Opening Day, the Baseball Holiday

Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series
Written by: Matt Rothenberg

As the calendar turns from March to April, a madness turn into a fever.

Spring fever, that is. And it seems like the only prescription for spring fever is a trip to one’s local ballpark for Opening Day.

The 2015 season marked the 140th Opening Day for Major League Baseball. The first Opening Day, also the first game played in the National League, was on April 22, 1876. Boston defeated the Philadelphia Athletics 6-5 at the Jefferson Street Grounds in Philadelphia.

Future Hall of Famer George Wright, playing shortstop for Boston, was the first batter in National League history, while “Orator Jim” O’Rourke, another future inductee, patrolled center field for the visitors that Saturday.

The New York Clipper, in describing the day’s events, noted the “weather was favorable and the attendance large, over three thousand persons being inside the inclosure (sic).”

Starting at 3:40 pm, the game lasted just over two hours and “was sharply played throughout, the Bostons winning by their superior fielding and base-running.” Indeed, Boston broke a 4-4 deadlock with two runs in the top of the ninth inning, thanks to “desperate base-running,” and withstood a Philadelphia rally to win the game.

Despite Philadelphia and Boston having the honor of playing the first Opening Day game in Major League Baseball history, over the years another city has come to be associated with the season’s lid-lifter. Cincinnati has always been a proud baseball town, and as long as there has been a major league team in the Queen City, odds are that there would be a home game on Opening Day.

The Queen City

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But why Cincinnati?

The answer does not seem to be clear and may involve multiple possibilities.

Some have speculated that since the Cincinnati Red Stockings were the first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati franchise has been scheduled to open at home – often as the first game on the schedule – nearly every season since 1876. According to Greg Rhodes, the Reds’ Team Historian, “it appears it was a combination of geography, opportunism, and money,” though the true reason has been lost to the history books.

As Cincinnati was often among the southern-most cities in the league, Rhodes explained, it made sense to have a slightly milder climate play host to games in mid- to late-April. Fields might be in better shape than those in cities such as Chicago or Boston.

Additionally, as competing major leagues entered the baseball scene, it became important to draw more fans in order to survive. Knowing that the Reds would open at home became a selling point for Frank Bancroft, the Reds’ business manager.

“The Reds could make this an annual affair, and [in] 1890, after the Reds re-joined the National League, Bancroft tirelessly promoted the opener,” Rhodes mentioned. “And for that, Bancroft, or ‘Banny’ as he was fondly called, is remembered as the ‘Father of Opening Day.’”

Though the Reds no longer host the first MLB game played each season, they still have one of baseball’s most enduring Opening Day traditions. As Opening Day became an event in Cincinnati, other attractions were added. Simple parades promoted the game and featured marching bands and both teams. As more businesses and fan clubs got involved, the parades became larger and more organized. But in 1920, the fans from the Findlay Market set the stage for a Cincinnati tradition.

To celebrate the team’s victory in the 1919 World Series, shop owners and other fans walked roughly one mile from the Findlay Market – Ohio’s oldest continuously operating public market – to Crosley Field, to await the first pitch of the 1920 season. Rhodes described it as resembling “one large roving tailgate party,” but it soon became the biggest and best run of all the parades.

The Reds and the Findlay Market Association continued the tradition after the team left Crosley Field. Former Cincinnati owner Marge Schott once said, “The Findlay Market Parade is Opening Day! Without the parade it just wouldn’t be Opening Day!”

Today, the 96th Findlay Market Parade, featuring nearly 180 marching groups, will wind its way from Findlay Market to downtown Cincinnati in time for the Reds’ tilt against Pittsburgh at Great American Ball Park.

Exposition Park in Pittsburgh, Pa. hosted Federal League Pittsburgh versus Brooklyn on Opening Day, April 14, 1914. - BL-7390-85 (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

Capital idea

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Cincinnati might get a lot of attention on Opening Day, but the National Pastime in our nation’s capital is not to be outdone for tradition.

Since President William Howard Taft’s toss to Washington’s Walter Johnson at National Park in 1910, nearly every President of the United States has made a ceremonial first pitch prior to a home opener. (Jimmy Carter was the only one not to do so.) While the Senators were in Washington, Griffith Stadium and D.C. (later RFK) Stadium were the places to be on Opening Day for presidential pomp and circumstance.

When there was no baseball in Washington, Baltimore became a handy alternative, but when baseball returned in 2005, so did the presidential first pitches on Opening Day.

