April 17, 1934: Cubs' Lon Warneke makes history with Opening Day one-hitter
Opening Day of the baseball season is always a festive occasion, and no city honors the occasion quite like Cincinnati. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, Opening Day in the Queen City was a perfect moment for players and fans to lose their worries in hopeful anticipation of the coming season. The Reds donned new uniforms with a hint of blue to accompany their traditional red. Even the ballpark, renamed Crosley Field the day before the season began in honor of the club’s new owner, was clad in a fresh coat of paint.1 What transpired that April afternoon, though, was much more exhilarating than the pregame fanfare, as a tall, lanky Arkansas farmer pitched himself into baseball history.
The Reds entered the 1934 season mired in the worst slump in the team’s history, including the embarrassment of finishing last in the National League for three consecutive seasons. Following the abysmal 1933 season, local radio and appliance mogul Powel Crosley Jr. assumed ownership after considerable arm-twisting by new general manager Larry MacPhail. Despite limited financial resources, MacPhail pursued a major overhaul of the roster. Seven of the Opening Day starters were new to the club. MacPhail even attempted unsuccessfully to lure Babe Ruth away from the Yankees as a possible player-manager. Even with these moves, though, the Reds were given long odds to improve their situation in 1934.2
The Reds’ Opening Day opponent, the Chicago Cubs, was basking in a golden era. Between 1928 and 1938, the Cubs finished in the top three spots in the National League, including four pennants. The team was coming off a third-place finish in 1933 and was looking to recapture first place in the coming season. To bolster their chances, owner Phil Wrigley loosened his wallet to acquire 1933 NL batting champion Chuck Klein from the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for three players and $65,000. To sweeten the pot further, Wrigley also increased Klein’s salary for 1934 from $17,500 to $30,000.
Of the many talented players on the Cubs roster, none was finer than the ace of the pitching corps, Lon Warneke from Mount Ida, Arkansas. Known as one of the finest lowball hurlers of his time, Warneke threw a blazing fastball and a variety of offspeed pitches from three arm slots: direct overhand, side-arm, and underarm. As Ralph Cannon of the Chicago Daily News observed, Warneke “could throw a ball through a knot hole.” Now entering his third big-league season, the Cubs right-hander already claimed the most NL wins (22) in his rookie season in 1932 and would have possibly achieved the same feat in 1933 if the Reds had not been victorious in all five outings that season against him. Nevertheless, in the first All-Star Game, in 1933, Warneke fanned both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.3
The Opening Day contest attracted 30,247, some of whom sat in temporary stands in left and right fields. For almost an hour before the first pitch, the Findlay Market Boosters paraded on the field and in the stands to a band playing the New Deal favorite “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Several gift and floral presentations were made to various Reds dignitaries and even Cubs first baseman-manager Charlie Grimm.4
Once the ceremonial first pitch had been thrown by Cincinnati Mayor Russell Wilson, Si Johnson, the Reds’ perennial losing veteran, took the mound and survived the first inning thanks to exceptional defensive play by the right side of the infield. After an opening strikeout of third baseman Woody English, first baseman Jim Bottomley sent second baseman Billy Herman back to the dugout by jumping onto the Reds bullpen bench in foul territory to catch a pop fly over the railing. Not to be outdone, second baseman Tony Piet lunged to his left to spear Chuck Klein’s hot grounder and retire the side. Johnson calmed down in the second, issuing only a walk to Charlie Grimm.5 Meanwhile, Warneke breezed through the first two innings, including striking out the side in the second.
In the visitors’ half of the third, the Cubs offense went to work with catcher Gabby Hartnett getting the first hit of the season, a single to left-center. Hartnett advanced to second when catcher-manager Bob O’Farrell was charged with a passed ball. Billy Herman promptly plunked a single to center, scoring Hartnett.
Warneke continued to dominate the Reds through the middle innings with outstanding assistance from his supporting cast. In the Reds’ half of the fourth, third baseman Mark Koenig opened with a pass and advanced to second when Piet put down an excellent sacrifice bunt along the third-base line. Center fielder Chick Hafey came to the plate and almost tied the game when he laced a sharp liner down the left-field line that was inches foul.6 Warneke regrouped and struck out Hafey and retired Bottomley on a slow roller to Herman.
The Cubs put the game out of reach in their half of the sixth with a four-run rally capped by Chuck Klein’s first payback to Phil Wrigley, a towering two-run homer deep into the right-field bleachers. The other highlight of the inning was supplied by rookie George “Tuck” Stainback, who replaced Kiki Cuyler in center field when the veteran was dispatched to Cincinnati’s Jewish Hospital for an infected finger on his left hand.7 Stainback proved himself worthy by slapping his first major-league hit, into right. Grimm followed with a single in the gap in left-center, allowing Stainback to turn on the afterburners and score from first.
