As 1960 rolled into 1961 and baseball fans began looking forward to the new season, it was clear that this would be a year like no other in baseball history. Major League Baseball had seen franchises shift before – the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee, the Philadelphia A’s moved to Kansas City, the Dodgers and Giants had opened up the west coast to a whole new market of fans – but never before in the 20th century had the game expanded. On December 14, 1960, an expansion draft was held among the existing American League franchises to help stock the rosters of two brand-new teams, the Los Angeles Angels and the Washington Senators. The original Senators had moved to Minnesota to become the Twins; the baseball Establishment, not wanting the nation’s capital to be without a team, awarded Washington an expansion franchise that kept the Senators team name.
The Angels, behind innovative owner Gene Autry and scouting director Roland Hemond, felt it best to select “name” players in the draft as a way to draw fans away from the neighboring Los Angeles Dodgers. With their first pick, the Angels selected right-handed starting pitcher Eli Grba from the defending American League champion New York Yankees.
As spring training progressed in Palm Springs, California, the decision on who would be the starting pitcher on Opening Day came down to Grba and another veteran, Ken McBride, who had come from the Chicago White Sox. The final choice was Grba, and after a cross-country flight to Baltimore, he toed the mound on the chilly, windy afternoon of April 11, 1961, against the Orioles, who had been overtaken for the American League pennant by Grba’s Yankees in the final week of the 1960 season.
The first inning of his first game was a dream for any pitcher regardless of the circumstances; after Eddie Yost popped to short and Ken Aspromonte was called out on strikes, Albie Pearson drew a walk. Slugger Ted Kluszewski then homered deep down the right-field line, giving the Angels a 2-0 lead. Bob Cerv, another player the Angels picked up from the Yankees, then lined a pitch from starter Milt Pappas well over the wall in right-center for a 3-0 lead.
The first opposing batter against the Angels was center fielder Jackie Brandt, who grounded a single between short and third into left field. Russ Snyder then grounded into a fielder’s choice, after which Grba induced a double-play grounder from Brooks Robinson.
As if three runs in the first weren’t enough, the Angels came back and outdid themselves in the second, scoring four runs for a 7-0 lead and knocking out Pappas. Del Rice drew a walk and was forced at second by Grba. Yost walked and was forced by Aspromonte. That brought up Pearson, who delivered the knockout blow to Pappas by hitting a single to center, scoring Grba and sending Aspromonte to third. John Papa was brought in to face Kluszewski, who drilled his second homer in as many at-bats, scoring Aspromonte, Pearson, and himself for a seven-run lead.
The Orioles scored a run in the second. Jim Gentile singled Gene Stephens drew a two-out walk. Marv Breeding grounded to Fritz Brickell at short, who threw wildly to first, allowing Gentile to score. Grba escaped the jam by getting pinch-hitter Dave Philley to pop to short.
Baltimore tacked on a second run in the third, again assisted by an error. Brandt led off with a single to left and Snyder drew a walk. Robinson grounded to third baseman Yost, who threw to second to force Brandt, but second baseman Aspromonte’s throw to first was wild, allowing Snyder to score. A groundball and a fly out allowed Grba to escape the inning without further damage.
There was no more scoring. Grba scattered three hits and two walks over the final six innings for the complete-game victory.
(Grba also started the Angels first-ever home opener, against the Minnesota Twins on April 27 at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. A three-run homer by catcher Earl Battey gave the Twins a 4-2 victory.)
Telephone Interview with Eli Grba, November 16, 2014.
Email exchange with Grba’s niece, Karen Milovich.