It’s that time of the year. The calendar shifts from March to April and it’s time to play ball—real ball, the kind that counts in the standings and on Baseball-Reference.com. It’s time for all 30 teams to start playing the 2012 season as North America’s Opening Days are upon us.
As is often the case, a natural question arises: What are the best Opening Days in history? Well, I’ve done some looking and below are my picks. I’m sure there are some good’uns that I missed, but these sure are good’uns.
One note before getting to it. For this list, Opening Day refers solely to the first game of the season, not the home opener for each team. If you’re season begins on the road, well, that’s you’re baseball Opening Day, even if it isn’t your park’s opener. Trying to hunt down all the home openers is more work than I’m willing to take on.
So, with that in mind, here are the greatest Opening Days in baseball history.
10. Recovering from a bad start: April 7,1969: Dodgers 3, Reds 2
What’s the worst way for a pitcher to start Opening Day? Simple: allow a home run. You can’t get much worse than that.
What’s the worst way to follow that up? Simple: allow another home run. Wouldn’t that suck?
While several pitchers have allowed the season’s leadoff batter to go deep on him, only once has a hurler surrendered back-to-back longballs to start the year. That happened in 1969, when Los Angeles ace Don Drysdale delivered gopher balls to Pete Rose and Bobby Tolan of the Reds. That can’t be the way Drysdale wanted to start the season. Clearly, he wasn’t going to break the record he set the year before with 58 consecutive scoreless innings.
That said, instead of folding, the future Hall of Famer hunkered down and retired the next seven batters in a row. Against Drysdale and reliever Bill Singer, Cincinnati never scored again and only once got a batter as far as second base.
In the meantime, the Dodgers scored three runs and held on for the win, which must have felt nice after the way the day began. Unfortunately for Drysdale, the day’s outcome wasn’t a harbinger of the future. He’d pitch just 11 more times and win four more games that season, which proved to be his last due to arm injuries.
9. Hall of Famer day: April 6, 1971: Cubs 2, Cardinals 1 (10)
There are better games than this one. Heck, it’s arguably not even the best Opening Day by the Leo Durocher-era Cubs, but this one has a special feature. All the key players who performed terrifically in this game were bona fide Hall of Famers in their primes.
The day was a pitchers’ duel between Fergie Jenkins and Bob Gibson. Even though the game went into extra frames, both men went the distance. Jenkins clearly brought his “A” game, as he fanned seven while allowing no walks and only three hits. He retired 20 of the last 21 batters he faced. His only mistake was a Joe Torre homer in the seventh frame.
As great as Jenkins was, Gibson matched him frame-for-frame. Through nine innings, the Cubs made it past second pass only in the fourth, but they scored a run then, so the game was 1-1 when extra innings began.
Extra innings didn’t last long thanks to a walk-off home run by sweet swinging Billy Williams. How perfect. A duel between two Hall of Fame pitchers came to an end thanks to a big blast by a Hall of Fame slugger. See? Perfect.
That said, this isn’t the best-remembered Opening Day from the Cubs of that era. Two years earlier, the Cubs had an even more exciting Opening Day, one that also ended in a walk-off home run.
On April 8, 1969, the North Siders took an early 5-1 lead versus the Phillies, only to see Philadelphia rally and tie it with a three-run ninth. Even worse, the visitors took a 6-5 lead in the top of the 12th. As would be the case two years later, the Cubs won on a walk-off homer, though, when pinch-hitter Willie Smith went deep for a two-run dinger and a 7-6 Cubs win. It began a torrid start to the season for Chicago, as they won 11 of their first 12.
Depending on the mood I’m in, I’d vote for the 1969 game over the 1971 game, but for now I’ll go with 1971 as it had all the key moments from legitimate greats.
8. The longest Opening Day: April 19, 1960: Tigers 4, Indians 2 (15)
This one is noteworthy for a few reasons. First off, at 15 innings, it’s tied for the longest Opening Day game. Second, at four hours and 54 minutes, it’s the longest in terms of pure duration.
In the 11th inning, both men tired out and left for relievers. (Detroit’s reliever was none other than Jim Bunning). In both cases, those relievers let a pair of inherited runners score.
