A Unique Opening Day Feat

Guest Writer Sidd Finch recalls Eddie Smith's 1940 Opening Day loss.

Hello, unfortunately, Mat suffered a serious hand injury due to an incident with a bottle opener and something called “Commodore Perry IPA”. To start the baseball season off, he invited me, Sidd Finch, to author my favorite opening day memory. It is interesting to be on this side of the keyboard after experiencing being written about by George Plimpton for Sports Illustrated in 1985.

If you don’t know about me, I almost made my major league debut in 1985. I enjoyed my brief time with the Mets, which involved some familiar names. Mel Stottlemyre was a wonderful man and a terrific teacher, indulging in a student that insisted on pitching with a heavy hiking boot and occasionally playing the French Horn instead of honing my new craft: pitching. Lenny Dykstra was a little more than I can take, yet I was still saddened by his circumstances in life. Both George Foster and Darryl Strawberry were so generous with their time in helping me learn about baseball, encouraging me, praising my improvement as a pitcher, and welcoming me as neighbors in the clubhouse. Their kindness, as with most of the team, will always be a warm memory.

Despite my ability to throw a 160+ MPH fastball, I decided that my teaching from great poet-saint Lama Milaraspa would simply not allow me to pursue baseball, no matter how great the game is. To the fans that experienced disappointment with my decision, I am truly sorry.

But I am not here to talk about myself. Today is Opening Day and I want to talk about poor Eddie Smith’s opening day loss on April 16, 1940.

April 16, 1940, was a cold and windy day in Chicago, with the wind deciding to blow in from centerfield. The kind of day that knocks flyballs down and just sets the mood for a pitcher’s duel.

All in all, Mr. Smith pitched a very good game. Only allowing a single run over eight innings, he gave up six hits, walking only two batters and striking out five. On most days, that certainly would have been enough to give the Chicago White Sox an opening day victory.

His opponent from the Cleveland team was a 21-year-old from Iowa, Bob Feller. I meet Mr. Feller twice. The first time, when I also meet Mat, was during the 2008 SABR conference in Cleveland, Ohio. Mr. Feller was nice and, like Mat, recognized me. Mr. Feller invited me to visit the Bob Feller Museum in his hometown of Van Meter, Iowa. I took up the offer without hesitation.

When I finally did arrive, I soon found myself with on the received end of his stories: barnstorming with Jackie Robinson. How by pure random luck, his baseball bat was used by the great Babe Ruth for balance on June 13, 1948, for Mr. Ruth’s final public appearance at the house that he built. He spoke of his friend and teacher Mel Harder, who helped him as a young 17-year-old find the strike zone and then later gave instruction to improve his curveball. He mesmerized me with tales of comparing grips with Satchel Paige and sharing with me how Tris Speaker helped a young Larry Doby learn to play center field while struggling to be the first to integrate in the American League.

Must have worked out, despite missing three years of his prime while serving in World War II, Mr. Feller made the Baseball Hall of Fame. Mr. Feller seems more proud of his military service than his Hall of Fame achievement.

But, Mr. Feller’s final story on that day, curiously, was about April 16, 1940, a game he admits he didn’t feel would go well for him. The cold, windy weather in Chicago kept all but about 14,000 hardy fans away from the game. Despite being bolstered by having his father, mother, and sister at the game, he was not comfortable while preparing for the game. The cold weather was affecting the grip on the ball and he considered that the wind blowing in from centerfield would wreak havoc with his curveball. His curveball would be a problem during the game.

Despite his age, he seemed to recall the game as if he had a video of it inside his head. He recalls that he had five walks in his battle against Eddie Smith. He had one walk and two strikeouts and in the first inning.
Two walks in the second inning, along with an error on a misplayed flyball, allowed the White Sox to load the bases in the second inning. He ended that inning by striking out Bob Kennedy but surrendered his curveball to the elements.

The plan worked. He only allowed two more walks for the next seven innings. At the same time, he had to rely on his defense, since his reliance on his fastball would only garner him four more strikeouts in the next seven innings.

“I gained control, reduced the walks and the strikeouts. Let them hit the ball in the air where the wind would kill it,” he said to nobody in particular.

But for the next seven innings, only two Sox runners would reach second base.

The Cleveland batters were also stymied by Eddie Smith, who would make the 1941 All-Star team with Mr. Feller. In the fourth inning, Jeff Heath’s single and Rollie Hemsley’s triple would provide the only run of the game. The closest Cleveland got to scoring again was during the seventh inning. Ray Mack doubled to lead off the inning. Mr. Feller hit into a fielder’s choice, advancing to second as Mack was out at third base. He was stranded at second and was the last runner, on either team, to make it past first.

Given the tightness of the score, Eddie Smith was removed for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the eighth inning. “He didn’t get a chance to start what he finished,” Mr. Feller raced on excitedly. I didn’t dare correct him.

“I was the first person to do it!”

“Do what?” I naively asked.

“Pitch a no-hitter on Opening Day!” Mr. Feller blasted, forgetting that I was an English orphan that only dabbled in baseball for a short time.

“I pitched three no-hitters in my career. Come close to more with the 12 one-hitters I pitched. My first no-hitter was on Opening Day!” he proudly said. Pausing for effect, he continued.

“Nobody else had done it!” He howled with joy and puffed his chest.

He then sternly looked at me and almost in a whisper continued, “Thankfully, he decided to play the damn French horn or golf or something. You could have topped me. Thrown a perfect game! On your first start! You could have!”

Then, without prompting he took my French horn case and signed it, “Thanks! Bob Feller”.

I thanked him for his time and for sharing his wonderful stories with me.

Every year, when Opening Day happens in the sport I almost played, I remember the enthusiasm as Mr. Feller told his story. The growing twinkle in his eyes, frantic gestures that were part of his storytelling. He loved the game and it showed.

So, as I am sure you all do, I look forward to a season full of stories and I can only hope your stories ending up being on the side of Mr. Feller’s stories and not the unfortunate side of Mr. Smith.

Sidd Finch.

 

Mat Kovach

Despite being an Indians fan in the late 70's I grew to love baseball. I started throwing spitballs when I was 10 and have been fascinated with competitive shenanigans in baseball ever since.

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