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1974: A strange Yankees Opening Day on several fronts

If you think it must have been an odd day to see the Yankees as the home team in Queens, you’d be right.

New York Yankees Mel Stottlemyre...
Mel Stottlemyre on Opening Day ‘74
SetNumber: X18556

As one would expect, a franchise as storied as the Yankees has had some memorable Opening Days. Babe Ruth christened the brand new “House that Ruth Built” in 1923 with the first home run in the new stadium, because of course he did. Opening Day in 1951 would be the last for Joe DiMaggio but the first for the 19-year-old in right field wearing uniform No. 6, Mickey Mantle, as well as the first for legendary P.A. announcer Bob Sheppard. (In an amusing twist, the first player name Sheppard ever announced was Boston’s, Dom DiMaggio.)

Ron Blomberg made history as MLB’s first designated hitter in 1973 and both Roger Maris and Derek Jeter loudly and memorably announced their presence as Yankees who would make history with their initial Opening Day salvos in 1960 and 1996, respectively. Yet in 1974, Opening Day for the most storied franchise in baseball history with the most historic stadium took place at Shea Stadium – with the Yankees, quite oddly, as the home team.

After the Yankees’ organization threatened to move across state lines to the Meadowlands, New York City agreed to renovate Yankee Stadium to keep the team in the Bronx. In reality, the renovation was closer to a complete teardown and rebuild that would take two years to complete and would force the team to play its home games in Shea Stadium, the home of the crosstown rival Mets. As a result, the 1974 season would open with the Yankees hosting Cleveland at Shea on April 6th, as the first Yankees home game outside of Yankee Stadium since its opening in 1923.

Right from the beginning, it was obvious this would be no ordinary Opening Day. Pregame ceremonies that included Mayor Abe Beame, Senator Ted Kennedy, and his son Ted Kennedy Jr. (who threw out the first pitch) were noteworthy due to the conspicuous absence of the Yankees’ relatively new and brash owner, George Steinbrenner.

Edward Kennedy Jr., throws out first ball at Shea Stadium on
Ted Kennedy Jr., who had lost his right leg due to a battle with cancer, throws out the ceremonial first pitch.
Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

As it turns out — in a case of incredibly bad timing for Steinbrenner — he had been indicted on multiple felony charges as a result of illegal political campaign contributions just the day before. He released a rather unnecessary statement explaining that his absence was in order to “…avoid any possible embarrassment to his guests.” (Steinbrenner would plead guilty to two of the charges later in 1974, avoiding jail time, but earning him the first of his two separate two year bans from baseball.)

On the mound for the Yankees would be Mel Stottlemyre, who was making his seventh career Opening Day start for the team, tying Whitey Ford’s franchise record. (A mark that would later also be tied by Ron Guidry.) Stottlemyre and his teammates came out wearing the Yankees' traditional white with navy pinstripes uniform, which may not seem interesting in hindsight, but at the time it was. Up to that point, the Yankees conducted their team practices in Shea wearing their road grays, leading some to believe they would do that all season for their home games.

Opposing Stottlemyre for Cleveland would be future Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, who at that point in his career already had three All-Star appearances and a Cy Young Award to his name. Yet of specific note to this day’s action, earlier in 1974 Perry added an autobiography to his resume — which detailed his regular use of a spitball. To the surprise of absolutely no one, Perry would have a pitch automatically called a ball on him as a penalty for throwing an “illegal pitch” by home plate umpire Marty Springstead during this Opening Day game of the 1974 season.

Otherwise, it was a pretty nondescript game, as Stottlemyre and Perry exchanged zeros for the first three and a half innings. That’s when with one out and Blomberg on first base, Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles took Perry deep the opposite way to give the home team a 2-0 lead.

New York Yankees
Ron Blomberg

The score would stay that way until the bottom of the sixth, when Yankees second baseman Gene Michael stepped to the plate with one out and Bobby Murcer on third and Nettles on second. Michael — who may be the best GM in Yankees’ history but would never be confused with a good Major League hitter — sent a deep fly ball to right field for a sacrifice fly, extending the Yankees' lead to 3-0.

Stottlemyre kept mowing Cleveland hitters down until his teammates in pinstripes gave him even more breathing room in the bottom of the seventh. Singles from Roy White, Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer, and Elliot Maddox – two of which never left the infield – plated two more, making the score 5-0. Then after a walk to Nettles to load the bases, Cleveland reliever Tom Hilgendorf must’ve remembered Michael’s deep fly in his previous at-bat and walked “Stick” to force in another run. Cecil Upshaw relieved Hilgendorf in the eighth and threw a bagel on the board, which Stottlemyre matched with another one of his own in the bottom of the eighth.

With the Yankees leading 6-0, and with Stottlemyre two outs away from an Opening Day shutout, former Yankee prospect Charlie Spikes tripled with one out. Cleveland got a groundball RBI from young first baseman Chris Chambliss to end the shutout bid, but Cleveland would get no further. A Buddy Bell groundout ended the game and gave the Yankees an Opening Day win in their first home game outside of Yankee Stadium since the venerable ballpark opened over 50 years prior.

Many fans likely remember much of what was to come. Less than three weeks later, the Yankees would trade for Cecil Upshaw in what would be one of the biggest heists of the era for the Yanks — not because of Upshaw, but because Chambliss and nasty swingman Dick Tidrow came with him in the trade for four players who would never be missed. Murcer, despite the good start, would go on to have a poor year by his standards and would be traded at season’s end to San Francisco in a one-for-one star swap for Bobby Bonds.

The 1974 Yankees would improve their win total by nine games from the previous season, and despite finishing in second place in the AL East, had the look of a team that had turned a corner. Despite a small step back in 1975, their second and final season in the shadow of LaGuardia airport, we know with the benefit of hindsight that they certainly had turned a corner.