Many accomplishments in Major League Baseball history have come and gone, to be expected on some level with the 162-game schedule and 30 teams competing on a nightly basis for six months of the year. Yet some records and performances have withstood the test of time and somewhat surprisingly, Bob Feller’s Opening Day no-hitter remains one of them.
It was on April 16, 1940, that Feller started the regular season with the first and only no-hitter in baseball history. Despite 39 Cleveland modern openers before it and the 78 openers that have followed, the historic effort has yet to be replicated.
Feller’s feat is all the more impressive given the increasing number of openers that take place now, as compared to when Feller was on the mound that day and still in the earlier stages of his 18-year Hall of Fame career. The American and National Leagues were composed of eight teams each, making just four opening day games in each league and eight for each season. Now, nearly twice as many (15) opening games occur as a result of the combined 30 teams that occupy the two leagues. Still, Feller’s achievement stands alone.
The Indians were on the road in Chicago to open the season and many felt it was just a matter of time until Feller added his name to the list of pitchers with a no-hitter to their credit. His stuff was just that good and he had certainly proven himself to be nearly unhittable in the past.
While the 1940 season opener was played more than two weeks later than the start of most seasons nowadays, the weather was no less unbearable when compared to the typical chaotic weather environment of the Midwest in April. Reports described the day as being cold, brisk, and windy off of the shores of Lake Michigan at old Comiskey Park. Roughly 12,000 people were in attendance for a game the likes that have never been seen again.
Feller was already entering his fifth season in the Majors and was coming off of a 24-9 season the year before, his second All-Star nod, and a third place finish in the MVP voting. He would spoil an impressive first outing for Chicago’s Eddie Smith, who kept the Indians in check throughout the afternoon. Cleveland stranded a pair in the first after a pair of walks. Feller followed with a two-out walk sandwiched between a pair of strikeouts.
The Indians’ Jeff Heath reached on an error to start the second and moved to second on a one-out single from three-time All-Star Rollie Hemsley, but back-to-back strikeouts for Smith ended the threat. Feller would strike out three in the bottom half, but a one-out error and two two-out walks loaded the bases before he reared back and struck out hometown boy Bob Kennedy to end the inning.
Cleveland went down in order in the third and Feller issued his fourth walk of the game, this time to Cleveland native Joe Kuhel, to lead off the bottom of the third. Kuhel would be stranded at second (after a stolen base) on three balls in the air as Feller was entering a period of utter dominance of the Sox hitters.
The Indians scored what would become a very large run in the fourth with a huge two-out triple from Hemsley to knock in Heath, who had reached with one out with a single. Cleveland would add single base runners in the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings, but would be unable to pad their miniscule lead.
With the slight advantage, Feller was locked in on the mound, with the early wildness dissipating. He retired the side in order in every inning until the ninth, striking out single batters in the fifth, sixth, and eighth innings. Clinging to a one-run lead after an uneventful top of the ninth by his teammates against reliever Clint Brown, Feller took the mound with a chance to etch his name into the history books.
The Indians dugout had been in silence since the seventh inning, as was and has remained the norm in such pitched games throughout baseball history. There were reports that his roommate, Heath, attempted to start a conversation with the Tribe’s right-hander, but pitcher Harry Eisenstat quickly shut him down, stating, “Another word and I’ll stick my hand down your throat to the elbow.” None on that Cleveland bench had any intention on jinxing Feller and his gem nor of testing their physiological limitations with Eisenstat.
The Chicago crowd too knew what was on the line and had been on their feet beginning in the eighth inning. Come the final attempts to end the hitless game, the crowd was cheering for Feller as much if not more than they were for their hometown Sox, knowing the significance of the events unfolding before their very eyes.
Mike Kreevich put one in the air, retired at second base by Ray Mack. Moose Solters, a member of the Indians from 1937 to 1939, grounded to shortstop Lou Boudreau, who threw over to Hal Trosky at first for the second out.
Staring down baseball immortality against the challenging Luke Appling, Feller and the Sox’s last hope battled for ten pitches. Appling fouled off four after having two strikes against him. Finally, Feller fired a pair of balls to walk him, ending a streak of 20 straight Sox retired. The no-hitter was still intact for Feller, but now the winning run was coming to the plate in Taffy Wright. After a first pitch ball, Wright hit it hard to the right side of the infield. The rookie Mack ranged to his left and knocked down the scorcher with his glove and pursued it to the grass behind the infield, fielded it, and fired a strike to Trosky that beat Wright by no more than a step.
“I wasn’t sure I had it until Ray Mack threw out that last man,” Feller was quoted in the April 17, 1940, edition of The Plain Dealer. “That was the hardest ball hit at me all day. It really was hit.
“I knew I had a chance for a no-hitter in the ninth, but I tried to put the thought out of my mind by reminding myself you never have a no-hitter until the last man is out. I got to thinking I’d just pitch my own ball game. A pitcher can’t be any better than he really is. So I just pitched – and that [sic] why I was tickled when Mack came up with that ball. Mack came up with two as sweet plays as I’ve ever seen. He was way off balance when he scooped up [Larry] Rosenthal’s roller in the eighth, and how his throw ever beat Larry to bag I don’t know. And I don’t know how he ever knocked down Wright’s smash in the ninth, to say nothing of retrieving the ball and throwing the guy out.”
Feller’s young sister and both parents were among the few in attendance, having made the trip from Iowa. So too was Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. They all saw Feller face 33 batters, striking out eight and walking five.
Manager Ossie Vitt was animated and excited in the dugout for his young starter.
“Boy, I’ll never forget that ninth inning,” he was quoted in The Plain Dealer. “I sat there with Luke Sewell and just prayed. I remember once saying to Luke: ‘Oh, God, just let him get by Appling’.”
Feller’s catcher, Hemsley, joked about the outing after the game, saying, “He would pick today to pitch a no-hit game. I was all set to be the hero of that game on account of driving in the only run. Now nobody’ll even know I was in the contest.”
The game would set a tone for the Tribe that season, which finished 89-65 and competed to the very end of September for the pennant. It was Feller who was on the mound against Detroit in Cleveland with the Indians needing a sweep of the Tigers to claim the pennant. Feller lost a 2-0 decision in the first game and the Tribe finished one game in back of the Tigers atop the American League. The Tigers would fall to the Cincinnati Reds in seven games in the World Series.
It would not be the last great pitching performance of Feller’s career, nor would he consider it the best of his outings. He would throw two more no-hitters (April 30, 1946, against New York; July 1, 1951, against Detroit) and a record 12 one-hitters in his career.
“My Opening Day no-hitter, of course, has gotten a lot of publicity,” Feller shared in 2010. “But my no-hitter at Yankee Stadium was against a much better team, by far, than the White Sox. I had to pitch to Tommy Henrich, Charlie Keller, and Joe DiMaggio in the ninth inning to get the Yankees out.”
Regardless of how Feller viewed it, it remains the greatest opening day game in baseball history.
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