The weirdest Opening Day games in history

Every game could be one for the ages

March 31st, 2023
Tom Forget /

Opening Day is a day when anything is possible. With every team tied in the standings, it could be the start of your team's Cinderella-esque run to postseason glory. Records could fall, no-hitters could be thrown and cycles could be hit! And, of course, things can get weird. Really weird.

So to honor every baseball fan's favorite day -- when we all binge on 12 straight hours of baseball to start the season -- let's look back at 12 of the oddest, strangest and most bizarre Opening Day games in history.

The early spark

Watch closely and you’ll notice that most pitchers on Opening Day throw a fastball, untouched, down the heart of the plate for their first pitch. Pitchers want to set a good tone for the season, and batters don’t want to be overly eager.

But batters have gone deep two times in recorded history on the very first pitch of the season.

Dwight Evans pulled it off first for the Red Sox in 1986 by hitting a home run against Jack Morris. It would then take 32 years for it to happen again when Ian Happ started the season the same way, hitting a solo shot off José Ureña to begin 2018.

The wild

Nolan Ryan in 1974. This pitch had probably about a 50-50 chance to be a strike.

These days we remember Nolan Ryan for his blazing fastball, seven no-hitters, ability to corral a charging Robin Ventura and, I guess, his beef. But what we forget is that Ryan -- especially early in his career -- had little idea where the ball was going.

From 1966-72, Ryan averaged 5.7 walks per nine innings. While he got that under control in ’73, striking out a record 383 batters, Angels fans couldn’t have been thrilled after Opening Day in ’74.

Ryan's numbers against the White Sox look pretty good: eight innings, four hits, two runs, (only) five strikeouts. The big problem: He also walked 10 batters. That’s the most walks in a regulation game on Opening Day (Herb Score walked 11 in 11 innings on Opening Day in ’57).

While the walks were a lot, it’s even more shocking that the White Sox scored only two runs and only hit into one double play. That doesn't even seem possible.

The debut

On April 25, 1901, the Detroit Tigers took on the Milwaukee Brewers in the debut of the AL as a Major League. Early on, the Tigers didn't look big league ready.

The Brewers took an early 7-0 lead after a series of Detroit errors. They built that into a 13-4 advantage heading into the ninth inning. Detroit was going to see the first game of its big league existence end with a devastating loss.

Instead, behind a flurry of hits, the Tigers came back. Detroit scored five runs and forced a pitching change before recording its first out.

With the crowd going wild -- “Hats were being thrown in the air, coats were flying and everyone was yelling themselves hoarse” was how the Detroit Free Press described it -- the Tigers loaded the bases with two outs but were still down, 13-9. Kid Gleason then hit a grounder to Jimmy Burke that should have ended the game. Instead, Burke dropped the ball, allowing two runs to score and keeping the Tigers' hopes alive. Ducky Holmes then beat out a slow grounder to cut the lead to 13-12.

It all then came down to this: With two out, Frank Dillon stepped to the plate. He had already hit three balls into the assembled crowd watching from the outfield, which counted as ground-rule doubles. On a 2-2 count, he did it again. Dillon lashed a ball down the left-field line and into the crowd, scoring two runs and giving the Tigers the most unlikely Opening Day victory.

The 0-fer

Things went very badly for White Sox catcher Ron Karkovice on Opening Day in 1996. In the 12-inning, 3-2 White Sox loss to the Mariners, the goggled catcher went 0-for-5 with five strikeouts, including to end the top of the 12th. It was the only five-strikeout game in Opening Day history until the Dodgers' Max Muncy matched him in 2023.

Of course, Karkovice shouldn't feel too much shame. After all, three of his K’s came while facing Randy Johnson, who struck out 14 on the day.

While it was a rough game, Karkovice did have one highlight he could hang his hat on. In the ninth inning, Roberto Hernandez threw the ball to the backstop, and Joey Cora raced for home to score the winning run. But the ball ricocheted back to Karkovice, who was able to make the diving tag to send the game into extras.

The tie

Eight season-opening games have ended in a tie, leaving every fan to go home with the baseball equivalent of indigestion. But the best -- and strangest -- belongs to the Cardinals and Cubs when they met on April 12, 1965.

Since this one is so wild and filled with so many big names, we'll bullet point it:

• The defending champion Cardinals took a 5-0 lead in the first thanks to one of three errors by rookie Roberto Peña, who was making his big league debut.

• Don’t feel bad, though. Peña picked up three hits, including his first big league homer off Bob Gibson in the third.

• Gibson gave up five runs and failed to finish four innings.

• Ernie Banks hit the game-tying three-run home run in the ninth inning to send the game to extra innings.

• Lou Brock gave the Cards a 10-9 lead with a single in the top of the 11th, but Ron Santo tied it with a double in the bottom half. The game was then called because of a lack of light. That meant that all the statistics counted, but the game didn't. Both clubs were still 0-0.

• Steve Carlton also made the first appearance of his career, though you would never have expected a Hall of Fame future. He walked one batter in the bottom of the 11th and was pulled from the game.

The longest

If you’re going to skip work or school for Opening Day, you may as well get your money’s worth. Toronto and Cleveland made sure of that on Opening Day in 2012. The game went 16 innings and saw 14 pitchers, 540 pitches and Omar Vizquel in a five-man infield.

Cleveland held a 4-1 lead into the top of the ninth, but two singles, a sacrifice fly from José Bautista, a walk and an RBI double from Edwin Encarnación tied the game and sent it to extras.

Both teams had a chance to end it before the 16th, but Cleveland's Asdrúbal Cabrera hit into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded in the 12th and Rajai Davis bunted into another DP with two on and no outs in the top of the 15th.

