There are 161 games left after Opening Day, but some players have performances that get remembered all season — and long afterward.
Here are a few selected stories and clips from the SABR archives of players with memorable exploits on Opening Day:
Lefty Grove and Mickey Cochrane, 1925
Two Hall of Famers made their debuts in the same game for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s. Grove walked four and struck out one batter, and was knocked out in the fourth inning by the Boston Red Sox. Cochrane contributed a single in two at-bats. Read Bill Loughman’s article from the 1977 Baseball Research Journal on the Opening Day games of April 14, 1925.
Walter Johnson, 1926
The Hall of Fame right-hander still holds the record for the highest Bill James Game Score on Opening Day, recording an impressive 111 with his 15-inning shutout of the powerful Philadelphia A’s — who had two future Hall of Famers in the lineup — on April 13, 1926. It was the 38th (and final) 1-0 victory of Johnson’s career, a mark no one has come close to surpassing. Read our SABR BioProject biography of “The Big Train” written by Charles Carey.
Jackie Robinson, 1947
Jack Roosevelt Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ rookie first baseman, had an unspectacular debut on April 15, 1947, going 0-for-3 and scoring a run in a 5-3 win over the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field. But it was the most important Opening Day in baseball history: For the first time in the modern era, an African-American ballplayer took the field in a major league game. Robinson went on to a Hall of Fame career, earning Rookie of the Year honors in ’47 and later an MVP award in 1949. Read a special excerpt on Robinson’s major-league debut written by Lyle Spatz from The Team That Forever Changed Baseball and America: The 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers.
Phil Niekro, 1970
“Knucksie” won 318 games in his Hall of Fame career — but none in nine Opening Day starts between 1970 and 1985. His best performance was in 1979, when he allowed three hits in eight innings against the Houston Astros, but was outpitched by J.R. Richard and Joaquin Andujar in a 2-1 loss. His brother Joe, a two-time 20-game winner, didn’t fare much better, losing all four of his Opening Day starts. Read “The Opening Day Woes of the Niekro Brothers,” by Lyle Spatz in the 1998 Baseball Research Journal.
Fernando Valenzuela, 1981
The Dodgers’ rookie southpaw was just 20 years old when he became a national phenomenon on Opening Day 1981. Valenzuela was moved up to pitch the opener due to an injury to Jerry Reuss. His five-hit shutout of the defending NL West champion Houston Astros caught everybody’s attention. Read Vic Wilson’s profile of “Fernandomania” in the 2011 edition of The National Pastime, Endless Seasons: Baseball in Southern California.
Click here to read more Opening Day stories at the SABR Games Project.
Happy baseball season!
Originally published: March 28, 2012. Last Updated: March 28, 2012.