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The Magic of Opening Day

By Dick Heller, January 31, 2013
Here President Truman greets starting pitchers Bobo Newsome of the Washington Senators and Allie Reynolds of the New York Yankees on April 18, 1947, in the nation's capital to commemorate the beginning of that year’s Major League Baseball Season.

I saw my first Opening Day game in 1950 between two teams that no longer exist as the original Washington Senators defeated the Philadelphia Athletics 8–7. Also in the crowd of 29,320 that jammed DC’s tiny Griffith Stadium was President Harry Truman, who threw out two “first” balls—one right-handed and one left-handed—before settling down to watch the game in a much better seat than I had.

Back then, you had to “know” somebody to get Opening Day tickets in Washington. My father, who ran a small advertising agency, obtained ours from WWDC-AM, which carried the Senators’ games with Arch McDonald and Bob Wolff at the mic, but they weren’t exactly prime seating. 

Perched high in a corner of the grandstand with much of the field obscured by an overhang, we had a great view of an alley below, left-fielders Barney McCosky of the As and Gil Coan of the Nats, and not much else. Of course, there really wasn’t much else to see. Washington, managed by erstwhile “Boy Wonder” Bucky Harris, finished that season fifth in the American League with a 67–87 record. Philadelphia, skippered for the 50th and final year by 87-year-old Connie Mack, limped home dead last at 52–102.

Even though the author—having gone to 40 openings over the last 60 plus years—barely had a decent view of the game on Opening Day in 1950 at Griffith Stadium and could only clearly see left outfielders Barney McCoskey of the Philadelphia Athletics and Gil Coan of the Washington Senators (shown here), memories of the festivities and excitement still resonate to this day.

Since that distant afternoon, I’ve savored more than 40 openers in Washington and Baltimore. The words Opening Day should always be capitalized, because—to steal a word from Dana Carvey’s Church Lady character on “Saturday Night Live”—it’s always special.

Almost any ballplayer will tell you beforehand that it’s “only another game, one of 162,” or clichés to that effect. But let’s listen instead to Hall of Famer and Yankees icon Joe DiMaggio, normally regarded as reserved and unemotional: “You always get a special kick out of Opening Day, no matter how many you go through. You look forward to it like a birthday party when you’re a kid. You think something wonderful is going to happen.”

Perhaps the most dominating Opening Day pitcher of all was Walter Johnson. By the time he retired as a player in 1927, “The Big Train” had thrown nine shutouts in fourteen Opening Day starts. In 1926, a year before he signed this photo for fan and photographer George Outland, Johnson pitched and won a 15-inning shutout against Connie Mack’s Philadelphia As by the score of 1–0.

And it always does, even if your team loses. But if it wins, anything seems possible. The old Senators captured just three pennants in 60 seasons and none after 1933 before owner Calvin Griffith shanghaied them to Minnesota in 1961, but it was always a thrill to pick up a newspaper the morning after Opening Day and see this atop the standings: WASHINGTON 1–0. (In those days, most newspapers capitalized the name of the home team.)

Old Glory was unfurled and raised up the flagpole on Opening Day on April 21, 1939 to inaugurate that year’s Major League Baseball Season. New York Yankees Manager Joe McCarthy, Postmaster General Jim Farley, Washington Senators Manager Bucky Harris, and Senators owner Clark Griffith join in the festivities at Griffith Stadium in Washington, DC. The author was to see Harris and Griffith 11 years later in his very first Opening Day.

For many, Opening Day is something of a secular holiday. Young fans used to play hooky to attend. For those in school, some understanding teachers allowed a radio or TV in the classroom. And at Mount Vernon (Va.) High School, journalism teacher Joanne Marino always marked the occasion by reciting “Casey at the Bat” to her students. No other sport so perfectly ties its annual arising to the rhythms of nature. As the late commissioner Bart Giamatti put it in “The Green Fields of the Mind,” his famous ode to baseball: “The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again.”

In 1940 Cleveland Indians Pitcher Bob Feller pitched the only Opening Day no hitter in Major League Baseball history.

So it does, and gloriously even if winds are howling in San Francisco and snow is falling in Chicago or Boston. The gloomy days of winter are gone, theoretically anyway, and now we can settle down to six months of perusing box scores, cheering at the ballpark, and channel surfing to discover whatever games might be lurking on TV.

That’s right, six months. One of baseball’s great joys is that it is played every day, or almost. Instead of looking back or ahead for days on end, as fans of other sports must, we find another struggle looming imminently.

