Major League Baseball will kick off the 2019 season with its earliest start ever (excluding international openers) as all 30 teams will take the field on March 28. Follow along with Did The Tribe Win Last Night as we count down the days until Opening Day 2019. – BT
Countdown to Opening Day – 71 days
The link between the Cleveland Indians organization and uniform numbers is a strong one, dating all the way back to June 26, 1916. At that time, they became the first Major League team to put numbers on their playing garb when they placed numbers on the left sleeves of the jerseys for a few weeks of that season and the season that followed.
The St. Louis Cardinals did similar in 1923, but their experiment also ended after then-Cardinals manager Branch Rickey, reflecting in 1962 back to the early days of the numbers, recalled that the players were ridiculed and criticized by both fans and opposing players and that it ultimately was decided they were bad for team morale.
In 1929, the New York Yankees announced that they were going to wear numbers on their jersey backs and shortly thereafter, the Indians announced their intentions to do the same. While the Yankees are often credited as being the first club to do so, the Indians actually beat them to the punch, as the Yankees’ home opener that season was rained out, while the Indians were not ill-affected by weather that same day and got to the field with them first.
Numbers were doled out by lineup spot for a period of time, with reserve catchers, bench players, and pitchers filling up numbers afterwards. Later, some teams would assign their digits by position. And then there is the case of Johnny Hodapp, who was actually the third Major Leaguer to don the number 71 and the first and only player to do so in Indians franchise history when he had it upon his back in 1929. He would be the last 71 in Major League Baseball until 1975.
Hodapp was born in 1905 in Cincinnati and made his MLB debut at the age of 19 across his home state with Cleveland. He was an infielder by trade early in his career, working the hot corner before moving across the diamond.
After a solid .323 season in 116 games in 1928, he held out and reported late to camp, then injured the knee that he had hurt the previous season as fears took the club that he would never be able to play regularly again. Limited at the start of the season while eyed for a role at second base for manager Roger Peckinpaugh, Hodapp played with 71 on his back in the first game with numbers during the Indians’ home opener on April 16, 1929, albeit in a pinch-hitting opportunity at the top of the lineup while still limited because of his gimpy knee. He singled in the eighth inning and was replaced by pinch-runner Ray Gardner, who was set to take over at shortstop. The club would win in walk-off fashion at League Park, 5-4, in eleven innings in front of 16,000 fans on Carl Lind’s deep drive to left to knock home Luke Sewell.
Memorably, the game also happened to be the debut of rookie outfielder and number three hitter, Earl Averill, who donned the number three and homered off of Detroit left-hander Earl Whitehill in the bottom of the first inning in his first Major League at bat.
Hodapp finished the season appearing in 90 games while batting .327. His first 20 games played were all one-and-done pinch-hitting performances before he finally started a game on July 14, more than halfway through the year. From July 20 on, he did not miss another game the rest of the season.
Hodapp would switch to number six for the 1930 season and it must have brought him a little luck. He led the American League by playing in 154 games and was also tops in the junior circuit with 225 hits (which at the time was fourth in club history and remains fifth to this day, passed only by Averill’s 232 in 1936), and 51 doubles (exceeded just three times since by Albert Belle with 52 in 1995, Grady Sizemore with 53 in 2006, and Jose Ramirez with 56 in 2017. Each was a new career high for Hodapp, as was his .354 average for the year, his eight triples, nine homers, 19 sacrifices, and 121 RBI.
He hit .295 in 1931, playing in 122 games, and started the 1932 season with the club. After just seven games played and a .125 average at the plate, he was traded to the Chicago White Sox with “Suitcase Bob” Seeds for Bill Cissell and Jim Moore. It reunited him with his former teammate in Cleveland and then Sox manager, Lew Fonseca.
He relocated with Seeds again following the season, as he was dealt to the Boston Red Sox in a six-player move. He was later purchased by the St. Louis Cardinals, but his MLB career ended with that 1933 season in Beantown as he spent his playing time in 1934 in the minors for the Cards.
After his playing days, he returned to the Queen City and pursued a career as a funeral director. He worked in the family business at the Hodapp Funeral Home, founded in 1886, until he retired in 1974. He died in 1980 at the age of 74.
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