Tragedy was at the heart of Opening Day in 1968. You have to go back that long -- 50 years -- to find the only other time every baseball team in the Majors opened on the same day. This will happen Thursday as a gigantic nationwide celebration of the game.
And it happened in 1968, because baseball opened in the heartbreaking days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Every American sport went silent after the shooting of Dr. King. NBA and NHL playoff games were postponed. The PGA Tour pushed back its final round of the Greater Greensboro Open.
"A virtual three-day moratorium on sports, unprecedented in American history, is being offered in tribute to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.," United Press International reported.
But in 1968, it was one thing to postpone a golf tournament's final round. It was quite another to push back baseball's Opening Day, which was and is much closer to a national holiday. There was much discussion about what to do. Dr. King was shot Thursday evening, April 4, and President Lyndon Johnson declared Sunday a day of national mourning. Protest, looting and burning followed in numerous cities across America. Opening Day was scheduled in Washington and Cincinnati on Monday -- in those days, baseball always opened in Washington and Cincinnati -- but those were pushed back to Wednesday.
Tuesday was the day of Dr. King's funeral, and all the scheduled games except one were pushed back to Wednesday. Dodgers president Walter O'Malley almost until the final moment insisted that because their game began so late in the day for most of the country -- 11 p.m. ET -- there was enough separation from the funeral to make the game respectful. The game might have been played if not for the Philadelphia Phillies, the Dodgers' opponent, making it clear they would refuse to take the field and would forfeit the game. So O'Malley relented, and the Dodgers' opener joined the Wednesday slate.
"Mr. O'Malley is a man with tremendous ability," Jackie Robinson told a reporter, "but also a man with a total lack of knowledge of the frustration of the Negro community. It grieves me that Walter O'Malley did not understand the importance of the thing."
And so every team opened on April 10, 1968 -- the first time all 20 Major League teams opened the season together. It was a somber but unique day in baseball history. And looking back to Opening Day 1968 is a good way to see just how far baseball has come.
First, obviously, you can look at the number of teams. There were 10 fewer teams in 1968 -- no teams in Florida, one team in Texas, no teams yet in Kansas City, Milwaukee, San Diego, Seattle, Denver, Phoenix or either Montreal or Toronto. This was also the last year without playoffs; the American League pennant winner and National League pennant winner met in the World Series.
Pitching reigned in 1968, and that began right away. Of the 20 Opening Day starters, six threw complete games and 12 threw at least eight innings.
Strangely, Bob Gibson was not one of those 12 pitchers who lasted eight innings. This is strange, because -- as you probably know -- Gibson would go on to one of the greatest pitching seasons ever in 1968; that was the year he had his magical 1.12 ERA. And that year, he was almost never pulled from a game. This time, he was replaced by a pinch-hitter after seven scoreless innings (even though Gibson as a hitter actually broke up Atlanta's Pat Jarvis' no-hitter in the sixth inning with a single).
From April 20 through the rest of the season, Gibson pitched at least eight innings in every game. From April 20 to Sept. 2, in 27 starts, he completed 24 games and averaged more than nine innings per game. Seeing Gibson lifted for a pinch-hitter was a rare sight in 1968.
Only 7,758 fans showed up for the Chicago White Sox home opener against Cleveland.
Chicago was billing itself as "The New White Sox," and to prove it, the club had a new player at every position from Opening Day one year earlier. The White Sox managed just two hits off Cleveland's Sonny Siebert and lost, 9-0. The New White Sox would lose 95 games, which was 22 more losses than the old White Sox of 1967.
Boston's Carl Yastrzemski homered twice in the Red Sox's 7-3 win against Detroit at Tiger Stadium. Yaz was the best player in baseball, the Michael Trout of his time. He had won the 1967 AL Triple Crown and almost single-handedly carried the Impossible Dream Red Sox to the World Series. After his two-homer game on Opening Day, he received a telegram of congratulations from Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy.
"I'm going to try and have a good year," Yaz told reporters.