The game went on. The Tigers loaded the bases in the 12th but couldn’t plate the winning run. The Indians had runners on second and third in the 14th but also couldn’t get a run in.
Finally, young Al Kaline singled in a pair of runners in the top of the 15th and Detroit held on for a win.
Thirteen years later, these teams tangled for another Opening Day record, as Cleveland topped Detroit 2-1 before the all-time Opening Day record crowd of 74,420 in 1973.
7. The best start to a title defense: April 14, 1931: A’s 5, Senators 3 (11)
In 1930, the Philadelphia A’s won their second consecutive World Series, and on Opening Day 1931, they looked like a team capable of doing it again. It wasn’t the easiest start to a title defense, but it was the most exciting.
After both teams scored a run in the first, the pitchers took over, and heading into the ninth, Philadelphia trailed, 2-1. But they scored a run to push it into extra innings.
In the 10th, they scored again to take their first lead since the middle of the first. However, just like the first inning, Washington responded by scoring a run of their own to tie it up, thanks to an unearned run off relief pitcher Lefty Grove. (Grove had no one to blame but himself, as it was his fielding error that let the run in).
The A’s came back in the 11th and plated a pair of runs, and this time they shut down the Senators to seal the win. Sure enough, the A’s were still the team to beat in the AL, as they finished the year 107-45, with Lefty Grove going 31-4. But they lost in a seven-game World Series to the Cardinals, ruining their hopes for a three-peat.
6. Only in Denver: April 26, 1995: Rockies 11, Mets 9 (14)
Of course the list has to have at least one wild slugfest from Coors Field. This, in fact, was the very first game at Coors, as the Rockies finally moved out of Mile High Stadium. They air was still mile-high thin, though.
Entering the ninth, it was 6-6. The Mets scored once in the top of the ninth, and the Rockies tied it in the bottom half to send it into extra frames, 7-7. In the 13th inning, the same thing happened, and it was 8-8.
In the 14th, the Mets again scored a run to go ahead with the Rockies down to their final three outs. This time Colorado had a better idea than just tying it. Dante Bichette blasted a three-run homer to win it.
5. The best start to a pennant-winning season: April 10, 1959: White Sox 9, Tigers 7 (14)
What a wild one this game was. It was back-and-forth early on: the Tigers led 1-0, then Chicago 3-1, Detroit 4-3, and then a four-run seventh by Chicago seemed to put it away as they led 7-4. The Tigers weren’t going down easily, though, and got a three-run homer with two outs in the eighth to tie it, 7-7.
The score stood there for the next several innings, but it wasn’t easy. In three consecutive half-innings, teams got the would-be winning runner to third base but couldn’t bring him in. Most memorably, the Tigers had the bases loaded with no outs in the 10th but failed to advance the lead runner those last key 90 feet.
In the 14th, the Sox finally went ahead thanks to a two-run dinger. The hitter was noted non-slugger Nellie Fox, who hadn’t hit a single home run the entire year before. But he hit one here, and it helped the Go-Go Sox win the first game in what would be the franchise’s only pennant-winning season between 1919 and 2005.
4. The greatest Opening Day slugfest: March 31, 2008: Pirates 12, Braves 11 (12)
In an oddity for the 21st century, Atlanta had already played one game, but the visiting Pirates hadn’t, thus this was their seasonal Opening Day.
Dear lord, this was a wild one. Early on, the Braves took a nice lead at home, 4-2, after four frames. But the visiting Pirates came back and kept piling it on, scored one in the sixth, one in the seventh, four in the eighth, and one in the ninth.
Down to their last three outs, Atlanta found themselves trailing by a heap, 9-4. Atlanta had one key advantage though—they were facing the Pirates bullpen. Here’s how the bottom of the ninth began: walk, strikeout, walk, new pitcher brought in, walk, walk.
Without getting a single hit, Atlanta had the tying run at the plate with only one out. Then Atlanta’s Chipper Jones connected for a two-run single to put the tying run on first. After a fly out, Jones somehow dashed the remaining 270 feet on a Brian McCann single to tie it, 9-9.
