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Opening day brings with it a sense of joy and optimism. Spring has arrived and every team has a zero in the loss column until nine innings are played, no matter how bad the prospects for the season might be. But opening day in 1996 brought with it only sadness due to the tragic death of MLB umpire John McSherry.

Opening day in Cincinnati

The tradition of the Cincinnati Reds opening the baseball season at home before other teams took the field had already ended, but April 1, 1996, was still going to be special for the Reds, who were coming off a divisional championship the previous year. Manager Ray Knight’s team was bringing back lefty Pete Schourek, coming off a breakthrough 18-7 season, and featured Eric Davis and Barry Larkin in the everyday lineup.

So, one day after the Seattle Mariners kicked off the season by beating the Chicago White Sox, 3-2, Cincinnati fans were ready for the hometown team’s opener vs. the Montreal Expos.

What they saw at Riverfront Stadium was the Reds’ Schourek retire the first two Expos batters on five pitches. Tragedy would strike after two more pitches to the next hitter, Rondell White.

The warning signs were there for umpire John McSherry

John McSherry had been promoted to the majors in 1971 and was one of the longest-tenured umpires in the National League. As such, he racked up a number of honors that included being selected to work three MLB All-Star Games, 10 National League playoff series, and the 1977 and ’87 World Series. He was working the plate in Game Six of the 1977 World Series when Reggie Jackson homered three times to finish off the Los Angeles Dodgers.

However, there were signs of potential health issues two-thirds of the way through McSherry’s career in the majors aside from being overweight at 6-foot-2 and an estimated 330 pounds. He collapsed during a 1991 game due to dehydration, left the seventh game of the NL Championship Series (he was the plate umpire) due to dizziness, and also left games in 1993 and ’95 due to heat-related illnesses.

In addition, Reds manager Ray Knight said he was told by a member of the umpiring crew that McSherry had an appointment scheduled for the following day to see a doctor about a problem with arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat.

A call for time out and then a call for help for John McSherry

Two pitches into Rondell White’s at-bat in the top of the first inning in Cincinnati, home plate umpire John McSherry told Reds catcher Ed Taubensee to hold on for a moment and began backing away. McSherry motioned to fellow umpire Steve Rippley at second base and turned toward the gate behind the plate leading to the umpires’ locker room.

McSherry collapsed before reaching the gate. Trainers from both teams raced from the dugouts and tried to revive McSherry as a crowd of approximately 53,000 watched silently. He was taken to a nearby hospital, accompanied by umpire Tom Hallion, and pronounced dead shortly after arrival.

With only two umpires remaining at the stadium and players from both teams visibly upset, the decision was made to call off the game.

The only other death known to be directly associated with an MLB game came in 1920 when Ray Chapman was struck in the head by a pitch from the New York Yankees’ Carl Mays. The Cleveland Indians shortstop died the following day.