500 HRC Members Led The Way On Opening Day
Written by Jim Rednour   
Monday, 01 April 2013

Other sports have season openers, but the “Opening Day” of America’s Pastime marks the ceremonial beginning of spring. Every MLB team starts the season with a clean slate and fans never know what they may see on Opening Day…like a game winning home run from one of history’s greatest sluggers – a 500 Home Run Club member.

The 2009 Season Opener could be a historic day for Gary Sheffield, who ended the 2008 season just one home run shy of the legendary 500 home run mark.  He would like to start off with a bang like “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron did in 1974 and Willie Mays did in 1971. 

Aaron Was Awesome On Opening Day

After slamming 40 long balls at the age of 39 in 1973, he stood on the threshold of breaking a record few thought would ever be broken.  But when the last game of the ’73 season was in the record books – Aaron still wasn’t, having ended the season just a single home run shy of tying Babe Ruth’s long-time record of 714.  

So, after the spending the entire season savoring the prospect of catching – and then passing – Ruth, Aaron stood at the Riverfront Stadium plate on Opening Day April 4th ready to reach for immortality.  Fans didn’t have to wait long for on his first swing of the game Hank crushed a Jack Billingham pitch over the left field fence to tie The Babe on the all-time list.

Four days later on April 8th, Hank and The Braves returned to Atlanta for the Home Opener before a national TV audience.  He proceed to stroke a 1-0 Al Downing pitch over the left field fence for his 715th career homer and baseball history was made.

Willie Mays Opens in Style

Just one month shy of his 40th birthday, Willie Mays hit homer number 629 on the first pitch he saw on Opening Day April 6, 1971, to lead the Giants over the Padres 4–0 Giants.  Mays hit seven Opening Day home runs, but this one late in his Hall-of-Fame career was perhaps the most memorable because it marked the start of a historic streak. Following the Opener, Mays went on to hit home runs in each of the Giants’ next three games, setting a MLB record of homering in four straight games to open a season.

Opening Day has witnessed many other historical performances:

Teenage Ken Griffey, Jr. Rocks Spring Training, Opening Day

When 19 year-old Ken Griffey, Jr. reported to Seattle’s spring training camp in 1989, conventional logic said he had little-or-no chance of making the team. But after 20 pre-season games it became evident that he wasn't just the best player on the Mariners’ team, he was the best player in the league that spring.  

After making the opening day roster, he continued to impress…especially on Opening Day 1989, when on his first at-bat at the Seattle Kingdome, he hit a home run on the first pitch he saw from the White Sox's Eric King. Griffey went on to hit 16 home runs that season -- in baseball history, only Tony Conigliaro and Mel Ott hit more homers as teenagers.

Frank Robinson Was The King of Opening Day

While three 500 Home Run Club LLC members (Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Eddie Mathews) each blasted seven Opening Day homers, no batter ever hit as many home runs on Opening Day as their fellow club member Frank Robinson. The Hall of Fame outfielder belted eight career home runs on the first day of the season, three for Cincinnati, three for Baltimore, one for California, and one for Cleveland.

In addition to his record for most Opening Day homers, no other batter has equaled Robinson's feat of hitting Opening Day homers for four different teams.  Robinson's final Opening Day homer, for Cleveland on April 8, 1975, came as a player/manager in his first at-bat in that role, as he became the first African-American manager in major league history.

Ted Williams Was Splendid On Opening Day

The “Splendid Splinter” Ted Williams was a .449 hitter (22-for-49) in 14 season openers, with three home runs and fourteen runs batted in. "Teddy Ballgame" also boasted at least one hit in every Opening Day game he appeared in.  In addition to three first-day dingers he tallied seven doubles, one triple, 14 RBIs and nine runs scored.  Williams' first Opening Day (April 20, 1939) was especially noteworthy as he faced the rival New York Yankees and Lou Gehrig, who was playing in his 2,123rd consecutive game.

Ruth Ruled on Opening Day

On Opening Day April 18, 1923, Babe Ruth walked into the recently built Yankee Stadium in New York and said "I'd give a year of my life if I could hit a homerun on Opening Day of this great new park."  And he proceeded to do just that.

