Some famous and not-so-famous players have had great season Opening Days in baseball history.
For true baseball fans, the very first game of the season is almost like a national holiday. It’s a day you wait for with genuine excitement and anticipation. And why not? It’s a new season. A brand-new start. And your team is tied for first place on Opening Day, with everyone else.
And it’s been months since your favorite team played a game. What’s not to love about Opening Day! In many ways, for ALL baseball fans, it’s the most exciting game of the season.
So when a player has a good game on Opening Day, it’s memorable—and when he does something extraordinary, it’s historic. Here’s a list, in no special order or ranking, of some of the most memorable Opening Day performances by players over the years. And if you consider how many Opening Day games there have been over a century of baseball—and all the players who’ve made their team’s Opening Day lineups—it’s quite remarkable for a player to have his name, and achievement, singled out.
Walter Johnson, Washington Senators, 1926. 15-inning, 1–0 shutout win.
Walter Johnson, one of the game’s first great pitchers and aces, had a remarkable career and impressive Opening Day statistics at a time when starting pitchers threw until the game ended. In 14 starts on Opening Day, he pitched 12 complete games. In 1919 he pitched a complete-game, 13-inning shutout…but that wasn’t even his best season opener. In 1926 Walter Johnson pitched a 15-inning shutout against the Philadelphia Athletics, winning 1–0. He struck out 12 and gave up six hits, but no one scored in 15 innings. You would never see a game like that today. You didn’t even see too many of them back then, and especially not on Opening Day.
Don Baylor, Anaheim Angels, 1973. Hits for a “modified” cycle.
No player has ever hit for the cycle on true Opening Day, but Don Baylor sort of did it against the Brewers. Baylor hit a home run, a triple, a double and…another double. If only he’d stayed on first for one of those doubles, he would have had an “official” cycle. But what he did was pretty spectacular nonetheless. Orlando Hudson of the L.A. Dodgers hit for a legitimate cycle in their 2011 home opener…but it wasn’t Opening Day. Still, it had been 39 years since an L.A. Dodger had hit for the cycle, and it was the first for a Dodger at Dodger Stadium.
Bob Feller, Cleveland Indians, 1940. Throws a no-hitter in a 1–0 win.
Bob Feller was a young fireballer in the 1940s who had his share of great openers. In 1946 he struck out 10 in a 1–0 complete-game shutout win. But his 1940 Opening Day start was even more impressive. He not only blanked the Chicago White Sox that day—he didn’t give up a hit to them in a 1–0 pitchers’ duel, walking five and striking out eight. No pitcher has thrown a no-no on Opening Day since. Feller pitched three no-hitters in his career, which ties him for third all-time.
George Bell, Toronto Blue Jays, 1988. Three home runs against the Royals.
Going three-for-four is a great stat on Opening Day. But when three of those hits are dingers? Now you’re talking about something spectacular. That’s what right-hand-hitting George Bell did against the Kansas City Royals in 1988. The left fielder hit three out of the park against hard-throwing Bret Saberhagen. It was the first time anyone had cleared the fences three times on Opening Day. In 1994, Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes of the Cubs did it against Doc Gooden and the Mets, and so did Dimitri Young of Detroit, in 2005 against…Kansas City. Those poor Royals.
Johnny Vander Meer, Cincinnati Reds, 1943. 11-inning, two-hit, 1–0 shutout win.
The Reds opened the season against the World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals. Vander Meer locked horns on the mound with Mort Cooper in an amazing pitchers’ duel, which the Reds won, 1–0. Vander Meer threw 11 shutout innings, allowing only two hits. With that effort, he joined Walter Johnson as the only pitchers to go at least 11 shutout innings in an Opening Day win. Still, he’s better remembered for being the only pitcher to toss consecutive no-hitters, in 1938—a feat that’s likely never to be broken…or even tied.
Pete Rose, Cincinnati Reds, 1974. Three hits, base-running heroics, in a come-from-behind win.
Glancing at the box score and game stats, it doesn’t look like much: Rose went three-for-five with two doubles, a walk and three runs scored. But this is Pete Rose…and it was Opening Day. Pete Rose, statistics say, has the most hits ever in Opening Day games (31). The 1974 season opener was a back-and-forth battle. With the Reds down by four runs heading into the bottom of the eighth, Rose walked, starting a three-run rally that trimmed the lead to one. In the ninth, he smacked a run-scoring double to tie up the game. And he was just getting started. With two outs in the bottom of the eleventh, he hit another double and put himself into scoring position. There was a wild pitch and Rose broke for third base…and then broke for home…and scored. He scored on a wild pitch from second base to win the game. They didn’t call him Charlie Hustle for nuthin’. Final score: Reds 7, Braves 6.
Jim Presley, Seattle Mariners, 1986. Game-tying and game-winning home runs.
Jim Who? That’s what you’re probably thinking. But Jim Presley had a once-in-a-lifetime game…and he happened to have it on Opening Day in 1986 against the Anaheim Angels. He went three-for-four and picked up six “ribbies”—but that’s not why he made this list. It’s how he came up big-time—twice—when the game was on the line. Heading into the bottom of the ninth and down to their last three outs, the Mariners were losing 4–2 when Presley belted a two-run blast to tie the game and send it into extra innings for the Opening Day crowd. In the bottom of the tenth, Seattle got a rally going and up came Presley…with the bases loaded. This time, he promptly hit a walk-off grand slam to give the Mariners an 8–4 win. Believe it or not, he’s not the only player to hit a grand-salami walk-off on Opening Day—Sixto Lezcano did it in 1980 for the Milwaukee Brewers against the Boston Red Sox.
Craig Biggio, Houston Astros, 2011. Goes five-for-five.
In 2015 Craig Biggio, who played his entire career with the Houston Astros, was inducted into the Hall of Fame. He is the only player in baseball history with at least 3,000 hits, 600 doubles, 400 stolen bases and 250 home runs. On Opening Day 2001, he went five-for-five in an 11–3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers. No other player who had at least five plate appearances on Opening Day batted 1.000 on Opening Day. Just Biggio.
A lot of other great things have happened on this day, some memorable for their place in history rather than their effect on the outcome of the game:
• Jackie Robinson taking the field on Opening Day, April 15, 1947, and breaking the color barrier forever.
• Babe Ruth hitting the first home run in brand-new Yankee Stadium on April 18, 1923.
• Hank Aaron, on April 4, 1974, tying the Babe’s all-time home run record of 714.
Opening Day is great day indeed. Play ball!