima (in only his second year with the Giants) and Kazuhiko Sakazaki.  The Tigers, however, bounced back in the top of the sixth, scoring three runs including a home run by Katsumi Fujimoto (I'm not sure if Fujimoto's home run was a three run home run or not).  The Tigers now led 4-2.

1958 Who Am I? JCM 54 Katsumi Fujimoto

1964 Marukami JCM 14G Sadaharu Oh
The Giants were not done though as they tied the game in the bottom of the seventh on a two run home run by rookie first baseman Sadaharu Oh.  This game was the first game that Nagashima and Oh would both homer in - there would be another 105 games over the next 15 years that they would both homer in.  The game was now tied 4 to 4.

1962 JCM 141 Minoru Murayama
Rookie pitcher Minoru Murayama came in for the Tigers in the bottom of the eighth.  I'll let Robert Whiting tell the rest of the story (from "The Chrysanthemum And The Bat"):

Murayama was flawless as he set the Giants down in the 8th; and in the 9th the Tigers failed to score.  With Murayama at the peak of his form, it was beginning to look like extra innings.  If so, the Imperial Couple, whose scheduled time of departure was 9:30, would miss the end of the game.  No one wanted that to happen.
The Emperor stayed to see Nagashima bat one last time.  He only had to watch five more pitches.  With the count at 2-2, Nagashima took a deep breath as Murayama went into his windup and threw the most famous pitch of his career--an inside fastball that Nagashima saw coming all the way.  The Emperor leaned forward in his seat and watched the ball sail ten rows into the leftfield stands.  Rounding second base, Nagashima glanced up at the royal box and then trotted on to home plate to be mobbed by his teammates.  Everyone wanted to touch him, as if some of his incredible magic might rub off on them.
The Emperor and Empress stood in their box and smiled.  Then, bowing ever so slightly towards the players milling around home plate, they prepared to leave the stadium.  The scoreboard clock read 9:40.  The greatest game ever played in Japan was history.  And Shigeo Nagashima had won it for his team.

A quick note here - the times Whiting mentions are not accurate.  According to the Japanese Wikipedia page about the game, the bottom of the ninth started a little after nine and the Imperial Couple needed to leave at 9:15.  Nagashima hit the home run at 9:12.

Here's the only video I could find of the game (and you'll notice the scoreboard clock does not match Whiting's account):

It had to be Nagashima to hit that home run.  When he hit that ball to left field, he didn't know if it was going to be fair or foul, so he just stood at home plate and watched.  Then, when he figured that the ball would be fair, he started running.  Nagashima was the best clutch hitter in Japan.  In an important game like that, he would always come through for us.
                                                                                    -- Wally Yonamine
Murayama would go on to win the Sawamura award that year and ultimately won 222 games in his career. He was elected to the Hall Of Fame in 1993. But he would go to his grave (at an untimely age of 61 in 1998) insisting that the ball was foul.

You would think that a game this famous must have been commemorated on many baseball cards. And you might be right about that. But I have only been able to track down two. In Calbee's 1974/75 set there is a large subset devoted to Nagshima's career (tying in with his retirement in October of 1974). One card in this subset is devoted to this game, but I'm not sure which one. This particular card, however, was featured in Calbee's ON subset in 2000 where they reprinted a bunch of Oh and Nagashima cards from the 1970's. I don't have this card myself, but Ryan does and he let me swipe the image to show here:

2000 Calbee ON-07
The other card is from this past winter's Epoch/JBPA Shigeo Nagashima Memorial Treasures set:

 2014 Epoch/JPBA Shigeo Nagashima Memorial Treasures #02
BBM did a pack based set devoted to Nagashima in 1999 (Mr. Giants) and a boxed set for him upon his second and final retirement as Giants manager in 2001. I have many cards from the 1999 set but none for this game and I don't have the boxed set. I assume that each set has a card for the game but I don't know that for sure.

I used the following references in making this post - Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball by Rob Fitts, Sadaharu Oh - A Zen Way Of Baseball by Sadaharu Oh and David Faulkner and The Chrysanthemum And The Bat by Robert Whiting as well as the afore-mentioned Japanese Wikipedia entry for the game.

And just another note - Whiting says the game took place in May of 1959. Oh says it was June 26, 1959. It was, in fact, June 25, 1959.

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