Rip Sewell (Trading Card DB)

April 19, 1949: Pirates’ Rip Sewell outduels Cubs’ Dutch Leonard in first Opening Day matchup of starters in their 40s

This article was written by John Fredland

Rip Sewell (Trading Card DB)The Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs began 1949 with an unprecedented matchup: the National or American League’s first-ever Opening Day clash of starting pitchers who had reached their 40th birthdays.1 In a game scoreless until a ninth-inning unearned run, with both Pittsburgh’s Rip Sewell and Chicago’s Dutch Leonard going the distance on fewer than 100 pitches each, the 41-year-old Sewell outdueled the 40-year-old Leonard, 1-0, on April 19 at Wrigley Field.

Truett Banks “Rip” Sewell waited nearly until his 32nd birthday for his first major-league win but still became a fixture in Pittsburgh during the 1940s.2 The fair-haired, Alabama-born right-hander made four NL All-Star teams, topped 240 innings four times, and recorded back-to-back 21-win seasons in 1943 and 1944.3

Most of Sewell’s best years followed an offseason hunting accident in 1941, when a gunshot damaged his legs and feet.4 While rehabilitating, he happened upon the “eephus,” a floating pitch with a 25-foot trajectory.5 “It drove batters crazy as they swung mightily, either missing it completely or popping it up in the infield,” a Pittsburgh journalist recalled of Sewell’s trademark blooper.6

Sewell started Pittsburgh’s season opener or first home game every year from 1942 through 1948, winning six of seven decisions, including Opening Day shutouts of the Cubs in 1943 and 1947.7 In 1948 he returned from an announced retirement to beat Chicago in the home opener,8 on his way to a 7-1 season mark against the Cubs. The Pirates, seventh placers in 1946 and 1947, challenged for the pennant through mid-September in 1948 but finished fourth, 8½ games behind the Boston Braves.9

In 1931, his first professional season, Sewell was a member of the Class A Southern Association’s Tennessee Vols,10 whose final cuts included a second-year pro named Emil “Dutch” Leonard.11 Like Sewell, an injury started Leonard’s path to his signature pitch, the knuckleball.12 Reaching the majors with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1933, Leonard racked up 165 wins, four All-Star selections, and nine seasons of at least 200 innings pitched through 1948. The Cubs, coming off a last-place finish, obtained him from the Philadelphia Phillies in a December 1948 trade.13

As Opening Day 1949 approached, reports varied on whether Leonard,14 9-3 against the Pirates in 1947 and 1948,15 would face Sewell or offseason acquisition Murry Dickson.16 “It now appears that [Sewell’s] precious 41 year old hide is much too tender to endure the prospective 48-degree temperatures – and Murry Dickson … will usurp Sewell’s perennial pleasure of beating the Cubs on opening day, ’tis said,” the Chicago Tribune asserted on game day.17

But the uncertainty stemmed from what the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph characterized as “a typical trick of Pirates Manager Bill Meyer.”18 Sewell emerged for warmups 15 minutes before the first pitch,19 pairing up the only active National Leaguers in their 40s,20 22 days before Sewell’s 42nd birthday and 25 days after Leonard’s 40th.21

No Opening Day ceremonies were held,22 and the pitchers’ brisk pace mirrored the no-frills launch. Two innings went by in just 15 minutes; five were complete in under an hour.23 Sun splashed Wrigley Field, but, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, “the temperature jiggled in the frostyish forties and the only warm people among the 29,932 customers were those touched by the rays of Ol’ Sol.”24

Leonard retired the side in the first and second innings. Pittsburgh’s first baserunner was catcher Clyde McCullough, a Cub for seven seasons before an offseason trade sent him to the Pirates for infielder Frankie Gustine.25 Greeted by booing,26 McCullough singled with one out in the third.

Sewell followed with a foul popup between third and home. Catcher Bob Scheffing was in position to make the catch, but third baseman Gustine collided with him. The ball landed, uncaught.27 Leonard then hit Sewell on the elbow with a pitch.

One out later, Cubs center fielder Harry Walker – younger brother of Pittsburgh right fielder Dixie Walker – made a running catch of Danny Murtaugh’s drive to left-center, keeping the Pirates scoreless.28

Pittsburgh stirred again in the fourth. With one out, three-time reigning home-run king Ralph Kiner ducked from an inside pitch, but the ball struck his bat and sailed into right field for a single.29 Ed Stevens’ two-out single put two runners on for Eddie Bockman, who fouled out to end the inning.