However, this was reality and not a storybook. Instead of winning the game, Atlanta surrendered a trio of runs to Pittsburgh in the top of the 12th. Atlanta didn’t go down easily, though. After back-to-back outs to lead off the bottom of the 12th, the Braves made a spirited rally: home run, double, RBI single. Once again, they had the tying run on. This time there was no mad 270-foot dash, as a fly out ended the game.
3. The greatest Opening Day performance: April 16, 1940: Indians 1, White Sox 0
Its happened only once in all of baseball history: a pitcher hurling a no-hitter on Opening Day. It happened in 1940 when a 21-year-old Bob Feller set down the White Sox. He walked five, but the Sox could not get a hit off him all day.
This arguably belongs atop the list because it is the sole season-starting no-hitter. Personally, I tend to distinguish between great games and great performances, and this is clearly the latter. Then again, as a 1-0 game, it was a heckuva game featuring a great performance. If you want to argue it belongs higher, I won’t begrudge you, but this is where I slate it.
2. The greatest Opening Day pitchers’ duel: April 13, 1926: Senators 1, A’s 0 (15)
As many out there know, Walter Johnson is the all-time record holder for most complete game, 1-0 wins with approximately eleventy billion—give or take a few. This was the last one in his career.
It is also one of his greatest starts ever. We have box score info since 1919, and in that stretch of the Big Train’s career, according to Game Score this was his finest start. By hurling 15 scoreless innings with nine strikeouts versus only six hits and three walks allowed, Johnson posted a Game Score of 111. Yeah, that’s pretty good.
Also pretty good was the work of Philadelphia ace Eddie Rommel on the day. Like Johnson, Rommel went the distance. He wasn’t quite as sharp, as he allowed 15 base runners in all, but he was good enough to keep Washington off the scoreboard for 14 innings. Too bad for him the game lasted 15 innings, and he did allow a run then.
In a sign of how the game has changed, Rommel fanned exactly one batter in 14.1 innings. That batter was Johnson, in one of the pitcher’s six at-bats. Six at-bats by a pitcher? That’s another sign of how the game has changed. One last item on how it was a different time, this game—all 15 innings and 112 plate appearances of it—lasted just two hours and 33 minutes.
1. The greatest comeback: April 25, 1901: Tigers 14, Brewers 13
This game would make a greatest-games list even if it wasn’t an Opening Day contest. In fact, not only was it Opening Day on the season, but it was the beginning of the American League’s first season as genuine rival to the NL.
For much of the day, it looked like anything but a great game. The Milwaukee Brewers (who the next year would become the St. Louis Browns and a half-century after that became the current Baltimore Orioles) took an early 7-0 lead, and expanded it to 13-4 heading into the bottom of the ninth.
Instead of a nice, easy forgettable win for the visitors, somehow, some way, the Tigers succeeded in scoring 10 runs before making three outs in their half of the ninth and transforming a huge 13-4 deficit into a seemingly impossible 14-13 win. Not a bad way for the Tigers to kick off their franchise history.
How did they do it? Well, here’s the play-by-play: ground-rule double, infield single, RBI single (13-5), RBI double (13-6), ground-rule double (13-8), yet another double (13-9), and then finally, mercifully, Milwaukee got an out.
Actually, the game nearly came to an end right there—an ending in which Detroit would’ve had to forfeit to Milwaukee—as excited fans spilled into the outfield. Detroit players actually pushed the fans back to make sure the comeback could continue.
And so it did continue, with a walk, RBI single (making it 13-10), and then a bunt single to load the bases. The tying run was now on. Instead of a clutch home run, fans saw a strikeout for the second out. Milwaukee might pull this one out just yet.
And sure enough, it looked like they would as the next batter hit a bouncer to third, but the infielder fumbled it for a run-scoring error. It was now 13-11, and the bases were still loaded. Another infield single made it 13-12 and put the winning run in scoring position. Please note only one of the last six batters had hit the ball out of the infield.
But the next batter was the last one, as an RBI double—Detroit’s fifth double of the inning—brought home two to end the game, 14-13. Yeah, that’ll win my vote for best Opening Day of them all.
References & Resources
Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet provided almost all of the info for this article. For the 1901 game, I relied on The 100 Greatest Baseball Games of the 20th Century by Joseph J. Dittmar.