A happy Opening Day to you and yours! Every team is tied for first, a full schedule lies ahead, and crowds pack into ballparks with best-case scenarios buzzing about their heads. But be wary and forewarned; we are not far enough away from April Fool’s Day to rest easy. As the games begin, the baseball gods turn mischievous and cruel.
Charles Hercules Ebbets and his Brooklyn brass proudly opened the new 25,000-seat Ebbets Field at the corner of Sullivan and Cedar to great fanfare for an exhibition against the Yankees on April 9, 1913, and wound up with egg on their face. There was trouble even before the main gate was opened – because the key had been forgotten, making it impossible to open the gate and admit the arriving fans. When admission was granted, co-owner Ed McKeever’s wife stepped onto the field for the pregame flag-raising, only to discover that there was no flag to raise. A young boy was dispatched at top speed to retrieve a massive Old Glory, which gave Mrs. McKeever a devil of a time before it reached full-mast. Worse yet, the ballpark itself, built with a price tag of $750,000, had been constructed without a press box. The media instead was given the makeshift solution of two rows in the upper deck. This they had to be content with until an honest to goodness press area was erected sixteen years later.
In the 1970s, another of baseball’s icons seized the early-season spotlight. White Sox owner Bill Veeck used the first game of America’s bicentennial 1976 season to hold a “Spirit of ‘76” mock parade, playing a fife alongside a drumming Rudie Schaffer and a flag-bearing Paul Richards – Chicago’s manager – in a tableau akin to Archibald McNeal Willard’s painting. Veeck’s most notorious promotion of 1979 was Disco Demolition Night, drawing attention, but his overshadowed desperate start to the season carries its own share of pathos. The White Sox blew a 2-0 lead on Opening Day and lost in Baltimore 5-3; coughed up two more leads and lost the next day 6-3; recovered to avoid the sweep; and then were trounced 10-2 in their home opener by Toronto in front of over 40,000 people. An embarrassed Veeck provided free admission to all fans for Chicago’s next game, too. 1,205 White Sox rooters showed up on a rainy April 12th and watched the Sox build a 7-2 lead before blowing that one, too, 9-7 to Toronto.
Individual players have a way of falling on their face as well. The worst season-opening defensive game belongs to the wonderful Dasher Troy, who was assessed five errors at shortstop on Opening Day with the New York Gothams in 1883. He would later move to second base, replaced by Ed Caskin at short, though it didn’t help his bat any. Batting in the same lineup as such legends as Roger Connor, Buck Ewing and Monte Ward, Dasher hit just .215. It was his first and only year on the Gothams.
300-game winner Early Wynn suffered the most definitive of his 244 career losses on Opening Day 1948. Coming off an All-Star season featuring 17 victories the year before, Wynn was tabbed by the Washington Senators to face Tommy Henrich, Joe DiMaggio and the New York Yankees. It did not go well: Wynn issued a leadoff walk to christen the season, served up a two-run homer to Henrich, allowed three consecutive one-out singles to yield another run, recorded a second out, gave up a Gus Niarhos RBI single, and tossed a cantaloupe to opposing pitcher Allie Reynolds that turned into a three-run roundtripper. When the dust cleared and Reynolds had finished rounding the bases, the Yankees led 7-0. Wynn allowed a record-setting 12 runs in all, though he was permitted to pitch all the way into the ninth before departing.
Cleveland’s Herb Score fared much better than Wynn when he opened the 1957 season against the Chicago White Sox. The Sox tallied only three runs off of Score, two of them earned, over the course of 11 grueling innings, but that was enough for a 3-2 win. It doesn’t quite tell the tale, though. Score walked Luis Aparicio in the first inning, wrote a free pass for Sherm Lollar and Jim Landis in the second, handed Aparicio a base-on-balls again in the third inning, gave Lollar another walk in the fifth, intentionally passed Bubba Phillips in the sixth, walked Jim Rivera in the eighth, lost both Fred Hatfield and Rivera to free passes in the tenth, and then walked Aparicio for a third time and intentionally walked Minnie Minoso in the eleventh. Larry Doby came through with a two-out tie-breaking single, and the battling Herb Score – who had walked 11 batters, nine unintentionally – went down in defeat. Before Doby’s blow, the Chicago White Sox had been 1-for-19 with runners in scoring position.
Richard Nixon had no trouble throwing the ball on April 7th, 1969; he had trouble holding it. Standing between Senators manager Ted Williams and Yankees manager Ralph Houk, Nixon cocked his arm for the first pitch from the stands, and then lost the handle. Along with this presidential fumble, the situation featured an error of a different sort, out of Nixon’s control. His box had been labeled with a misspelled seal – “Presidnt of the United States.” With flashbulbs going off as Nixon hurriedly picked up the lost baseball, both miscues were put on display. He eventually got off three separate first pitches, chucking them onto the field into a throng of players.
The White Sox and Mariners opened up the 1996 Major League season, rocking the Kingdome with a 12-inning thriller. In a duel of future Hall of Famers, Chicago’s Frank Thomas had crushed a two-run homer in the first inning against Randy Johnson. Seattle struck back with a Darren Bragg home run in the fifth, an Edgar Martinez game-tying double in the bottom of the ninth, and an Alex Rodriguez game-winning single in the twelfth. All of that action meant plenty of at-bats, which was ill-fated news for Chicago catcher Ron Karkovice. Karkovice batted five times, striking out swinging in the second, the fourth, the seventh, and the tenth innings before striking out looking to end the top of the twelfth. It was a record-setting performance of futility, iced by a passed ball committed in the bottom of the ninth amid Seattle’s game-tying rally.
Even last season’s Opening Day, not all that far from memory, did not spare egos. The Miami Marlins lost to the Atlanta Braves, 2-1, in a game that saw Dee Gordon fall on his face while trying to beat out a bunt single and Marcell Ozuna lobby for a diving catch on a ball that had squirted behind him and lay in plain view. Worse, Miami hosted the game at Marlins Park, outfitted with a retractable roof to shield the game from inclement weather, and yet proceedings were still delayed 16 minutes due to surprise rain. At least it was nothing like the Giants and Phillies dealt with to open the 1907 season. In baseball’s only Opening Day forfeit, a blizzard the day before provided the ammunition for a wild ninth-inning snowball fight for a disillusioned crowd.
What does this year hold? A no-hitter like Bob Feller pulled off in 1940? A three-HR performance in the spirit of the immortal Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes?
Or will more baseball mischief be afoot?