President George W. Bush hurled the ceremonial first pitches before the first Washington Nationals home game in 2005 and before their first-ever home game at Nationals Park in 2008.

Two years later, on the 100th anniversary of Taft’s first pitch, Barack Obama did the honors at Nationals Park, rankling some observers for wearing a Chicago White Sox cap (in celebration of his favorite MLB team) in addition to his Nationals jacket.

Holiday spirit

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Opening Day is an affair in the capital, but does the day deserve to have the “O” and “D” capitalized? After all, Labor Day and Memorial Day receive the proper noun treatment, as most holidays do.

Baseball fans consider Opening Day a holiday. Movements have been made – so far, unsuccessfully – to make Opening Day an official city holiday in Cincinnati. Last year, Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith was at the forefront of a group aiming to make it a national holiday, collecting signatures for a petition through the federal government’s We the People petitioning program.

“There are 22 million people who have, some point in time, played hooky from work or school, so it’s already an unofficial holiday,” Smith told MLB.com. “The excitement that is created by Opening Day – not only in St. Louis, but across the country – is what this is all about.”

View during the National Anthem on Opening Day before the game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park on Tuesday, April 8, 2014 in San Francisco, California. - BL-477579863BM (Brad Mangin / National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

Though capital letters weren’t always used to describe Opening Day, Paul Dickson, in his eponymous work, The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, says that the term is usually capitalized, as is its counterpart, Opening Night. Many baseball fans fall in line with Smith’s thinking, as it represents an unofficial holiday and an excuse to skip school or call in sick to the office. MLB.com’s style guide concurs with Dickson, and the SABR style guide suggests that the letters only be capitalized when referring to a specific season’s Opening Day. Otherwise, generic opening days, such as those of a series, remain lower case.

However, Opening Day is hardly a generic day or concept. Major League Baseball has produced logos specifically for Opening Day since at least as early as 2002. Topps has created “Opening Day” baseball card sets over the past 16 seasons. As the Reds’ Frank Bancroft discovered at the turn of the previous century, if there is money to be made on Opening Day, individuals will find a way to make it happen.

Yet those who profit on Opening Day are baseball fans throughout the world, for it is an opportunity to begin the season with a sense of renewed hope and optimism. Every team starts the day with a clean slate and an equal chance to win the World Series.

Officially or not, it is every baseball fan’s holiday.


Matt Rothenberg is the manager of the Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Records and Memorable Moments

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(Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, Baseball-Almanac.com and Opening Day: All Major League Baseball Season Opening Games, by Team, 1876-1998, by Don Kerr)

Records

• Most Opening Day Starts (Pitchers): Tom Seaver – 16
• Most Opening Day Grand Slams, Career: Sixto Lezcano – 2 (1978 & 1980)
• Most Opening Day Home Runs, Career: Frank Robinson – 8
• Most Opening Day Shutouts, Career: Walter Johnson – 7
• Fewest Hits Allowed on Opening Day: Bob Feller – 0
• Best Record (Pitcher), Career (minimum two decisions): Jimmy Key – 7-0
• Worst Record (Pitcher), Career (minimum two decisions): Phil Niekro – 0-7
• Hit For The Cycle: Gee Walker, Detroit (1937)
• Most Runs in One Game, Team: 21 – Cleveland (1925)
• Most Strikeouts in One Game (Pitcher): 15 – Camilo Pascual, Washington (1960)
• Most Home Runs in One Game: 3 – George Bell, Toronto (1988), Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes, Chicago Cubs (1994), and Dmitri Young, Detroit (2005)
• Longest Game, Innings: 16 - Toronto at Cleveland (2012)
• Highest Percentage of Opening Day Games Won, Through 2014 Season: 74.2% – Toronto (Highest in National League: 60% - New York Mets)
• Most Opening Day Wins: 78 – New York/San Francisco Giants (National League 1883-date)
• Most Opening Day Losses: 69 - Cincinnati (American Association 1882-1889, National League 1890-date)

Memorable Moments

• 1975: Cleveland’s Frank Robinson becomes first African American manager in MLB history.
• 1974: Atlanta’s Hank Aaron hits home run #714 in Cincinnati.
• 1947: Brooklyn’s Jackie Robinson make his major league debut.
• 1907: New York Giants forfeit opening day to Philadelphia after umpire Bill Klem is hit by a snowball. Due to a snowstorm, large piles of snow were in foul territory. After the Giants fell behind, fans began to throw snowballs onto the field and began to rush the field.

From the Collection

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Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series