The game finally ended in the 16th. J.P. Arencibia -- who was 0-for-6 with three strikeouts entering the at-bat -- hit a three-run home run to seal it for the Blue Jays.

The do-it-all

When Madison Bumgarner hit two home runs on Opening Day 2017 -- and the Giants lost thanks to Jeff Mathis(!) starting a two-out rally in the bottom of the ninth -- it was bizarre, but not unexpected. Bumgarner hits a lot of home runs

But when Clayton Kershaw hit a home run while throwing a shutout on Opening Day in 2013, that was a little different. While the shutout was one of 15 he's thrown in his career, the home run is the only one he's ever hit as professional. Even better, it was a game-winner, coming off George Kontos in the top of the eighth and breaking a 0-0 tie.

Kershaw was the first to pull off the homer/shutout on Opening Day since Bob Lemon in 1953.

"I had no idea it was going out because I've never hit one like that in a game before," Kershaw said. "What an awesome feeling."

There was one downside, though: Kershaw's friend and former catcher, A.J. Ellis, would no longer be able to remind Kershaw about his one Spring Training home run every March 19.

The Hat Trick

Four players have hit three dingers on Opening Day. While most who have pulled it off were known for their power, Tuffy Rhodes was not. When the Cubs' center fielder outfielder stepped to the plate at Wrigley Field to start the 1994 season, he had hit just five home runs in 107 big league games.

That day, everything clicked. Rhodes led off the bottom of the first with a home run into the left-field bleachers against Mets starter Dwight Gooden. Rhodes added another in the third, and hit one again in the fifth. Fans started hurling their ballcaps onto the field to honor Rhodes' hat trick of a game.

“I didn’t realize that was going on when I saw all the hats,” Rhodes said. “Somebody finally told me it was a ‘hat trick’ -- like they have in hockey. It was great. I loved it.”

While the day seemed to foretell greatness, it never came in the Major Leagues. Rhodes hit only five more big league home runs, but became a star in Japan, where he hit 464 long balls.

The blowout

We all know the Yankees of the ’50s were an absolute powerhouse, reaching the World Series in all but two years that decade. So, it’s not a surprise that they destroyed the hapless Washington Senators, 19-1, on Opening Day in 1955.

Whitey Ford pitched a complete game, giving up just two hits and striking out eight, while the Bronx Bombers got to work at the plate.

Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Bill Skowron all went deep. Bob Cerv drove in four. Every Yankees starter recorded at least one hit except for Phil Rizzuto, who walked and scored in both of his plate appearances before he was pulled. Ford even went 3-for-5 with four ribbies, too. It was a complete decimation.

There was only one saving grace for the Senators: It wasn’t their Opening Day. Washington had played their opener two days earlier against the Orioles and won, 12-5.

The no-no

Despite all the games played on all the Opening Days, only one no-hitter has started a season for an AL or NL team. (Notably, Leon Day also threw one in the Negro Leagues in 1946).

If you were there that day, you wouldn't have expected it at the beginning. When Cleveland's Bob Feller toed the rubber on a cold April day in 1940, he had trouble finding the strike zone. He walked a batter in the first and walked two more in the second as the White Sox loaded the bases.

Bob Feller in July of 1940

"The first couple of innings, I was pretty wild," Feller remembered later. "In the second inning, I loaded the bases. Someone in the bullpen was warming up and the manager [Ossie Vitt] was getting ready to walk out to the mound. But I managed to strike out the last hitter on a full count."

He soon got into the groove, and things looked easy until there were two outs in the ninth. Hall of Famer Luke Appling stepped to the plate and drew a 10-pitch walk. Eventually, Feller decided to give up and face the next batter.

"I just decided to walk him, because he was fouling balls off and off and off," Bob DiBiasio, Cleveland’s senior vice president of public affairs, remembered Feller telling him. "It was a 1-0 game. He said, 'Screw it, I'll just get the next hitter.'"

Taffy Wright then came up and hit a hard grounder to second base. It took a diving stop and strong throw by Ray Mack to end the game and secure Feller's no-hitter.

The balk

Balks are probably the least satisfying way for a game to end. One minute the stakes are high with a runner on third; the next, the game is over and everyone asks their neighbor, "What happened? Was that a balk?"

That's how the Orioles escaped with a win in their 1966 opener against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Brooks Robinson tied the game with an RBI single in the top of the ninth, and the game remained knotted at 4 until the 13th inning. That's when the O's loaded the bases against Boston's Jim Lonborg behind a single and two walks.

Luis Aparicio stepped to the plate, and despite going 0-for-7 on the day, Lonborg hesitated in his windup and home plate umpire Red Flaherty caught it.

“It was a moment of indecision,” Lonborg said. “I was supposed to throw a curve and just as I started my windup a thought flashed through my mind: Nope. I’m going to throw a fastball. Then it was too late.”

The snow

Thanks to the weather, the Blue Jays nearly missed their first Opening Day. On April 7, 1977, the Jays were set to host the White Sox, but the 44,649 fans that showed up could have easily been expecting a hockey game. That’s because the Exhibition Stadium turf was covered in snow that the groundskeepers were quickly trying to shovel away. Chicago’s Wayne Nordhagen even took some shin guards and used them as snowshoes before the game started.

"I don't think any of us expected to play because it kept snowing," Jays shortstop Hector Torres said. "They had that Zamboni dragging the field and as soon as they cleaned it up, it would be white again.

Somehow, the game got underway and the Jays even got the victory -- 9-5 -- behind two home runs from Doug Ault, who hit only 15 more in his big league career.