Fittingly the first home run in the first game in the new Yankee Stadium came against Babe’s former team the Boston Red Sox. Even more fitting Ruth’s three-run blast gave the Bronx Bombers a 4-1 victory in front of a record 74,200 mostly-Yankee fans - an amazing number given that previous attendance record for a single MLB game was 42,000 for the 1916 World Series in Boston. As a response to Babe's opening day homerun, sportswriter Fred Lieb referred to Yankee Stadium in his column as "The House That Ruth Built".   

Ruth celebrated Opening Day and he knew how important it was to keep New York fans on his side by getting off to a good start.  In 18 opening-day games, The Bambino batted .422 with seven dingers, five doubles, and a triple.

Eddie Mathews Hits Two in Opener – Twice

Eddie Mathews was one of only two players have had two two-homer games in season openers – and he achieved this feat on two separate occasions.  Mathews hit two home runs for Milwaukee when it opened the season at Cincinnati on April 13, 1954 and against Pittsburgh on April 15, 1958. 

Mantle’s Opening Day Quartet

Mickey Mantle hit four opening day homers.  After hitting a game winning homer on Opening Day April 13, 1955, Mickey started the following year with a bang by blasting two tremendous Opening Day homers against the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium in Washington, DC. on April 17, 1956.  

President Eisenhower cheered Mickey from his seat behind the Senators dugout. Both homers are searing line drives that go over 500 feet, each clearing the 31-foot wall in centerfield. The first landed atop a house across from the park and the second hit a clump of trees and rolled onto Fifth Street. Only Babe Ruth had ever hit a ball into the trees outside Griffith Stadium.

April 10, 1962: Mickey hits his last Opening Day home run on April 10, 1962. It flew some 425 feet into the right-centerfield bleachers at Yankee Stadium and the Yankees nipped Baltimore 7-6.

Mike Schmidt’s Opening Day Walk-Off

On Opening Day 1974. with the Phillies trailing 4-3 In the bottom of the ninth inning, 500 Home Run Club member Mike Schmidt hit a walk-off home run to win the game against Tug McGraw of the New York Mets. He only hit two more home runs in April, but flirted with .300 all season, finishing at .282 with the first of three consecutive home run championships.

Mel Ott Final Career Homer Came on Opening Day

The final home run of 500 HRC Club member Mel Ott's career (511) came in an opening day game on April 6, 1946 against the Phillies at the Polo Grounds. Ott, the Giants' player-manager, hit a first-inning homer in an 8-4 New York win. His 511 homers were a National League record for 20 years until Willie Mays broke it in 1966.

Big Mac Attacks Opening Day

When 500 Home Run Club member Mark McGwire hit a grand slam against the Dodgers to win the first game of the 1998 season, he became the first Cardinal to hit a grand slam on opening day in the club's 107-year history.  McGwire then hit homers for four straight games as he began his attack of the record books.  He slugged 27 homers by the end of May and had 50 on August 20; to become the first player in baseball history to hit 50 in 3 straight years. He smashed all records as he hit an amazing 70 for the year.

Yankees Honor Mantle and Maris at Home Opener, but Jackson Steals the Show

In what was supposed to be a day to honor the return of 500 Home Run Club members Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris—the M & M boys, the heroics of a rising Yankee star (and eventual 500 Home Run Club member) Reggie Jackson and a certain candy bar bearing his name – captured the headlines.   

The good folks at Standard Brands Confectionary came up with the idea of handing out free REGGIE! Candy bars to fans attending the home opener of Reggie Jackson’s second season with the Yankees.   The candy itself wasn't half bad; a 25-cent concoction of chocolate, peanuts and corn syrup, wrapped in a square, orange little package with a picture of Jackson in mid-swing on the front.

In the first inning, with two men on, Jackson pumped a knuckleball that didn't knuckle over the fence in deep right-center field.  As soon as it was out of the park, while Reggie was still making his way around the bases, the first bars began to come down. They kept coming for the next five minutes; a rain of orange-and-blue squares, covering the grass in right and left fields—while the big crowd stood and roared, and chanted, ''Reggie! Reggie!'' The grounds crew had it cleaned up in no time, and the Yanks breezed to a 4-2.

Reggie, with his usual showman's eye, took it all in stride. ''I figured they'd be coming out on the field,'' he said after the game. ''I just appreciated it. It was a nice gesture.”