“You always get a special kick on 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.”
For players and fans alike, Opening Day is indeed like a birthday present. However, history shows us that unwrapping that present can be exhilarating or exasperating for players and fans alike.
It can be as exhilarating as Bob Feller’s 1940 Opening Day no-hitter – still the only Opening Day no-hitter in MLB history. Or it can be as exasperating as Ron Karkovice’s five strikeouts in five trips to the plate on Opening Day 1996 – still the MLB record for Opening Day whiffs. As we move closer to Opening Day 2015, BBRT would like to look at some of the most exhilarating and exasperating Opening Day record-setting performances – leading off with Feller and Karkovice’s memorable Opening Day “achievements.”
Opening Day No-Hitter – 1-0 and One of a Kind
On April 16, 1940, fire-balling Bob Feller opened the season against the White Sox at Comiskey Park. After nine innings of work, Feller and his Cleveland Indians had a 1-0 win – and the 21-year-old Feller (coming off a 24-win season in 1939) had his first no-hitter (walking five and striking out out eight). Feller’s Opening Day performance was a pretty good indicator of what was to come. In 1940, he would go on to lead the AL in wins (27), ERA (2.61), strikeouts (261), games pitched (43), games started (37), complete games (31), innings pitched (320 1/3) and shutouts (4).
Five Strikeouts – A Victim of Circumstances
Circumstances were clearly working against Ron Karkovice on March 31, 1996, when he set an MLB Opening Day record by striking out five times.
First, future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson (who retired with the second most strikeouts in MLB history) started on the mound for the Mariners – and he was on his game, whiffing 14 batters in seven innings (including Karkovice in the second, fourth and seventh).
Second, the White Sox could muster only two runs on four hits over the first nine innings – taking a slim 2-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth (at that point in the game, Karkovice had only a mundane three strikeouts to his credit – or debit – for the day).
Third, the Mariners tied the contest in the ninth, and the game went to 12 innings before the Mariners prevailed 3-2. In those three extra innings, Karkovice struck out against Norm Charlton (tenth inning) and Edwin Hurtado (twelfth inning) to set the Opening Day record.
Of note – at least to BBRT – is the fact that, despite five strikeouts in five plate appearances, Karkovice did not leave a single runner on base.
Seven RBI – Bringing the Boys Home
Being a Twins’ fan, one of my favorite Opening Day records is seven RBI in game one of the season – shared by the Twins’ Brant Alyea and the Cubs Corey Patterson.
On April 7, 1970, as the Twins downed the White Sox 12-0 in Chicago, LF Brant Alyea drove in an Opening Day record seven runs – going four-for-four, with two home runs. It was Alyea’s first game as a Twin and the start of the hottest month in his career. In 17 April games, he hit .415, with seven runs, 23 RBI, four doubles and five home runs. For the season, Alyea appeared in 94 games, hitting career highs in batting average (.291), home runs (16) and RBI (61).
On Opening Day 2003 (March 31), the Cubs CF Corey Patterson tied Alyea’s record – driving in seven runs, going four-for-six with two home runs, as the Cubs topped the Mets 15-2 in New York. Patterson, a career .252 hitter (12 seasons), seemed to always be ready for Opening Day. In seven Opening Day appearances, Patterson hit .440, with seven runs, 12 RBI and three home runs. The season he tied Alyea’s Opening Day RBI mark, Patterson played in 83 games, hitting .298, with 13 home runs and 55 RBI.
Three Can Be a Lucky Number – Most Home Runs in an Opening Day Game
On April 4, 1988, Blue Jays DH George Bell became the first major leaguer to hit three home runs in an Opening Day game. (The number of three-home run Opening Days is now up to three.) Bell’s power outburst was no surprise. He was coming off a 1987 season in which he hit 47 homers, drove in 134 runs and was the AL MVP. (Bell would go on to hit 24 home runs in 1988.) Bell hit all three of his home runs off Royals’ starter Brett Saberhagen (the game was in Kansas City), and drove in four runs as the Blue Jays prevailed 5-3. Bell hit 265 home runs in a 12-season MLB career.
Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes was the second player to hit three home runs in an Opening Day game. On a windy April 4, 1994, Rhodes (leading off and playing CF for the Cubs in Chicago) hit three solo shots off Mets starter Dwight Gooden (in the first, third and fifth innings), as the Cubs lost to the visiting Mets 12-8. Rhodes, who had five plate appearances, also had a single and a walk. At the time, Rhodes had played a total of 107 MLB games in four seasons – hitting a total of five home runs. His MLB career consisted of 225 games in six seasons, with a .224 average and just 13 round trippers (with a high of eight in 1994). Rhodes did go on to hit 474 home runs in eleven seasons in Japan.
On April 4, 2005 the Tigers Dmitri Young joined Bell and Rhodes on the short list of batters with three home runs in an Opening Day game – as the Tigers topped the Royals 11-2 in Detroit. Young started at DH and went four-for-four with four runs and five RBI. Young hit a total of 21 home runs in 2005 – and 171 in 13 MLB seasons.
