The start of every sport’s season is big if you follow it, but there’s just something about Opening Day. Maybe it’s just because I’m on the extreme end of the baseball fanaticism scale, but Opening Day seems have something a little more about it. It’s partially because it’s a sign that the long winter is over, and we’re not far away from summer. It’s also probably because the baseball season is a long, 162-game epic that has all sorts of twists or turns along the way.
While all games count the same in the standings, for the mentioned reasons, losses on Opening Day don’t feel like the biggest deal. It’s just good to have baseball back. However, obviously you still want to win that game and every game. Sometimes you get that wish answered in weird and wild ways.
The Yankees opened the 1943 season at home facing off against the Washington Senators. After winning the AL pennant the year before, the Yankees attempted to honor the team, but the ceremony had to be abandoned. According the New York Times, a halyard on the flag pole broke as people attempted to raise the literal pennant.
Early on, it looked like the ceremony incident might’ve symbolically been a sign of what was to come that day. Senators starter Early Wynn retired 12 of the first 13 batters he faced, with a walk being his only blemish in his first four innings.
Washington then opened the scoring thanks to a Yankees defensive miscue. With runners on the corners and one out, Yankees starter Tiny Bonham induced a ground ball. Third baseman Billy Johnson fielded it cleanly and got it to second baseman Joe Gordon for the first out. Gordon then attempted to get the ball to first to complete a 5-4-3 double play, but he instead sent the ball flying into the dugout. The error allowed the Senators to take the lead.
However, the Yankees settled down after that and took the lead in the bottom half of the inning. Johnny Lindell and Snuffy Stirnweiss both came up with RBI singles as the Yankees went up 2-1.
The score held steady there for a while, as Bonham got the Yankees within a couple outs of an Opening Day win. In the eighth inning, Bonham retired the first two outs of the frame, and then got another grounder for what could’ve been the third. However, his defense let him down again, with Stirnweiss making an error to extend the inning. The runner, George Case, then stole second during the next at-bat and came around to score on Stan Spence’s single.
The Yankees may have lost their lead, but they regrouped in the bottom half of the inning. Gordon made up for his earlier costly error, homering to put them back in front yet again.
With a new lease on life, Bonham came back out for the ninth looking for a complete game victory. After walking the leadoff hitter, he got a strikeout and a pop out to get an out away from the win. However, that’s when things got away from him. First, John Sullivan singled, putting a second runner on. Gene Moore then added another single, tying the game. Ellis Clary followed that with a double, scoring another run, putting the Senators in front. After all his work, and only allowing two runs, both of which would’ve been avoidable without errors, Bonham was exiting the game and suddenly on track to be the losing pitcher. Johnny Murphy came in and got out of the inning, but the Yankees now had work to do in the bottom of the ninth.
The Senators also had to replace their pitcher, as Moore had come up as a pinch hitter for their starter Wynn. They brought in Mickey Haefner, who then issued a leadoff walk to Bill Dickey to start the inning. The wonderfully named Tuck Stainback was sent in as a pinch runner for Dickey, and the Yankees intended to bunt him over into scoring position. After Johnny Lindell laid down the bunt, Haefner attempted to get Stainback out at second, but the runner slid under the tag, allowing both him and Lindell to be safe.
Haefner’s less than stellar outing got worse, as a wild pitch from him allowed both runners to move up. Not wanting to mess around anymore, the Senators replaced him in the middle of the next at-bat, bringing in Owen Scheetz. Rollie Hemsley couldn’t be the hero, as he popped up, leaving the Yankees down to their last out. Stirnweiss kept the inning alive with a walk, bringing Roy Weatherly to the plate.
Weatherly was playing his first game with the Yankees after they had acquired him from Cleveland over the offseason. The Yankees traded for him in large part because Joe DiMaggio was away serving in the military, and they needed someone to play center field. Weatherly was never going to live up to DiMaggio’s standards, but he had a pretty solid season, and began it in the perfect way. He doubled to score two runs, giving the Yankees a crazy Opening Day 5-4 win.
At their high point in the late inning, the Yankees had a win expectancy as high as 93 percent, while at the nadir, it was as low as 14 percent.
The 1943 Yankees ended up repeating as AL pennant winners, and ended up sealing the deal in the World Series too. They fairly comfortably won the pennant over the Senators, but you would never have known that based on what happened on Opening Day.
New York Times, April 23, 1943