Sewell held up his end of the duel, dispatching seven Cubs in a row after Phil Cavarretta’s two-out single in the first. Third baseman Bockman’s bobble of Gustine’s leadoff grounder and Scheffing’s two-out single gave the Cubs runners at the corners in the fourth, but Hal Jeffcoat fanned on an outside pitch for the third out.30 The wind off Lake Michigan knocked down Roy Smalley’s fifth-inning drive to left, and Kiner hauled it in.31

Chicago had two more baserunners in the sixth after Cavarretta’s one-out bunt single and Andy Pafko’s single to center. As Kirby Higbe loosened in Pittsburgh’s bullpen,32 Stan Rojek extinguished the threat by turning Scheffing’s grounder to short into what the Pittsburgh Press called a “fancy double play.”33

Leonard set down 11 in a row from Bockman’s foul pop to end the fourth through McCullough’s fly out to open the eighth. Sewell snapped the perfect run with a sharp liner to center; Harry Walker cut the ball off to hold him to a single.34 First baseman Cavarretta’s error on Rojek’s grounder gave Pittsburgh runners on first and second, but Murtaugh was again denied, as second baseman Emil Verban grabbed his liner and doubled off Sewell.

More sharp defense stalled out the Cubs’ eighth. First baseman Stevens threw to second for outs on Gustine’s sacrifice attempt and Cavarretta’s grounder, rendering Harry Walker’s leadoff single fruitless.35 The game moved to the ninth, the scoreboard full of zeros.

Dixie Walker, 38 years old and in his 18th major-league season, led off the ninth. The 1944 NL batting champion, a career .307 hitter entering 1949, had gone hitless in three at-bats against Leonard.

“Ol’ Dutch really crossed me up,” Walker admitted afterward. “I was looking for the knuckler and got the fastball. I was off balance and didn’t get a good cut at the ball all afternoon.”36

Walker hit a grounder to short, which Smalley bobbled for an error. Speedy rookie Jack Cassini pinch-ran.37 Kiner – a .188 hitter against Leonard entering the game – singled to left, and Cassini stopped at second.

On Chicago’s WGN-AM, broadcaster Bert Wilson wished out loud for a triple play,38 and Wally Westlake’s sacrifice advanced the runners. Cubs manager Charlie Grimm called for an intentional walk to Stevens, with Bockman, 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, up next.

Scheffing took off his catcher’s mask and stood next to the plate.39 Beans Reardon, in his 24th season as an NL umpire,40 enforced baseball’s offseason rule change on intentional walks,41 directing Scheffing to remain behind home until Leonard threw the ball.42 Grimm argued, but the Cubs complied.43 The bases were loaded.

Haney sent up Les Fleming, a veteran of six seasons with the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers and the 1948 Triple-A International League MVP. Fleming pulled a grounder to Cavarretta, who threw to second in hopes of a double play. Stevens slid in hard, and Fleming beat Smalley’s relay to first, toeing the bag before the ball hit Leonard’s glove. Cassini scored for a 1-0 Pittsburgh lead.

Sewell returned to the mound needing just three more outs. Scheffing hit his first pitch down the left-field line and slid into second, barely beating Kiner’s throw.44 Hank Schenz ran for Scheffing. Sewell approached new third baseman Monty Basgall and informed him, loudly enough for Grimm to hear, to be ready for a play at third on a bunt.45

Jeffcoat instead took a ball, then hit a foul popup to Stevens.46 Smalley, first-pitch swinging, fouled to McCullough for the second out.47

Verban was due next, but Grimm summoned 22-year-old Smoky Burgess for the first at-bat of what turned out to be an 18-season major-league career.48 Sewell’s first pitch was a slider,49 and Burgess, a two-time minor-league batting champion,50 pulled it to right.

