The new baseball season begins!
As the World Series Champion Cardinals (thank you, Braves!) help christen the Miami Marlins and their new ballpark, our minds race to envision the myriad scenarios that might unfold during the new season.
It’s much easier for the mind to determine what we likely won’t see: that rarest of all baseball feats.
The Opening Day no-hitter.
It’s happened exactly once. And that’s pretty amazing in and of itself. Teams usually open with their ace, increasing the likelihood of a well-pitched game. And consider how often openers occur during poor hitting conditions: raw, wintery weather that favors the pitchers. Ever foul a ball off the bat right above your hands on a cold day? No fun at all.
And yet, in all of baseball history, the only pitcher ever to fashion an Opening Day no-hitter was Hall-of-Famer Bob Feller of the Indians, on April 16, 1940.
He beat the White Sox 1-0 in Comiskey Park before a quaint crowd of 14,000. Most of the knowledgeable locals chose not to venture out into the bracing Chicago springtime weather.
“It was very cold and windy. My arm was stiff,” Feller told David Fletcher of the Bob Feller Museum a few years ago. The weather conditions forced Feller to abandon his curveball after the second inning. Of course, that wasn’t a huge problem.
Feller’s famous fastball earned him the sobriquets “Rapid Robert” and “The Heater from Van Meter.”
Although only 21, Feller was already an established star. He was coming off a 1939 season in which he won 24 games and racked up 246 strikeouts, 24 complete games and 296.2 innings pitched. Each of those numbers led the league.
He first pitched for the Indians in 1936 — the summer before his senior year in high school. In his first start, against the St. Louis Browns on August 23, the 17-year-old pitched a complete game. He won, 4-1, on a six-hitter, and registered an astounding 15 strikeouts.
Three weeks later, he tied Dizzy Dean’s major league record with a 17-strikeout game. He was so fast that the Yankee pitcher and humorist Lefty Gomez, after striking out against Feller, turned to the plate umpire and remarked, “That last one sounded a little low.”
He opened the 1937 season with the Indians while being tutored so that he could graduate with his high school class. He was such a phenomenon that NBC radio broadcast the ceremony nationwide. He also graced the cover of Time magazine.
As a 19-year-old in 1938, he went 17-11 and led the league in strikeouts for the first time, with 240.
Despite his dominating 1939 season, little was expected from Feller as the 1940 season approached.
“I had pitched Saturday in Cleveland,” Feller told Anthony Cantrovince of mlb.com, in 2010. “I went five innings and gave up about 15 hits and 10 runs, getting ready to open the season. I had a bad spring. All the writers were saying, ‘Bob doesn’t have it. He might have a bad year.’”
The writers seemed prescient when Feller loaded the bases in the second inning of the opener. Roy Weatherly dropped a fly ball in center. Then Feller walked Mike Tresh and Edgar Smith, the opposing pitcher.
“I was a little wild,” Feller told Castrovince.
So wild that manager Oscar Vitt had a reliever warming up. He sat down when Feller struck out rookie third baseman Bob Kennedy to end the inning.
The Indians got Feller a run in the fourth. “My roommate, Jeff Heath, hit a single,” Feller told Castrovince, “and my catcher, Rollie Hemsley, hit a triple to right center to score Heath.”
The 1-0 lead held as Feller retired 15 straight batters through the eighth. In the ninth, Feller got Mike Kreevich to pop out to second on a 2-2 pitch. He then got Moose Solters on a grounder to shortstop Lou Boudreau.
That brought up Luke Appling. With the count 2-2, Appling fouled off four straight pitches. Feller then conceded. “I walked him on purpose,” he confided to Castrovince. “But nobody knew but me.”
That brought up Taft Wright, who drilled a 1-0 pitch toward right. Second baseman Ray Mack lunged to his left, knocked the ball down, grabbed it off the outfield grass, and threw to first baseman Hal Trotsky, beating Wright by half a step.
“I wasn’t sure I had it until Ray Mack threw out that last man,” Feller told the Cleveland Plain Dealer after the game. “That was the hardest ball hit at me all day. It was really hit!”
Feller would go on to win the pitcher’s Triple Crown that year with a career-high 27 wins, 2.61 era and 261 strikeouts. But to the ultimate team player, none of that mattered.
“I always kid about it. Everything after Opening Day that season, as far as I was concerned, was downhill,” he admitted to Castrovince. “We lost the pennant by one game to Detroit.”
That may be. After all, it was the greatest Opening Day in baseball history.