You’ll never hear a baseball player say he’s trying to get “up” for a game. The trick in our National Pastime is to stay on an even temperamental keel for the long, long season. Make no mistake, 162 regular-season games are a grind. But just win two of three, rather than losing two of three, and you’ll be in great shape.

And it all starts where it should, at the beginning. There is nothing ordinary about Opening Day. Bands play, flags fly, fireworks explode and eager throngs fill the seats as a governor, mayor, or some other dignitary attempts to throw out the first pitch. No other city handles the attending hoopla as well as Washington, where 13 presidents from Taft to Obama have put aside the burdens of office for an afternoon of fun despite the capital’s inexplicable 33-year absence (1972 to 2004) from the Major League scene.

The current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue showed remarkably poor political judgment in 2010 when he trod onto the greensward in a cap and jacket from the Chicago White Sox, his favorite team. Two years later, however, he properly wore Nationals red to do the honors.

In days of yore, the president merely stood in the stands and tossed the ball into a mass of players from both teams, with the retriever then being escorted to the presidential box for a handshake and autograph. The most unexpected result came in 1961 when “Jungle Jim” Rivera of the White Sox eyed John F. Kennedy’s scrawled John Hancock on the ball and scowled.

“What’s this garbage?” he asked the newly elected leader of the Free World. “Don’t they teach you to write any better than this at Harvard? Give me a signature somebody can read.”

JFK, laughing, took back the ball and signed his name more legibly.

It’s remarkable in retrospect that no player was ever injured in the annual scramble for the presidential pitch. Nowadays, considering how much the jocks are worth, a president or other official stands on or in front of the mound and tries to reach the catcher with his toss.

The most embarrassed chief executive in this regard was George Herbert Walker Bush, who actually had been a ballplayer at Yale. While inaugurating Baltimore’s Camden Yards in 1992, Bush 41 bounced his first pitch to Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles. Making matters even worse, Bush’s grandson simultaneously threw a perfect strike to the plate. Laughing ruefully, the president slunk off the field with his proverbial tail between his legs.

Back before expansion, free agency, and the lamentable designated hitter rule, the Major League season always began jointly in the nation’s capital and Cincinnati, where the first professional team had been formed in 1869. If the schedule called for either the Senators or Reds to open on the road, the club would instead start a day early at home. Cincinnati did so for nearly a century, from 1877 to 1969. In Washington, William Howard Taft became the first president to throw an Opening Day pitch in 1910 on an impromptu visit to American League Park. The following year, the ceremony became official, although Taft was a no-show in 1912 because of the sinking of the Titanic several days earlier.

Rookie President Dwight Eisenhower set off a cause celebre in 1953, when the White House announced he would skip Opening Day to play golf at Augusta National; a subsequent front-page editorial cartoon in the Washington Star showed Senators owner Clark Griffith rushing up with a baseball as the president teed up his golf ball. Luckily for Ike’s place in history, the opener was rained out, and he cranked up his right arm at the rescheduled game a few days later.

Eisenhower re-established his baseball bona fides the following year when he presented Senators first baseman Mickey Vernon with a silver bat before the opener as the American League batting champion for 1953. Then he summoned Vernon to his box to give him a handshake and big grin after the popular first baseman beat the lordly Yankees with a home run over the 40-foot right-field wall in the 10th inning.

Other memorable Opening Days dot baseball’s long history. Most significantly, Cleveland Indians ace Bob Feller pitched a no-hitter against the White Sox in 1940, giving rise to a perennial trivia question: What’s the only no-no where every player on the losing team had the same batting average before and after the game? And in 1974, Henry Aaron of the Atlanta Braves tied Babe Ruth’s 39-year-old record of 714 home runs by connecting against the Reds in Cincinnati. 

Who was the all-time Opening Day superstar? That distinction belongs easily to Walter Johnson of the Senators, who pitched nine shutouts in 14 starts. Most remarkable was a 15-inning.1–0 decision over the As in 1926, when Johnson was 38 and nearing the end of his 21-year career. 

Unfortunately, Opening Day in Washington is now a biennial affair. Major League Baseball, in all its infinite lack of wisdom, has decreed that either the Nationals or Orioles, but not both, will open at home each spring. Says Mark Lerner, the Nats’ principal owner, “In return, Major League Baseball has guaranteed us a July 4th home game every year. I think that’s more important anyway.”

If you’re scoring at home, mark that down as “EO”—error owner. Lerner, a native Washingtonian, should know better. Nothing else in baseball, not even Game 7 in the World Series, matches Opening Day for excitement and anticipation. When I was a kid, it ranked with Christmas as my favorite days of the year. Still does, too.

 

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