BBRT finds it interesting that two of the three three-homer Opening Days belong to DHs.
Fifteen Strikeouts on Opening Day
Who holds the record for pitcher’s strikeouts in an Opening Day game? Walter Johnson? Bob Feller? Christy Mathewson? Sandy Koufax? Nolan Ryan? Bob Gibson? Randy Johnson? Tom Seaver? None of the above.
On April 18, 1960, Camilo Pascual (known for his sweeping curve ball, but also possessing a fastball “with movement”) took the mound at Griffith Stadium for the Washington Senators (against the Boston Red Sox). In 1959, the Senators had finished in last place in the AL, but Pascual had gone 17-10, 2.64, and led the league with 17 complete games and six shutouts. As the Senators’ Opening Day starter in 1960, Pascual picked up right where he left off – tossing a complete game three-hitter, walking three and striking out a (still) Opening Day record 15 batters. Behind this sterling effort, the Senators beat the Red Sox 10-1.
In an 18-year MLB career, Pascual went 174-170, 3.63 (often pitching for second division clubs), was an All Star five times, a twenty-game winner twice and the league leader in complete games, shutouts and strikeouts three times each.
Two “Kings” of Opening Day
Perhaps no one looked forward to Opening Day more than Ted Williams – the king of the Opening Day batter’s box. A career .344 hitter, the “Splendid Splinter” was even better on Opening Day. Williams played in fourteen openers and was never held hitless. He compiled a .449 Opening Day average (22 hits in 49 at bats), with three home runs, eight doubles, one triple, nine runs scored, 14 RBI and eleven walks. His Opening Day on-base percentage was .550 and his season-opener slugging percentage was .837.
The Washington Senators’ Walter Johnson can be crowned king of the Opening Day mound. On his first-ever Opening Day start (April 14, 1910), the 22-year-old Johnson tossed a 3-0 one-hit shutout against the Philadelphia Athletics. Sixteen years (and 13 Opening Day starts) later, a 38-year-old Johnson fulfilled his last Opening Day assignment with a 15-inning, complete-game, 1-0 win (6 hits, 3 walks, 9 strikeouts) over the A’s. Johnson holds the record for Opening Day pitching victories with nine (against five losses) and also threw a record seven Opening Day shutouts.
Jimmy – The Key to Opening Day Victories
While Walter Johnson holds the record for Opening Day wins at nine, it did take him 14 Game One starts (and five losses) to get there. Jimmy Key (pitching for the Blue Jays, Yankees and Orioles) holds the record for most Opening Days wins without an Opening Day loss – at seven. Key had seven Opening Day wins in seven Opening Day starts. In those seven victories, he threw 44 1/3 innings, had a 3.05 ERA, gave up 38 hits and just five walks, while striking out 23.
Opening Day Can Be Painful
On April 9, 1990, Astros first baseman and clean-up hitter Glenn Davis (a 1989 All Star) opened the season in a bruising manner – tying an Opening Day (and MLB regular season) record for getting hit by a pitch in a game (three times). Davis came to the plate six times and never put the ball in play – but still made only one out. For the game, Davis was hit by a pitch three times, walked twice (once intentionally) and struck out once. The Astros lost to the Reds 8-4 on Davis’ historic and painful day. The Opening Day action did help Davis lead the league in one category in 1990 (Hit By Pitch – eight).
Of note to BBRT, Davis finished Opening Day with a batting average of .000, but an on-base percentage of .833.
Whoa! Get Control of Yourself – 11 Walks on Opening Day
Cleveland southpaw Herb Score set the Opening Day record for pitchers walks on April 16, 1957 – when he took the mound at home against the visiting White Sox. Score walked 11 that day – but his performance was not as bad as that figure would indicate. While the Indians lost 3-2 in 11 innings, Score went the distance (pitchers used to finish what they started – back in the day), giving up just seven hits and two earned runs. In addition to his eleven walks, Score struck out ten. Score earned the Opening Day call with a 20-9, 2.53 1956 season in which he led the AL in strikeouts. (Score led the AL in whiffs in each of his first two seasons 1955-56.)
Eight Opening Day Homers – The Career Record
Frank Robinson, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Adam Dunn share the career record for Opening Day home runs at eight. While Griffey, Jr., Robinson and Dunn share the overall record, the American League-only record belongs to Griffey, Jr., who hit all his Opening Day shots for the Mariners. Robinson hit Opening Day homers for the most teams: the Orioles, Angels and Indians in the AL and the Reds in the NL. The National League-only record (seven Opening Day Shots) is shared by a couple of Hall of Famers: Willie Mays (all for the Giants – in New York and San Francisco) and Eddie Mathews (all for the Braves in Milwaukee.)
Let’s Get This Party Started
Tom Seaver was the starting pitcher for his team on Opening Day a record sixteen times (Mets, Reds, White Sox) – going 7-2 with 7 no-decisions.
Now, let’s get ready to open another MLB season!