#TBT: Feller tosses the one and only Opening Day no-hitter
It took around 40 years for it to happen the first time, and considering the 7 1/2 decades that have passed since then, it's looking like it may never happen again.
And that would be probably be just fine with Bob Feller, who 75 years ago today, threw the first -- and to this day, only -- Opening Day no-hitter in modern day baseball history. And that's just how Feller wanted it to live in history -- forever.
More on that later.
Feller, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 92, was a regular presence around the Indians long after his Hall of Fame career came to a close in 1956. He loved to talk baseball, and he really loved reminiscing about that special day -- April 16, 1940 -- when, at the age of 21, he made history.
The weather conditions were typical -- it was, after all, April, and the Indians were playing in Chicago. A blustery and windy setting may have had something to do with the smallish crowd of 14,000, and it absolutely could be attributed to Feller's struggle to grip the ball and his later admission that this was not his most dominant outing.
"He would always say of his three no-hitters, that day, he had his worst stuff of the three," said longtime PR-man Bob DiBiasio, who is now the club's senior vice president of public affairs.
But it was more than enough. Feller walked five, struck out eight and retired 15 in a row from the fourth inning through the eighth.
Things got dicey in the ninth. With two outs, Feller walked Sox shortstop Luke Appling, one of the American League's toughest hitters. The 10-pitch at-bat ended when, according to DiBiasio, Feller consciously decided to try his luck with the next guy.
"I just decided to walk him, because he was fouling balls off and off and off," DiBiasio recalled Feller telling him. "It was a 1-0 game. He said, 'Screw it, I'll just get the next hitter.'"
In the Cleveland Plain Dealer, manager Oscar Vitt was quoted as saying, "I sat there with [Indians coach] Luke Sewell and just prayed. I remember once saying to Luke: 'Oh, God, just let him get by Appling.'"
Turns out, Feller got by the next batter -- Taft Wright, whose hard-hit ground ball necessitated a diving play by second baseman Ray Mack, who knocked it down, whirled and made a perfect throw.
From the Plain Dealer: "As cool in the club house after the game as he was on the mound, Feller said: 'I wasn't sure I had it until Ray Mack threw out that last man. That [Taft Wright's smashing grounder to Cleveland's rookie second baseman] was the hardest ball hit at me all day. It really was hit."
And then, it was over.
"This thing that had to happen sometime," wrote Plain Dealer reporter Gordon Cobbledick, "happened here this chilly afternoon."
Maybe it did have to happen sometime, but that doesn't meant it has to happen again. And that leads us to part two of that story.
Fast forward to April 4, 1994. It was Opening Day in the most literal sense: The Indians were opening the season, and they were also opening a brand new ballpark -- sparkling Jacobs Field, one of the first of the modern-day ballparks to pop up throughout the Major Leagues.
This was a big day. President Bill Clinton threw out the ceremonial first pitch. The Jake, as it was lovingly termed, was gorgeous. The place was packed with more than 41,000 fans. And by all accounts, the Indians' front office had put together a roster that was ready to win. The Tribe had produced losing records seven years in a row. Many believed the streak would end that season.
But then the unthinkable happened -- or, threatened to happen. Randy Johnson -- yes, that Randy Johnson -- was dominant, in an eerily similar way a certain Indians pitcher was dominant on Opening Day in 1940.
Johnson issued plenty of walks. He walked Kenny Lofton and Omar Vizquel in the opening frame. In the fourth, Albert Belle reached on an error. The fifth inning produced two more walks -- one by Sandy Alomar Jr. and the other by Mark Lewis. And in the eighth, Candy Maldonado led off with yet another walk.
But not a single Cleveland batter had produced a hit.
And Feller, watching from the press box, was a mess.
"He's prancing," DiBiasio recalled. "We would always talk about the trivia question -- what was the only game ever where everybody on the team had the same batting average the next day as they did the previous day? The White Sox were all batting zero the next day. That was something he held as a real source of pride, that nobody had ever thrown a no-hitter on Opening Day except for him."
Hence, the pacing through the press box.
"He's, like, nervous," DiBiasio remembered.
So Feller did what anyone would do in a time like this -- he tried to jinx it.
Feller's first stop was the Tribe's radio booth.
"I ran to the restroom between innings and I ran back to the booth and he was up and down in the hallways," said radio play-by-play announcer Tom Hamilton, then in his fifth year with the Indians. "And I said, 'Bob, what's the matter?' He said, 'He can't throw this thing.' I didn't get it. Then I was informed Bob was the only one to throw a no-hitter [on Opening Day.] He was adamant that there not be one thrown."
The game was also nationally televised on ESPN. Feller burst into the booth and said to Chris Berman and company, loudly, "You know, I'm the only guy that has a no-hitter on Opening Day."
"He just ran in and started talking without a head set," DiBiasio remembered, "Berman looks up, he sees Bob, and the next thing you know, Sandy Alomar gets a single to right field."
Whew. No-hit bid, and Feller anxiety attack, averted.
"Had it gotten any further he might have gone down there and tackled Randy before he took the mound for the ninth inning," Hamilton said.
After the game, Feller dropped by the clubhouse to -- how shall we put this -- admonish the players for almost being no-hit on Opening Day.
That is to say, he yelled.
"I said, 'Uh, you do know that was Randy Johnson out there, right?'" Alomar Jr. said.
Thanks to Alomar's hit, the other details from that game -- it went to extra innings, and the Indians won it -- are mere footnotes, remembered by only those who were close enough to the Tribe and Feller to understand the significance of what could have happened.
Those who knew Feller would probably be happy if his record stood for eternity.
"He really felt it was a wonderful honor to be the only guy ever," DiBiasio said.
The honor, so far, is all his.