Marlins ace Josh Johnson took a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Mets on opening day before he finally surrendered his first hit. It was among the closest anyone has ever come to duplicating one of the great feats in Major League Baseball – and that’s the opening day no-hitter.
Only one pitcher has ever done it, and it was a young Bob Feller. Rapid Robert fired his on April 16th, 1940 in old Comiskey Park against the Chicago White Sox with his family having braved a cold, blustery, and damp day sitting in the stands.
According to Feller, his mom was nervous for more than one reason. In 1939, he got them seats between home and first base for a start in Comiskey. “I went the full nine innings that day, but Mom didn’t,” said Feller. “Chicago’s third baseman, Marv Owen, sliced a line drive foul that shot straight in my family’s direction like a guided missile on target and hit Mom in the face. She had to be helped from the ballpark and was hospitalized for two days with two black eyes and an ugly collection of cuts and bruises.”
In the second inning, Chicago’s Taft Wright hit a fly that the wind caught and pushed away from the Indian centerfielder. Cleveland News writer Ed McAuley noted “…squat, chubby Roy Weatherby had started too late in his attempt to catch a fly from the bat of Chicago’s Taft Wright, and had dropped the ball after a sprint. Official Scorer Ed Burns hesitated not a moment in calling the mishap an error, for Weatherly had both hands on the ball, chest height. But, because Comiskey Park, like most major league plants, withholds hit-and-error information from the fans, none outside the press box could be sure of the ruling.”
Feller went on to walk two hitters before striking out Bill Kennedy to retire the side. “I didn’t feel as if I had much stuff as I’ve had at times before,” Feller said that day. “Couldn’t grip my curve just right and that wind bothered me a little.”
By the fourth inning, however, Feller got in a groove. After a third inning walk to Joe Kuhel – his fourth walk of the game – Feller retired 20 straight batters. Also, Feller’s roommate and personal catcher helped out the fourth inning. Jeff Heath, who roomed with Feller on road trips, singled. Rollie Helmsley, only recently given the starting catcher role after being Feller’s primary catcher the previous seasons, followed with a triple to the right-centerfield wall that scored Heath with the game’s only run.
Cruising into the ninth, Feller ran into his toughest batter, Hall of Famer Luke Appling. Appling is well known for his ability to foul off any number of pitches to work his way on base. Feller traded pitches with Appling, who worked the count to 2 – 2. There, Appling fouled off four straight pitches. “We might still be there if a counter strategy hadn’t occured to me,” said Feller. “I wasn’t going to keep throwing and play into his hand, so I threw the next two pitches outside the strike zone. That got rid of Appling with a walk.”
“It was an intentional walk,” he added. “But nobody else knew it.”
Taft Wright batted next, hitting a sharp grounder to the left of Indians second baseman, Ray Mack. Mack dove and knocked it down, picked it up bare-handed, got back up and threw a strike to first for the last out of the game.
Years later, Feller said they didn’t celebrate much – though McAuley wrote “Wild rejoicing ruled the Tribal clubhouse after the game.” The next morning, someone snapped a picture of Mom, Dad, Bob, and sister Marguerite having breakfast in the Congress Hotel. When the Indians returned to Cleveland two days later, though, the train was met by a throng of thousands, including the mayor and a uniformed band.
One interesting thing about Feller’s game… The Sporting News claimed that Feller’s was the second opening day no-hitter in major league baseball – not the first. TSN researcher and writer Guy M. Smith wrote, “The brand new American League in 1900 almost resulted in a postponement of games over the entire circuit on account of cold weather, only one contest being played. At Detroit, 5,000 fans shivered and stamped as they witnessed Morris E. (Doc) Amole, on the hill for Buffalo, shut out the reorganized Tigers under George Stallings, without yielding a single safety.”
Amole allowed two walks, hit two batters, and threw a wild pitch, but not a single Tiger got a hit. Even McAuley’s article said Feller “…became the second pitcher in the history of major league ball to hold the opposition hitless in the first game of the season.”
On Opening Day, 2011, the Indians remembered Feller, who passed away last year at 92. Near the end of the ceremony, his wife Anne placed a ball on the mound near where Feller’s retired number 19 had been painted onto the pitcher’s mound. On the ball was written, “Bobby, keep pitching. Anne.”
Smith, Guy M. “First No-Hit Opener”. The Sporting News, 25 April, 1940, Page 2.
McAuley, Ed. “Cheers for Feller’s No-Hit Feat REsumed in Rousing Welcome at Cleveland Station”. The Sporting News, 25 April, 1940, Page 2.
Feller, Bob with Bill Gilbert. “Memories of An Opening Day No-Hitter”. Baseball Digest, May 1990, Page 43 – 46.
Castrovince Anthony. “Feller’s Opening Day no-hitter turns 70.” MLB.COM, originally published 16 April 2010. (Link)
Meisel, Zack. “Indians honor Feller’s legacy”. MLB.COM, originally published 1 April 2011. (link)