The start of the MLB season has often served as an indicator of things to come
Baseball’s Opening Day is the most pleasant start to any sport, with its warm afternoon games and comparatively relaxed game-day atmosphere. As you are enjoying a hot dog and beer and watching the game, it is hard to get too worked up about your team’s performance. After all, it is just one of 162 games. Does it actually portend how the season will go? Well, let’s take a look a look at the opening days of 10 of the most significant seasons in baseball history. You’ll see the results are mixed.
The Chicago Cubs were back-to-back World Series champions and looked to be on their way to a third as they started the season with a 3-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. The teams played a scoreless first five innings before the Cubs got on the board in the sixth with a two-run triple by Heine Zimmerman. Chicago won 104 games and in today’s era, would have easily made the playoffs, but this was the era where only the teams that led their respective leagues made the World Series. The Pittsburgh Pirates won 110 games and went to the Fall Classic, where they beat the Detroit Tigers. The Cubs, of course, would not win a World Series again until 2016.
The New York Yankees had purchased Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox earlier that year and the opener in Philadelphia against the Athletics marked his first appearance. The Bambino’s debut produced mixed results, as he got two hits, but dropped a pop fly in the eighth inning that cost the Yankees the game. New York would quickly see that it made the right move as Ruth smashed an MLB-record 54 home runs and put the Yankees in pennant contention that season.
The Yankees bombarded the Athletics with its legendary “Murderers’ Row” of Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Earl Combs and Joe Dugan all getting hits in an 8-3 win (Ruth actually struck out twice). New York would go 110-44, finish 19 games ahead of second-place Philadelphia to win the pennant, and sweep the Pirates in the World Series, with Ruth hitting 60 homers along the way. The 1927 Yankees are generally considered to be the best team in baseball history.
Ted Williams had been recovering from a foot injury since mid-March, but came off the bench to deliver a pinch-hit single in the ninth inning as the Red Sox rallied to beat the Washington Senators 7-6. It would be one of many clutch hits Williams would make on his way to batting .406 for the year, the last time any player has finished above the .400 mark. The day earlier, the Senators had hosted their own opening day against the Yankees and gave up two hits to Joe DiMaggio in a 3-0 loss. The next month, DiMaggio would begin his epic 56-game hitting streak.
The 1961 home run race between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris is considered to be one of the most exciting in baseball history, but it did not start off with a bang. Mantle went 0-for-4 and Maris went 0-for-3 in an opening loss to the Minnesota Twins. The Mick hit his first home run six days later to kick things off, but Maris did not hit his first until April 26. The latter finished the season with a record 61 homers.
This year brings us perhaps the greatest example of how Opening Day is not always a sign of things to come. The New York Mets committed three errors in an 11-10 loss to the Montreal Expos and then proceeded to go 3-7 in their first 10 games. The seven-year-old franchise had never been over .500 after its ninth game of any season and after going 18-23 in its first 41 games of 1969, the Mets appeared to be on their way to another losing effort. Then “The Amazin’ Mets” made one of the greatest turnarounds of all time. They went 82-39 in their remaining games, blowing past the Cubs, who had a 10-game lead on them in mid-August. The Mets then swept the Atlanta Braves in the pennant and beat the Baltimore Orioles in five games in the World Series, capping one of the most miraculous seasons in MLB history.
The season opened with a lot of “firsts”: 1) the first season using the current three-division format, 2) the first night game to kick off the season prior to the traditional Opening Day (The Cincinnati Reds hosted the St. Louis Cardinals, but lost 6-4.), and 3) Cubs outfielder Tuffy Rhodes becoming the first player to hit three home runs in his first three at-bats of the season (The Cubs still lost to the Mets 12-8.) Sadly, one of the most exciting seasons in baseball history became the first to be cancelled because of a players’ strike that began in August.
The strike continued into 1995 and came to an end, thanks to a ruling by then-U.S. District Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor, and the shortened 144-game season began on April 25. Fans did not welcome the sport back with open arms. Thousands of seats were empty in stadiums across the country and players were booed. In Cincinnati, a small plane circled Riverfront Stadium with a banner, reading: “Owners & Players: To Hell With All of You.” Things would return to normal, but it would be a few more years before baseball got its groove back.
For better or for worse, the 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa washed away the bitterness of the ‘94 season for many fans. And that race started quickly. McGwire hit a grand slam in the fifth inning, as the Cardinals beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 6-0 on Opening Day. Sosa had two hits in a loss to the Marlins, but would not hit his first home run until the fifth game of the season. McGwire finished with 70 home runs and Sosa had 66.
We now come full circle with the Cubs, who racked up 11 hits in a 9-0 walloping of the Anaheim Angels on Opening Day. Chicago got off to a 17-5 start and finished the season 17.5 games ahead of archrival St. Louis. That being said, we are talking about the Cubs and fans did not breathe a sigh of relief until they were able to fly the W after an epic Game 7 against Cleveland that brought Chicago its first world championship since 1908.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.