Opening Day is a time of renewal for baseball fans. Winter is over, and as John Fogerty sang in his 1985 hit, “Centerfield,” “We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field.”
“You always get a special kick on Opening Day, no matter how many you go through,” Yankees Hall of Fame outfielder Joe DiMaggio said. “You look forward to it like a birthday party when you’re a kid. You think something wonderful is going to happen.”
The Yankee Clipper was right. There were plenty of times that Opening Day brought unexpected excitement for baseball fans. Some of the results were individual efforts. Other times, history was made that had social implications or represented a key milestone.
In no particular order, here’s a look at some of the memorable Opening Day moments involving Hall of Famers, with an honorable mention thrown in for good measure. There are nine players mentioned since after all, there are nine innings in a game and nine positions on the field.
Bob Feller, 1940
The fireballing right-hander known as “Rapid Robert” threw a no-hitter on Opening Day, April 16, 1940, before 14,000 fans at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.
Feller was 22 but already had four major league seasons under his belt. His parents and sister were in the stands as Feller mowed down the White Sox, striking out eight and walking five. He faced just 33 batters in Cleveland’s 1-0 victory.
Feller had just one tough moment, when the White Sox loaded the bases in the second inning thanks to an error and a pair of walks. But Feller struck out Bob Kennedy to end the threat.
“The first couple of innings I was pretty wild. In the second inning, I loaded the bases,” Feller said in 1990 on the 50th anniversary of his no-hitter. “Someone in the bullpen was warming up and the manager (Ossie Vitt) was getting ready to walk out to the mound. But I managed to strike out the last hitter on a full count.”
Feller had thrown three one-hitters, but he finally earned a no-no to give the Indians the victory. Feller would go 27-11 with a 2.61 ERA and 261 strikeouts.
And Feller’s reaction after his gem?
“My curve wasn’t breaking the way I wanted it to,” Feller said, according to The Associated Press. “I think I’ve been faster several times. Of course, that strong wind helped make me faster.
“But I couldn’t seem to throw a curve very well.”
Feller had seven Opening Day starts and threw three shutouts.
Feller’s feat has been commemorated a couple of times by Topps just in the last couple of years including the 2020 Turn Back the Clock print on demand set.
Walter Johnson, 1926
Walter Johnson was known as the “Big Train” during his 21-season career with the Washington Senators.
He started on Opening Day 14 times, compiling a 9-5 record while throwing seven shutouts. On April 13, 1926, Johnson turned in his finest Opening Day performance, winning a 1-0, 15-inning marathon against the Philadelphia Athletics.
Johnson struck out nine and walked three. Johnson was so dominant that no runner reached second or third base until the ninth inning. Philadelphia also put a runner on third in the 12th and 14th innings, but Joe Harris’ RBI single in the bottom of the 15th proved to be the difference in the game.
The Washington Post noted that the game was played in “sullen skies, Arctic temperatures and a baseball-hungry crowd of 23,000” fans, including Vice President Charles Dawes.
As a side note, Johnson flirted with a no-hitter on Opening Day on April 14, 1910, tossing a 3-0 shutout. The Philadelphia Athletics’ only hit came in the seventh inning when Senators right fielder Doc Gessler tripped over a small child who was sitting on the edge of the warning track. The ball, hit by John “Home Run” Baker, bounced into the overflow crowd and was ruled a double.
Johnson appeared in three sets dated to 1926 including a fairly rare Exhibit and the multi-sport issue produced for Spalding that includes many of the sports stars of the day.
Bob Gibson, 1967
On April 11, 1967, Bob Gibson struck out the first five batters he faced during a night game at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, tying a major league record. His victims included future Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Willie McCovey.
Gibson ended with 13 strikeouts and tossed a five-hit shutout as the Cardinals blanked the Giants 6-0 before 38,117 fans in 52-degree weather. Another future Hall of Famer, Lou Brock, hit a three-run homer off another pitcher destined for Cooperstown, Juan Marichal. Brock’s three-run shot in the second inning was all Gibson needed.
Gibson’s record for whiffs to open a game tied the mark set by Dazzy Vance of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1926 and tied in 1966 by Bob Bolin of the San Francisco Giants.
That mark has been topped several times since that April night in St. Louis. The current record is nine, set on July 11, 2021, by Miami Marlins pitcher Pablo Lopez.
For Gibson, the victory was particularly sweet. In three starts against the Giants in 1966, he allowed only six runs but lost all three times.
“It’s about time I beat them,” Gibson said after his 1967 debut.
Gibson’s regular card is #210 in the 1967 Topps set and readily available online for a fairly modest investment.
Hank Aaron, 1974
Hank Aaron came up one homer short of tying Babe Ruth’s career home run mark when the 1973 season. On his first swing on April 4, 1974, Aaron crushed a 3-1 pitch from Cincinnati’s Jack Billingham and put it over the 375-foot sign in left field for a three-run homer. That tied Ruth’s record, which Aaron would break four nights later in Atlanta.
“The record they said that couldn’t be reached, has just been reached by Henry Aaron,” Braves announcer Milo Hamilton said.
“You gotta admit I did it up sharp,” Billingham told Cincinnati Post columnist Earl Lawson. “He hit it with his first swing of the season.”