The fans cheered for the deep drive.51 Ted Beard, who had replaced Dixie Walker, “ran back and gave the appearance of an outfielder about to watch a home run and nothing he could do about it,” reported the Pittsburgh Press.52

But the wind frustrated Burgess’s shot, as it had for Smalley in the fifth, and Beard made the game-ending catch.53 Sewell had a 90-pitch shutout.54 Leonard threw just 96 pitches.55

Sewell’s lifetime record against Chicago improved to 34-19. “[I]f he never pitches against another club but the Cubs he should still be around on the Pirate payroll until 1965,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette jested.56

As it happened, Sewell’s career wrapped up in 1949. He went 6-1 with a 3.91 ERA in 28 appearances, mostly in relief.57 Leonard switched to the bullpen in 1950 and remained with the Cubs through 1953, tossing his final big-league knuckler at age 44.58

Through 2023, the only other Opening Day matchup of pitchers in their 40s in the NL or AL was in 2005, when 41-year-old Randy Johnson of the New York Yankees faced 41-year-old David Wells of the Boston Red Sox.59



This article was fact-checked by Tom Merrick and copy-edited by Len Levin. The author thanks SABR members Gary Belleville and Kurt Blumenau for their comments on an earlier version of this article and Sports Reference’s Adam Darowski for his support with’s database.



In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted and for pertinent information, including the box score and play-by-play. The author also reviewed game coverage in the Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh Press, and Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph newspapers; and SABR Baseball Biography Project biographies of several players involved in this game, including Warren Corbett’s Dutch Leonard biography and Andy Sturgill’s Smoky Burgess biography.



1 The author conducted a search of the database in March 2024 for all instances of a team’s first game of the season with a starting pitcher age 40 or higher. The database did not identify any Opening Day matchups between starting pitchers in their 40s in the Federal League. The database did not contain game data from any of the Negro Leagues considered as major leagues, or from the nineteenth-century major leagues (American Association, Union Association, Players’ League).

2 Sewell, who debuted in the major leagues by appearing in five games for the 1932 Detroit Tigers, spent the next five seasons in the minors before returning to the majors with the Pirates in 1938. His first big-league win was on May 1, 1939, 10 days before his 32nd birthday. Edward F. Balinger, “Sewell Turns Back Cincinnati, 2-1: Youngster, Rizzo Share Honors as Bucs Snap Streak,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 2, 1939: 15.

3 Shelly Anderson, “Sewell Made His Mark With ‘Ephus’ Pitch,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 5, 1989: 21.

4 Doug Musgrove, “July 3 Would Have Been Rip Sewell Day. It Isn’t and He’s Not Bitter,” Tampa Tribune, July 2, 1981: EH-13.

5 Doug Musgrove, “Candid Rip: For Sewell, Baseball Is Just Not the Same,” Tampa Tribune, July 4, 1981: EH-7; Roy McHugh, “Strike a Blooper to Rip Sewell,” Pittsburgh Press, July 5, 1981: D-2. The pitch is also spelled “ephus.” “Eephus (EP),”, accessed March 23, 2024,

6 Joe Browne, “The ‘Blooper Man’ Recalled,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 12, 1981: 25.

7 Sewell pitched complete games in all seven and recorded a 1.43 ERA over 63 innings. Edward F. Balinger, “Bucs Top Cards in Home Opener, 3 to 2: Rip Sewell Victor Over Warneke,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 18, 1942: 12; Edward F. Balinger, “Sewell Blanks Cubs in Opener, 6 to 0: Rip Yields Only Three Blows; Aided by Rookie’s Hitting,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 22, 1943: 14; Edward F. Balinger, “Reds Top Bucs in Local Opener, 4-2: Joe Beggs Victor Over Rip Sewell, Mueller Homers,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 22, 1944: 7; Edward F. Balinger, “Sewell Turns Back Cubs, 5 to 4: Bucs Score Winning Run in Eighth,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 21, 1945: 7; Les Biederman, “27,981 See Bucs Win Opener, 2-1: Rip Sewell Holds Reds to Four Hits,” Pittsburgh Press, April 21, 1946: 26; Vince Johnson, “Hank’s Double Wins Opener, 1-0: Vet Sewell Slab Victor Over Borowy,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 16, 1947: 18; Vince Johnson, “Sewell, Basgall Homer; Bucs Win, 3-2: Cavarretta Smacks in Both Cub Runs,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 21, 1948: 18.

8 Sewell hit a two-run homer and pitched a six-hit complete game in the Pirates’ 3-2 win on April 20. Johnson, “Sewell, Basgall Homer.”

9 The Pirates were in second place, 2½ games behind the Braves, on September 13, but they lost 9 of their next 11 to fall from contention. Chester L. Smith, “Bucs Start Crucial Eastern Test Against Giants: Lombardi Takes Mound Tonight; Rip Sewell Shackles Cubs, 7-3,” Pittsburgh Press, September 13, 1948: 18.