In that Year of the Pitcher, Yastrzemski would end being the only player in the AL to hit .300. He also led the league in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, walks and, as later calculated, wins above replacement. But his raw numbers dropped so much from 1967 that few seemed to realize he was still the best player in baseball; he finished ninth in the AL MVP Award voting.
In 1968, the Mets were still viewed as a punchline; they had lost 100 or more in five of their six seasons. More to the point, they had never won on Opening Day. That streak finally seemed to be coming to an end. It was Gil Hodges' first game as Mets manager, and he gave future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver his first Opening Day start. Seaver's parents were in the stands. The Mets led San Francisco, 4-2, going into the bottom of the ninth.
Seaver really had pitched beautifully; his only real mistake had been a fastball he threw to future Hall of Famer Willie McCovey. It wasn't a bad fastball. Any fastball thrown to McCovey in the late 1960s was a mistake. Stretch homered. But that was it.
"I wanted to win that game more than any I've ever pitched," Seaver told reporters.
In the ninth, though, Seaver then allowed a single to Willie Mays, and after a passed ball (catcher J.C. Martin had fractured his finger on a Mays foul tip but refused to come out of the game), Mays scored on Jim Hart's single. Danny Frisella came into put out the fire -- closers were called "firemen" in those days -- and instead Frisella gave up a single to Nate Oliver and a double to Jesus Alou, and that was that. Apparently, Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson had a chance to throw out Oliver at the plate, but his throw sailed so high that Mets replacement catcher Jerry Grote did not even try to jump for it.
"Gil Hodges found out about the Mets today," reporter Dick Young wrote in the New York Daily News.
Seven future Hall of Famers homered on Opening Day 1968. We already mentioned Yaz's two home runs for the Red Sox and McCovey's homer for the Giants. In Baltimore, where beer sales were banned for fear of rioting, a 22-year-old old kid with unlimited potential, Reggie Jackson, hit the second home run of his big league career; he blasted it over the center-field wall. The bigger story was that another future Hall of Famer, Brooks Robinson, homered for the third straight Opening Day.
"I get a funny feeling on Opening Day," Brooksie told reporters. "It's something eerie. … Maybe I should play like every day was Opening Day."
And the biggest story -- plus the biggest cheers -- were not for either of them, but instead Oakland's new coach, Joe DiMaggio.
"I didn't expect it at all," Joltin' Joe said after the game. "It was certainly nice of people to do that."
Armed guards patrolled D.C. Stadium to keep the peace in Washington; future Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew homered, and Minnesota teammate Dean Chance threw a four-hit shutout. In Houston, future Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente homered in the Astrodome.
The seventh Hall of Famer to homer was Cincinnati's Tony Perez; he had looked shaky during Spring Training, but as usual when the season began, the Big Dog began hitting.
"I don't waste them in Spring Training," Perez said with a smile on his face.
Perez's homer came in a win over the Cubs, and there's another funny thing about that game. Cincinnati's Milt Pappas left the game in the sixth with the Reds up, 6-4. Reliever George Culver pitched the last 3 2/3 innings to get a save. That wasn't uncommon in those days. But Culver's motivation was.
"I had to hold them," Culver said. "That Milt's too mean a guy. He would have beaten me up if I had blown the game."
How different was it then? Well, there were numerous differences on the edges. Starters went deep. Relievers went deep. Teams carried eight or nine pitchers and a bunch of pinch-hitters and defensive replacements. Average attendance for the Opening Day games was just 26,713 -- only one game, Boston at Detroit, drew 40,000 fans. That year, baseball executives would look hard at dwindling attendance and begin making some rule changes to create more offense.
Time of game was very different as well -- the games averaged two hours and 18 minutes.
But in a larger sense, the feelings of Opening Day were precisely the same.
"There's something about Opening Day that gets to you whether you've been around 20 minutes or 20 years," Whitey Ford said. "Every man has his own private thoughts when they play that national anthem before the first pitch."