Again in the Reds’ sixth, the no-hit bid was in peril when left fielder Adam Comorosky hit a hot smash that shortstop Billy Jurges, moving quickly to his left, snagged and threw Comorosky out. Koenig followed with a hard grounder in the hole that caused Jurges to fall down before completing the throw to first.8
With the Cubs commanding a 5-0 lead, the allegiance of the Crosley Field throng had definitely shifted in favor of Warneke and his quest for a no-hitter. The Reds were “absolutely helpless” against the Cubs starter.9 In the seventh, Hafey attempted to break up the no-hitter by laying down a perfect bunt along the third-base line, only to have the ball roll foul shy of the base. Other than this momentary thrill, Warneke sailed through the seventh and eighth innings, garnering an additional four strikeouts.10
The Cubs tacked on one more tally in the eighth to increase their lead to 6-0. Stainback opened the inning by stretching a single into a double when Hafey momentarily bobbled the ball in center, and later scored when Warneke helped his own cause by punching a base hit into right.11
After the Reds went quietly in the eighth and the Cubs did likewise in their half of the ninth, the stage was set for history to be made. Reds slugger Ernie Lombardi batted for reliever Larry Benton and struck out on three pitches, becoming Warneke’s final strikeout of the afternoon.12 Advancing to the plate was Comorosky, “a stocky little man with caliper-like legs and with the complexion of the hue of a Mexican saddle.”13 Remembering how the Reds left fielder almost ended the no-hit bid in the sixth, Warneke threw a low fastball barely off the infield grass and Comorosky hit a grounder that scooted past the mound to the right of second and into center for the Reds’ first hit.14 The crowd erupted with a thunderous boo. Seemingly unfazed, Warneke hit the reset button and produced a force of Comorosky at second and a popout by Piet to end the drama. Immediately, Warneke’s teammates lifted the hero of the day onto their shoulders and carried him into the clubhouse, much to the delight of Warneke’s wife, Charlyne, who witnessed the day’s proceedings.15
It was an Opening Day no one in the Queen City would soon forget. Even though it would still be six years until an Opening Day no-hitter was thrown, Warneke’s superb pitch command and “machine-gun delivery”16 on this day put him into the Cubs history book for having thrown one of only three modern-era Opening Day one-hitters.17
Equally impressive was how Warneke overpowered his opponent. He struck out 13 Reds, including three to right fielder Ivey Shiver who scouting reports correctly assessed as being susceptible to the curveball.18 Warneke struck out one or more in every inning except the first. Only four Reds reached base and just one, Mark Koenig, advanced as far as second base. Outside of Comorosky’s single, only two balls made it into the outfield all afternoon. Baseball scribe Ed Prell of the Chicago American summed it up best: Warneke “pitched as beautiful a ball game as mortal eyes ever witnessed.”19
This article was published in "Cincinnati's Crosley Field: A Gem in the Queen City" (SABR, 2019), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. To read more articles from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted:
Swope, Tom. “Lon Warneke Is Opening Day Wizard,” Cincinnati Post, April 18, 1934: 8.
1 Upon assuming ownership of the Reds, Powel Crosley oversaw a major sprucing-up of the ballpark. Advertising signs in the outfield were taken down. Only Crosley’s own appliance advertisements were permitted to adorn the scoreboard. Seats were repainted in green, orange, and red. Orange and green canvas covered the tops of the dugouts. The letters and numbers on the scoreboard were outfitted in red, orange, and yellow. Even the pressroom was furnished with a new bar. “Vance and Bush Pitch Today,” Chicago Daily Tribune, April 18, 1934: 23.
2 Greg Rhodes and John Snyder, Redleg Journal: Year by Year and Day by Day With the Cincinnati Reds Since 1866 (Cincinnati: Road West Publishing, 2000), 257-260.
3 Don Duren, “Lon Warneke,” SABR Baseball Biography Project (sabr.org/bioproj/person/5a2fe3c9), undated, accessed March 8, 2017; Ralph Cannon, “Sox Lose 8-3; Cubs Win 6-0,” Chicago Daily News, April 17, 1934: 24; Gabriel Schechter, “Lon Warneke: A Most Judicious Pitcher,” The National Pastime Museum, March 9, 2017 (thenationalpastimemuseum.com/article/lon-warneke-most-judicious-pitcher), accessed March 16, 2017.
4 It was reported that the game was a sellout, the second largest attendance of eight Opening Day games played that day. Hundreds of Reds fans were turned away. Jack Ryder, “Lon Warneke Gives One Hit in Blanking Redleg Nine, 6-0,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 18, 1934: 11; Frank Y. Grayson, “Epic of Baseball Thwarted by Red Single in Ninth,” Cincinnati Times-Star, April 18, 1934: 18; “Vance and Bush Are to Draw Hill Assignments Today,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 18, 1934: 11-12; “Vance and Bush Pitch…”; Warren Brown, “Sox Lose; Warneke’s 1-Hit Game Beats Reds,” Chicago Herald and Examiner, April 18, 1934: 19.
5 Ryder; Irving Vaughan, “Warneke Wins One-Hit Game; Sox Lose, 8-3,” Chicago Tribune, April 18, 1934: 21; Brown: 21.
6 Vaughan; Brown.
7 Prell, “Stainback to Play Center for Bruins,” Chicago American, April 16, 1934: 17.
11 Ed Prell, “Warneke Hurls 1-Hit Game; Cubs Win, 6-0,” Chicago American, April 17, 1934: 23.
14 Comorosky said he was swinging for a hit because Hartnett angered him by claiming he was not standing in the batter’s box. Cannon.
15 “Lon’s Great Pitching Stands Out in Review, “Chicago Herald and Examiner, April 18, 1934: 19; Vaughan; Cannon; Prell, “Warneke…”; “Vance and Bush Are…”
17 As of 2017. The other Opening Day one-hitters were thrown by Jesse Petty of the Brooklyn Robins in 1926 and Bob Lemon of the Cleveland Indians in 1953.
19 Prell, “Warneke…”