When Kyle Lohse took a no-hitter into the seventh inning of tonight’s Cardinals-Marlins game, he came dangerously close to joining a very exclusive club.
On Opening Day 72 years ago, Bob Feller held the Chicago White Sox hitless as the Indians went on to win the game 1-0. That chilly Chicago day in 1940 was the first Opening Day no-hitter in baseball history, and to this day remains the only no-hit performance to open the season. I remember seeing an interview with Feller once where he claimed he always waited anxiously each Opening Day, to see if someone was able to match his feat. Even though a few teams have already opened their seasons, on Thursday and Friday we get to see if this will be the year that someone is finally able to match the legendary Feller.
In honor of Opening Day, I decided to look at old newspaper clippings of Feller’s immortal game with the White Sox. Keep in mind, this was an event that took place so long ago, the United States had yet to enter World War II – the other headlines in the paper talked about British troops battling Nazis and German war planes preparing for battle. Feller was just 21-years-old in April of 1940 and in his fourth season with the Indians. He went on to go 27-11 in 1940, with a 2.61 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 263 strikeouts; he also made the All Star team and finished second in AL MVP voting behind Detroit slugger Hank Greenberg. So his Opening Day performance was merely a precursor to an outstanding full season for Feller.
In front of just 14,000 fans (a crowd that included his parents and sister Marguerite), Feller mowed through the White Sox lineup in just 2 hours and 24 minutes. He walked five, yet set down 20 in a row between the third and the ninth innings. From the second inning on, he relied on his fastball to get past the Chicago hitters. Feller, backed by his catcher Rollie Hemsley, claimed that he didn’t have his best stuff that day; they both said that the one-hit game he threw in 1938, and the two one-hit games he threw in 1939, were actually better performances.
As is typical with a no-hitter in progress, the Indians dugout sat in silence and refused to discuss what was taking place on the field. At one point left-fielder Jeff Heath started to make a comment to Feller by saying, “Well, Robert…” before pitcher Harry Eisenstat threatened to “stick my hand down your throat to the elbow” in order to silence him. When a newspaper photographer attempted to get a picture of Feller while he sat in the dugout during the game, the “portly” trainer Lefty Weisman stood between the camera and Feller in order to block the photo. Coach Oscar Melillo had to bite his tongue when first base umpire Bill McGowan broke the taboo and mentioned the no-hitter during the game. Melillo was quoted as saying, “You know what the blankety-blanket-blank so-and-so did? He said to me, ‘Hey, they haven’t got any hits off this kid yet, have they?’ Boy, if I’d had a bat in my hands then I’d have killed him – the dumb this-and-that.”
According to accounts of that day, the ninth inning definitely provided the most drama for Feller and the Tribe. First up that inning was the dangerous slugger Mike Kreevich, who hit a towering infield fly with a 2-2 count. (By this point the White Sox fans were cheering for Feller.) Former Indian Julius Solters was up next, and he grounded out to shortstop Lou Boudreau on the third pitch of his at-bat. Even though there were now two outs, the inning took a dramatic twist as Hall of Fame shortstop Luke Appling came to the plate. With two strikes, Appling managed to foul off four pitches; he eventually concluded his 10-pitch at-bat with a walk, making him the first person to reach base since the third inning. This brought Taft Wright to the plate, a man who was called Feller’s “nemesis” because he played a role in three of Feller’s losses in the past couple of years. Since the score was still just 1-0 at this point, not only was the no-hitter in danger, but a potential Indians victory as well. With a 1-0 count, Wright connected and hit the ball hard toward second baseman Ray Mack. Mack lunged to his left and knocked the ball down; he managed to stick with it, picked it up and threw a strike to first baseman Hal Trosky for the final out of the game.
When asked if he was excited toward the end of the game, Feller replied, “Well…I didn’t have any trouble keepin’ awake.” Feller gave credit to right fielder Ben Chapman, third baseman Ken Keltner, and Mack for making some great plays to keep the no-hitter in tact, and said that he was aided by a great deal of luck.
Although not mentioned, one bit of “luck” that Feller should be thankful for is the fact that the Indians managed to score their lone run. Hemsley joked that Feller stole his thunder – he drove in the Indians’ only run and hoped to play the hero that day. The spotlight was on Feller, however, and remains on him to this day. There have been many great pitchers throughout time, but only Feller can say he pitched a no-hitter on Opening Day.
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