Opening Day in Baseball History

President Nixon throwing out the first ball on opening day of the 1969 baseball season between the Washington Senators and the New York YankeesPresident Nixon throwing out the first ball on opening day of the 1969 baseball season between the Washington Senators and the New York Yankees (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The vernal equinox arrived this year on March 20, but for baseball fans spring does not properly begin until Opening Day. Celebrating the first games of the season is a tradition nearly as old as professional baseball itself, and with good reason. On Opening Day, every team is in first place, every player imagines his best performances lie ahead, and every fan is ready to cheer. Yet for all the optimism and pageantry Opening Day has long provided, its rituals and customs have changed over the decades as the sport and the nation have evolved.

The Cincinnati Red Stockings, formed in the late 1860s, are customarily understood to be the first professional baseball team, and once the team became a charter member of the newly created National League in 1876, it received the honor of hosting the opening of the baseball season. The Red Stockings became simply the Reds in 1890, but baseball’s schedulers made sure that the first game of the season still began in Cincinnati, a convention that continued essentially uninterrupted until 1990. Indeed, to this day the Reds are the only franchise in Major League Baseball that has always begun its season with a home game.

Since 1990, the first pitch of the baseball season has been thrown in ballparks throughout North America, and sometimes in places without a major league franchise at all, as the season opened in Mexico in 1999 and Puerto Rico in 2001. Similarly reflecting the sport’s growing global reach, the first games of the season were played in Japan in 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012, and in Australia in 2014.

Some Opening Day customs are familiar ones, such as that of the president throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. William Howard Taft was the first chief executive to do so in 1910, and with the exception of Jimmy Carter, every president since has participated in ritually opening the season, even in the years between 1971 and 2005 when Washington, D.C. had no major league team. Perhaps most impressively, in a parlor trick sort of way, President Harry Truman showed off his ambidextrousness in 1950, throwing out balls with both his right and left arms.

Other Opening Day happenings are less well known. In 1907 at New York’s Polo Grounds, for example, fans frustrated with the performance of the hometown Giants used snow that had been piled from a recent storm to make snowballs and began pelting the field. They soon began pouring onto the field itself and engaging in an impromptu snowball fight that was the source of great hilarity until an umpire got hit, which resulted in the game being forfeited to the visiting Phillies. In 1946, meanwhile, chilly and wet weather meant that the fresh coat of paint on the outfield seats of the Boston Braves’ stadium had not entirely dried by gametime, resulting in the team paying the cleaning bills of hundreds of fans. The Braves were hardly the only club to have a ballpark mishap on Opening Day. When the Los Angeles Dodgers inaugurated their new stadium in 1962, it was not until the fans arrived that someone noticed the builders had forgotten to install any water fountains in the park.

But few decades, if any, saw as many unexpected or just downright odd Opening Day moments as the 1970s. In 1970, Oakland Athletics’ owner Charlie Finley, whose promotions and stunts were legendary, used gold-colored bases at the team’s home opener. In 1974 in Chicago, a number of fans streaked the field during the White Sox’s first game, including one man who ran around in left field for nearly a minute while wearing nothing but a White Sox helmet. In 1977, the Houston Astros engaged the services of a human cannonball who shot himself across the Astrodome to help open the season.

Ultimately, of course, Opening Day is about the play on the field. Baseball is a game in which nearly anything can happen during any individual contest but also one in which the great players and teams demonstrate their greatness over the long haul, and Opening Day has afforded both the little-knowns and the giants of the sport the opportunity to shine.

Impressive performances among the former would have to include that of Seattle Mariner third baseman Jim Presley, who in 1986 hit a two-run home run in the ninth inning against the California Angels to send the game into extra innings, and then proceeded to hit a grand slam in the tenth to send the Mariners home as victors. Presley had a major league career that actually included a number of solid seasons, but no one could have seen coming what Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes did as an outfielder for the Chicago Cubs on Opening Day in 1994. Rhodes had played previously in just over one hundred games over the course of four seasons but hit three home runs off of Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden at Wrigley Field. Rhodes would play in another ninety-four games that season for the Cubs, but by 1996 he was out of the major leagues for good. He went on to become something of a star in the Japanese Pacific League. To American fans, however, he remains mostly the answer to a trivia question. Also of interest to trivia buffs: Rhodes’s heroics notwithstanding, the Cubs lost the game, 12-8.

Hall-of-Famers have made Opening Day memorable too, of course. In 1947, Jackie Robinson debuted at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, becoming the first black player in the major leagues since the 1880s. In 1974 in Cincinnati, Atlanta Braves star Hank Aaron hit his 714th career home run, tying Babe Ruth for the most all-time. In 1940, Cleveland great Bob Feller threw what is still the only no-hitter pitched on Opening Day. Red Sox legend Ted Williams hit .449 on Opening Day over the course of his career and got at least one hit in every opener he played in, and Washington Senators pitcher Walter Johnson pitched in fourteen season openers and threw shutouts in nine of them, including Opening Day in 1926, when the thirty-eight year old tossed fifteen innings for the win.

What the fates divine for the season that begins this week remains unknown. And that, in many ways, is precisely the glory of Opening Day. As we lead our lives, we make decisions and choose courses of action that foreclose alternatives. But for a few precious hours on Opening Day, in stadiums all across the country, anything still seems possible.

About the Author

Joshua D. Rothman

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Alabama. He is the author, most recently, of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (2012), and is currently working on a book about the slave traders Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard.

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