Even before he belted #714 or #715, Topps crowned Aaron as the “New All-Time Home Run King” on card #1 of its 1974 set, which arrived just prior to the start of the season. While Aaron breaking the record was a foregone conclusion, it had to make Topps just a little nervous as it began to piece the set together late in the ’73 season. Today, it’s one of the most popular non-rookie cards of the decade, with good quality examples starting at around $30.
Babe Ruth, 1923
On April 18, 1923, Babe Ruth christened “The House that Ruth Built” with the first home run at Yankee Stadium.
Ruth swatted a 2-2 pitch off Boston Red Sox pitcher Howard Ehmke into the right-field bleachers, a three-run shot that capped a four-run outburst in the third inning. That was all the firepower the two-time American League defending champion New York Yankees would need in a 4-1 victory against Boston before a record-setting crowd that was announced at 74,200.
When Ehmke “tried to fool” Ruth with a high fastball, the Bambino connected solidly. According to wire reports, “The next moment the ball was well away on its long flight into the right-field bleachers, and the raving thousands were rending the Bronx atmosphere asunder in honor and appreciation of the glorious event.”
Ruth has two cards in the 1923 W517 strip card set that are popular with collectors.
Jackie Robinson, 1947
Jackie Robinson broke the modern color barrier in major league baseball when he trotted out to first base at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947.
Robinson opened the season against the Boston Braves, and 26,623 fans attended the game. Robinson was 0-for-3 in his debut, which the Dodgers won 5-3. Robinson made the game’s first putout, receiving a throw from third base rookie Spider Jorgensen to retire Boston leadoff hitter Dick Culler.
He would later score the go-ahead run in the seventh inning on Pete Reiser’s two-run double.
“I wasn’t at all excited or scared,” Robinson told Oscar Fraley of United Press International. “I was as loose as could be. And I can’t honestly say that this was my biggest thrill in baseball. That came, I guess, when I signed with Montreal.
“But I would have liked a couple of hits.”
Robinson was the first Black to appear in a major league game since Moses Fleet Walker played 42 games for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1884.
One of seven known ticket stubs from Robinson’s debut game sold for $480,000 in a Heritage Auctions sale in February 2022.
Robinson was certainly aware of the historical significance of that day in Brooklyn, but he kept it all in perspective.
Jonathan Eig, writing in his 2007 book, Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season, notes that Robinson told his wife Rachel as he left the McAlpin Hotel in Manhattan to go to Ebbets Field, “Just in case you have trouble picking me out, I’ll be wearing number 42.”
Robinson’s Leaf rookie card has skyrocketed in value over the last couple of years with lower grade examples starting at around $10,000.
Randy Johnson, 1993/1996
Here’s a crazy stat. On Opening Day, a starting pitcher has struck out at least 14 batters five times. Randy Johnson has done it twice.
The Big Unit struck 14 Blue Jays on April 6, 1993, at the Kingdome, allowing one run and seven hits in the Seattle Mariners’ 8-1 victory. Johnson went eight innings.
On March 31, 1996, Johnson struck out 14 in seven innings against the Chicago White Sox but the Mariners were trailing 2-1. Seattle would tie the game in the bottom of the ninth and would win the game 3-2 on Alex Rodriguez’s RBI single in the bottom of the 12th.
Johnson allowed two earned runs and three hits before he was lifted. He only walked three. The tall left-hander was sidelined throughout most of the 1996 season with a back injury and pitched in only 14 games, making eight starts. He was 5-0 for the year.
Craig Biggio, 2001
Craig Biggio got off to a roaring start on April 3, 2001, at Houston’s Enron Field. Batting second, the second baseman went 5-for-5 and scored three runs.
Biggio’s efforts on Opening Day helped the Houston Astros defeat the Milwaukee Brewers 11-3.
On the downside, Biggio was caught stealing once.
Biggio led the Astros to a 93-69 record to tie the St. Louis Cardinals for first place in the National League Central Division. In the playoffs, Houston would be swept in three games by the Atlanta Braves.
Tuffy Rhodes, 1994
Here is the honorable mention. Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes is not a Hall of Famer, but on April 4, 1994, he played like one.
Rhodes, who only hit 16 home runs during his six years in the majors, smacked three solo shots off New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden at Wrigley Field. Rhodes went 4-for-4 with three RBI, and all three homers were to the opposite field.
He led off the Cubs’ first inning with a home run, then added his second one in the third. Rhodes got the fans at the Friendly Confines to leap to their feet as he connected for his third straight solo homer to lead off the fifth inning.
The third homer helped the Cubs trim the Mets’ deficit to 9-6, but New York would go on to win 12-8.
The 1994 season was Rhodes’ most productive in the majors. He hit eight homers, 17 doubles and had 19 RBI.
Rhodes found much more success playing in Japan. In 1996 he hit 27 home runs and drove in 97 runs for the Kintetsu Buffaloes. The following year, Rhodes batted .307 with 22 homers and 37 doubles and stole 22 bases.
He added 22 homers in 1998 and smacked 40 in 1999. In 2001 Rhodes hit .327 and set Pacific League records in runs (137), homers (55) and total bases (364). He would win the league’s MVP award.