By Glen Sparks
Opening day, April 16, 1940, Comiskey Park in Chicago. Bob Feller, the bullet-tossing right-hander from little Van Meter, Iowa, takes the mound for the Cleveland Indians. Not surprisingly, a spring wind whips off Lake Michigan and around the park.
Feller, who learned to throw a curveball at the age of eight and who was, according to Ted Williams, “the fastest and best pitcher I ever saw in my career,” doesn’t mind the breeze. This 21-year-old enjoys the greatest opening day ever. The future Hall of Famer throws a no-hitter, the only opening-day no-hitter in baseball history.
“Rapid Robert”, a straight talker, said in a 2010 MLB.com article that he struggled a bit with his control in the early innings against the White Sox. “I was a little wild,” he said, a 91-year-old man looking back at a 70-year-old ballgame.
In fact, the White Sox loaded the bases in the second inning, and Feller walked five batters in the game. But, he struck out eight. His blazing fastball ruled the day. Only about 14,000 fans attended the game; two of them, though, were Feller’s parents. (William Feller had taught his son how to pitch. Supposedly, the family became Methodist after the parish priest scolded Mr. Feller for letting young Robert play baseball on Sundays.)
Feller joked that the season went downhill from opening day. “We lost the pennant by one game to Detroit,” he pointed out.
The Indians ace, though, finished with a career-high 27 wins and a 2.61 ERA. He led the American League in strikeouts for the third straight season (261) and also finished first in games started (37), complete games (31), shutouts (four) and innings pitched (320.1). Only the Detroit Tigers’ Hank Greenberg beat out Feller for MVP.
The Heater from Van Meter, a first ballot Hall of Famer, threw two more no-hitters in his career and insisted that none was better than the one he tossed in 1946 against the New York Yankees. He had to get out Tommy Henrich, Charlie Keller and Joe DiMaggio in the ninth inning on the road.
Even so, throwing a no-hitter on opening day is special. Every team goes into the season with a sense of optimism, a feeling—however fleeting—that this may be the year, no matter what happened last year. Losing streaks may be still to come, but a no-no starts the season right.