10 Tom Anderson, “Nashville And Columbus Battle Ten Innings to a Tie: Rookie Sewell Is Impressive in His First Appearance,” Nashville Banner, April 4, 1931: 10; Tom Anderson, “A True Success Story Starring Truett Sewell,” Nashville Banner, August 25, 1931: 12.

11 Freddie Russell, “Klugman Picks Class ‘A’ Men for 1931 Vol Squad: Pipgras, Leonard and Head Cut Off; Anderson Remains,” Nashville Banner, April 13, 1931: 10. Leonard went on to pitch for four different Class A or Class B clubs in 1931. Bob Sink, “Along the Line,” Decatur (Illinois) Herald, August 18, 1931: 26.

12 Leonard began throwing the knuckleball after injuring his arm in a high-school basketball game in 1927. Irving Vaughan, “Leonard’s Life Began at 40; Cubs’ Fireman Likes Chores,” Chicago Tribune, March 24, 1953: 4,3.

13 On December 14, 1948, the Cubs traded first baseman Eddie Waitkus and pitcher Hank Borowy to the Phillies for Leonard and pitcher Walter “Monk” Dubiel. Edward Burns, “Cubs Get Leonard and Dubiel From Phils: Waitkus And Borowy Go in Player Deal,” Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1948: 4,1.

14 Cubs manager Charlie Grimm announced Leonard as Chicago’s Opening Day starter on April 16, three days before the game. Edward Burns, “Bradley Will Hurl Against Sloat Today,” Chicago Tribune, April 17, 1949: 2,4.

15 Leonard had a perfect 6-0 record against the Pirates in 1947.

16 The Pirates had purchased the 32-year-old Dickson, a 15-game winner for the St. Louis Cardinals’ 1946 World Series champions, from the Cardinals in January 1949. Charles J. Doyle, “Pirates Buy Murry Dickson from Cards: Cash Deal Gives Bucs Ace Pitcher,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, January 30, 1949: 28.

17 The April 19 edition of the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph asserted that Sewell was Pittsburgh’s likely Opening Day starter, but that Pirates manager Bill Meyer “was reserving the right to withdraw Sewell at game time and start Murry Dickson.” Edward Burns, “Baseball Today! Cubs Open With Pirates: Leonard and Dickson Are Hurling Foes,” Chicago Tribune, April 19, 1949: 3,1; Jack Henry, “It’s a Battle of Ages as Cubs’ Leonard Faces Bucs’ Sewell,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, April 19, 1949: 1.

18 Chilly Doyle, “Chilly Sauce: Sewell Has Great Sense of Humor,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, April 20, 1949: 27.

19 Lester Biederman, “The Scoreboard,” Pittsburgh Press, April 20, 1949: 34.

20 The American League’s only active players over 40 on Opening Day 1949 were Cleveland Indians pitcher Satchel Paige and Chicago White Sox shortstop Luke Appling, both age 42.

21 Newspaper coverage during Sewell’s and Leonard’s playing careers listed each pitcher a year younger than their actual ages. Sewell’s birthday was commonly cited as May 11, 1908, not 1907. A 1957 article on Leonard noted that, “[l]ike many ball players, he has passed as being born March 25, 1910, in the books when actually he was born in 1909 and thus will be 48 years old next month.” Grantland Rice, “All Three Sewells Have Done Very Well on Baseball Fields,” Pittsburgh Press, May 8, 1949: 55; Merle Jones, “Egypt Sport Talk,” Southern Illinoisan (Carbondale, Illinois), February 10, 1957: 9.

22 Edward Prell, “First Day Jinx Hits Leonard for Third Time,” Chicago Tribune, April 20, 1949: 3,1.

23 Biederman, “The Scoreboard.”

24 Al Abrams, “Sidelights on Sports,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 20, 1949: 18.

25 The clubs also exchanged young pitchers in the deal. Right-hander Cal McLish went to the Cubs, and lefty Cliff Chambers went to the Pirates. Irving Vaughan, “Cubs Get Gustine; M’Cullough, Chambers Go: Pirates Also Send McLish to Chicago,” Chicago Tribune, December 9, 1948: 4,1; “Pirates Look Ahead to New Deals: McCullough, Chambers for Gustine, McLish First Swap for Bucs,” Pittsburgh Press, December 9, 1948: 48.

