- The Washington Times - Monday, April 15, 2002

Quick quiz: What's the only no-hitter in baseball history where every player on the losing team finished the game with the same batting average as when it started?
Quick answer: Bob Feller's Opening Day gem on behalf of the Cleveland Indians against the Chicago White Sox at old Comiskey Park on April 16, 1940.
On a blustery day when the temperature never reached 50, Cleveland's 21-year-old fireballer "Rapid Robert" to the alliteratively alert media of that era defeated Chicago's Edgar Smith 1-0 although he threw no curves after the second inning because the weather prevented him from gripping the ball properly for breaking pitches.
It didn't matter. In those days, Feller's swift one, often compared with that of legendary Washington Senators pitcher Walter Johnson, was enough to dispose of most hitters. Six decades later, when most of Feller's strikeout records have been erased by Nolan Ryan and others, it is easy to forget just how dominant he was in the late 1930s and 1940s.
The Opening Day no-hitter was the first of three by Feller, who also performed the feat in 1946 and 1951. And he pitched a record 12 one-hitters, including three before 1940, when he was a mere babe in arms.
Discovered at 17 on his father's Van Meter, Iowa, farm by famed Indians scout Cy Slapnicka, Feller never pitched in the minor leagues. His debut with Cleveland came in a midseason exhibition during which he struck out eight St. Louis Cardinals in three innings. In his first American League game, he fanned 15 St. Louis Browns. When he was scheduled to pitch, players on the opposing team suddenly developed incapacitating ailments.
Although he had no idea at first where the plate was in his first full season, he walked 208 while striking out 240 Feller never had a bad year. He was 5-3 in 1936, 9-7 in '37, 17-11 in '38 and a resounding 24-9 in t'39. By decade's end, he had found his control and easily was the best pitcher in baseball.
The 1940 season began wonderfully (and ended awfully) for Feller and the Indians. The no-hitter presaged the best statistical year of his career: 27-11, with a 2.61 ERA, 31 complete games in 37 starts, 261 strikeouts and only 118 walks in 320⅓ innings.
Feller's masterpiece remains the only official Opening Day no-hitter in 127 years of major league baseball, although Red Ames of the New York Giants pitched nine hitless innings against Brooklyn in 1909 only to lose the game in the 10th.
Three fine defensive plays behind Feller preserved the no-no. In the fourth inning, right fielder Ben Chapman raced to the fence to haul down a drive by Chicago's Taft Wright. In the eighth, second baseman Ray Mack charged a slow grounder by pinch hitter Larry Rosenthal and threw him out on a spectacular play.
Now it was the ninth and Feller was trying to preserve a one-run lead achieved on an RBI triple by light-hitting catcher Rollie Hemsley (a coach with the expansion Washington Senators two decades later). Mike Kreevich grounded to second to begin the inning, and Moose Solters popped to shortstop Lou Boudreau. That brought up Chicago shortstop Luke Appling, in the 12th season of a Hall of Fame career.
Long known for his ability to foul off pitches, Appling did so four times before drawing Feller's fifth walk as the meager crowd of 14,000 held its breath. Up came Wright, who had batted .309 for Washington the previous season. He rapped a hard grounder that appeared headed for right field until Mack dived to his left, knocked the ball down and from his knees threw out Wright by a step.
A no-hitter and the thrilled, chilled fans cheered as though Feller were one of their own. Subsequent White Sox owner Bill Veeck didn't introduce Comiskey Park's exploding scoreboard until 19 years later, but if it had been there in 1940, presumably it would have erupted.
Feller was properly appreciative of Mack's help, saying, "Ray made two of the sweetest plays I've ever seen. He was way off balance when he scooped up Rosenthal's roller in the eighth, and how his throw beat Larry to the bag I'll never know. And I don't know how he knocked down Wright's smash in the ninth, to say nothing of retrieving the ball and throwing the guy out."
As usual with baseball players, humor lightened the occasion's drama. "He would pick today to pitch a no-hitter," Hemsley grumbled with a smile. "I was all set to be a hero for driving in the only run. Now nobody will ever know I was in the game."
Feller's family attended the game, and his father was typically taciturn as he posed for pictures afterward. "Well done," he told his son.
More drama followed for the Indians that summer, and its denouement was painful. Inexplicably, the mighty New York Yankees, who had won four consecutive World Series, turned into a mediocre team that struggled home third. That left the pennant chase between the Indians, who hadn't won one since 1920, and the always threatening Detroit Tigers.
While the Tigers were a relatively serene bunch under manager Del Baker, the Indians' clubhouse and dugout overflowed with animosity all season. Manager Ossie Vitt was a rock-rumped type whose iron fist rubbed many players the wrong way, to mix a metaphor or two. At midseason, a delegation of players approached owner Alva Bradley and demanded that Vitt be fired.
Bradley refused and the Indians immediately inherited one of the most unflattering names in baseball history: "Crybabies." Or, for those with a warped sense of humor, "Half-Vitts."
Cleveland and Detroit met head to head on the last weekend of the season with the Tigers leading by two games and needing just one victory to clinch. Feller was primed to pitch the first game for the Indians, and Baker considered it foolish to waste one of his aces Bobo Newsom or Schoolboy Rowe against the nearly unbeatable right-hander. So he selected rookie Floyd Giebell, a rookie recently up from the minors.
In one of the most unlikely results imaginable, Giebell survived many jams to outpitch Feller for a 4-1 victory that handed the pennant to the Tigers. A year later, Giebell was out of the majors. He won three games lifetime, or 263 fewer than Rapid Robert in a career that lasted until 1956.
At season's end, owner Bradley fired the contentious Vitt although the luckless manager had a .570 winning percentage for three seasons in Cleveland. Under replacement Roger Peckinpaugh, the Indians fell from 89-65 to 75-79 in 1941. Bradley then handed the job to 24-year-old shortstop Lou Boudreau, who would guide the Indians to a World Series triumph in 1948 mainly because he was smart enough to hit .355 as one of baseball's last playing managers.
Feller finished his career with a record of 266-162 for 18 seasons, but he likely would have won 100 more games if he hadn't spent most of four seasons in the Navy during World War II. During the six full seasons before and after his service hitch, he won 24, 27, 25, 26, 20 and 19 games. For many years, he held major league records for strikeouts in a game (18 in 1938) and a season (348 in 1946) principally, hitters said, because his curve was even better than his fabled fastball. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962.
Like Walter Johnson, Feller waited nearly a baseball lifetime before getting into a World Series. But unlike Johnson, who won Game 7 of the 1924 Series in relief for the Senators, Feller never gained a victory in what was then called the Fall Classic. He lost his only two starts to the Boston Braves in 1948, including 1-0 in Game 1, and did not pitch as the Indians were swept by the New York Giants in 1954.
Today, at 83, astute businessman Feller still can be found signing autographs at card shows and minor league parks. And for him, each Opening Day undoubtedly brings back a special memory of a special moment.

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