Play Ball! Memorable MLB Opening Day Moments
It’s a phrase only half as long as baseball’s other most sacred words – “pitchers and catchers report” – but makes fans twice as sad as they’re reminded that the MLB season was supposed to start today and is instead on hold because of the coronavirus.
Every day of baseball is great, but here are some of the moments from openers that remind us that while MLB may have been eclipsed by football in popularity it remains the national pastime.
Hank Aaron’s 714th home run came on Opening Day
Connecting off the Cincinnati Reds’ Jack Billingham in his first at-bat of the season on April 4, 1974, allowed Hank Aaron to match Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs for a moment that serves to remind us how perceptions change.
Aaron was the subject of racially driven hatred and death threats in the offseason leading up to his historic moment because some people did not want an African-American man breaking the record of the sport’s most legendary player. Even after Aaron finished with 755 homers, some continued to find excuses to tout Ruth’s total as the record.
Fast-forward to more recent times and the school of thought by many fans that the 762 homers by Barry Bonds set an illegitimate mark because of baseball’s steroids era.
Bob Feller couldn’t be touched on Opening Day
The 1940 Chicago White Sox began and ended Opening Day with the same batting average: .000. That was only possible because 21-year-old Bob Feller threw one of his three career no-hitters April 16 at Comiskey Park to kick off a 27-win season.
Feller walked five and struck out eight in the only Opening Day no-hitter in MLB history. He almost had to be that good because Eddie Smith of the White Sox surrendered only one run in eight innings.
Jackie Robinson breaks the color barrier
The Brooklyn Dodgers integrated the major leagues on April 15, 1957, when Jackie Robinson played first base at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Robinson went hitless in three at-bats but walked once and scored a run in a 5-3 win over the Boston Braves while forever changing the game and American society.
His No. 42 has retired permanently retired across the major leagues.
Another barrier fell on April 8, 1975, when Frank Robinson became the first African-American manager in the majors with the Cleveland Indians. Robinson was one of the modern era’s rare player-managers and hit an Opening Day homer– something he’d do eight times in his Hall of Fame career — off an 0-2 offering off Doc Medich of the New York Yankees.
Robinson would record 1,065 victories in 16 seasons as a manager.
The Bambino christens The House That Ruth Built
The 1923 season would mark the first of the New York Yankees’ 27 World Series championships and was also the year that they opened the stadium forever known as The House That Ruth Built.
New York dedicated the new Yankee Stadium on April 15, 1923, and played its opener three days later. Naturally, Babe Ruth hit the first of 259 home runs he would hit there in the third inning of a 4-1 win over the Boston Red Sox.
Power surges right out of the gate
George Bell of the Toronto Blue Jays homered three times against Bret Saberhagen of the Kansas City Royals on April 4, 1988, to set the standard for opening power performances.
The Chicago Cubs’ Tuffy Rhodes would match the feat vs. the New York Mets’ Doc Gooden in 1994, Dmitri Young of the Detroit Tigers did it against the Royals in 2005, and Matt Davison of the Chicago White Sox connected for three against Kansas City in 2018.
Honorable mentions in the category:
Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants in 2017 for becoming the first pitcher to hit two home runs in an opener.
Sixto Lezcano of the Milwaukee Brewers for slugging two grand slams against the Boston Red Sox to kick off the 1980 schedule.
George Springer of the 2018 Houston Astros for becoming the only player to hit leadoff homers in season openers in two consecutive years.
Cleveland Indians fans bought tickets for one game but saw nearly two April 5, 2012, in a 7-4 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays in 16 innings, the longest opener in MLB history.
Though their game went “only” 15 innings, the Washington Senators and Philadelphia A’s made April 13, 1926, memorable. Walter Johnson of the Senators struck out 12 batters in a six-hitter and Eddie Rommel surrendered nine hits as both threw complete games in Washington’s 1-0 win.
Johnson was the definitive Opening Day ace, kicking off the season with shutout victories seven times.