26 “For some reason or another the Chicago fans booed Clyde McCullough every time the big fellow’s name was mentioned,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette observed. “Chesnes to Pitch Here Against Cincinnati Friday: Murry Dickson Given Assignment Against Cubs in Chicago Wednesday,” April 20, 1949: 18.

27 No error was charged on the play. Edward Burns, “Error Helps Sewell Beat Emil Leonard: 34th Victory Over Chicago for Rip,” Chicago Tribune, April 20, 1949: 3,1.

28 Jack Hernon, “Sewell Shuts Out Cubs in Opener, 1-0: Pirates Register Unearned Run off Leonard in Ninth,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 20, 1949: 18.

29 Biederman, “The Scoreboard.”

30 Lester J. Biederman, “Sewell Hurls Mound Masterpiece: Rip Whitewashes Cubs for His 10th Straight Opening Game Victory,” Pittsburgh Press, April 20, 1949: 34.

31 Jack Henry, “Dickson Seeks 2d for Bucs,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, April 20, 1949: 1.

32 Prell, “First Day Jinx Hits Leonard for Third Time.”

33 Biederman, “Sewell Hurls Mound Masterpiece.”

34 Doyle, “Chilly Sauce.”

35 Hernon, “Sewell Shuts out Cubs in Opener, 1-0.”

36 Biederman, “The Scoreboard.”

37 The 29-year-old Cassini was appearing in his first of eight major-league games, all as a pinch-runner. His 33 stolen bases in 1948 led the American Association, and he stole 283 bases in the minor leagues from 1946 through 1955. Chester L. Smith, “The Village Smithy,” Pittsburgh Press, February 24, 1949: 38.

38 Forrest R. Kyle, “Once Over Lightly,” Decatur (Illinois) Review, April 20, 1949: 13.

39 Abrams, “Sidelights on Sports.”

40 Reardon informed reporters during the season-opening series that he was retiring after the 1949 season. Arch Ward, “In the Wake of the News,” Chicago Tribune, April 21, 1949: 4,1.

41 “Minor Changes in Baseball’s Playing Code: Catcher Must Stay in His Box for Intentional ‘Walk,”” Montreal Daily Star, March 5, 1949: 14.

42 Abrams, “Sidelights on Sports.”

43 Abrams, “Sidelights on Sports.”

44 Biederman, “Sewell Hurls Mound Masterpiece.”

45 Henry, “Dickson Seeks 2d for Bucs.”

46 Hernon, “Sewell Shuts out Cubs in Opener, 1-0.”

47 Hernon, “Sewell Shuts out Cubs in Opener, 1-0.”

48 Burgess played for the Pirates from 1959 through 1964, getting selected for six biannual All-Star Games and batting .294 in 110 games for Pittsburgh’s 1960 World Series champions. At his retirement in 1967, Burgess’s 145 career pinch-hits ranked first in major-league history; as of 2024, he ranked fourth all-time behind Lenny Harris (212), Mark Sweeney (175), and Manny Mota (150).

49 Biederman, “The Scoreboard.”

50 As a member of the Fayetteville Cubs, Burgess led the Class B Tri-State League in 1947 with a .387 batting average. His .386 average with the Nashville Volunteers paced the Double-A Southern Association in 1948.

51 Biederman, “Sewell Hurls Mound Masterpiece.”

52 Biederman, “Sewell Hurls Mound Masterpiece.”

53 Biederman, “Sewell Hurls Mound Masterpiece.”

54 Biederman, “The Scoreboard.”

55 Biederman, “The Scoreboard.”

56 Abrams, “Sidelights on Sports.”

57 Les Biederman, “Pirates Release Dixie Walker and Rip Sewell: Kiner Unsuccessful in Bid for N.L. Home Run Record,” Pittsburgh Press, October 3, 1949: 21.

58 Vaughan, “Leonard’s Life Began at 40.”

59 Johnson and the Yankees beat Wells and the Red Sox, 9-2. Chris Snow, “Boomerang: Wells Struggles in Red Sox Debut, Can’t Beat Yankees in Return to the Stadium,” Boston Globe, April 4, 2005: D1.

Additional Stats

Pittsburgh Pirates 1
Chicago Cubs 0

Wrigley Field
Chicago, IL


Box Score + PBP:

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