Saving His Best for First

Saving His Best for First

April 16, 1940

Bob Feller‘s fastball struck fear into the hearts of opposing batters — but when Feller took the mound, it was his parents who often found themselves in the line of fire. As a boy, his legendary heater had broken three of his father’s ribs; on Mother’s Day 1939, a foul ball off the bat of Chicago third baseman Marv Owen sent his mother to the hospital for two days. The next time Mrs. Feller attended a game at Comiskey — April 16, 1940 — her son made sure she stayed out of harm’s way, silencing the White Sox for the only Opening Day no-hitter in baseball history.

Mrs. Feller must have been comforted by Owen’s absence from the White Sox lineup; the veteran third baseman had been sold to the Red Sox the previous December. In his place was rookie Bob Kennedy — father of future major-league catcher Terry Kennedy — who served as the table-setter in a lineup that included Hall of Famer Luke Appling and .300 hitters Taffy Wright and Moose Solters. The White Sox were rebuilding, but they were no doormats; their .278 team batting average in 1940 would be second only to the mighty Detroit Tigers in the American League.

Both hurlers — the 21-year-old Feller and White Sox stalwart Edgar Smith — coped admirably with the stiff Lake Michigan wind at their backs. Smith walked two, struck out five, and allowed just six hits; a fourth-inning triple by Rollie Hemsley drove in Feller’s roommate Jeff Heath for the only run of the game.

Meanwhile, Feller had gotten off to a bad start. His arm stiffened up before the game, and he wasn’t comfortable using his curve in the cold weather. Relying mainly on his fastball, he walked five White Sox batters in the game. Two of those walks, plus a dropped ball by centerfielder Roy Weatherly, loaded the bases in the second inning. But Feller pitched out of the jam and settled down; it wasn’t until the ninth inning that his no-hitter was seriously threatened by two of the White Sox’ best batters.

With two outs in the ninth, Feller faced Luke Appling, who used his talent for fouling off pitches to valiantly fight off a two-strike count. Feller soon tired of dealing with the pesky Appling and decided to walk him. “I already had issued four walks, so another one wasn’t going to make any difference anyhow,” recalled Feller in his autobiography. It was an intentional walk, but nobody else knew it.

The well-intentioned walk nearly backfired on Feller. On deck was Taffy Wright, a good contact hitter, who promptly drove a ball between first and second base towards right field. Only a superb play by second baseman Ray Mack saved the no-hitter. After diving to his left to knock down the ball, Mack picked it up off the outfield grass with his bare hand and spun around to nab Wright by a half-step at first base.

It was the first — and most memorable — of the three no-hitters Feller would throw in his eighteen-year Hall of Fame career. He finished the season with 27 wins and led the league for the third consecutive season with 261 strikeouts. After another superb season in 1941, Feller joined the Navy as the first pro ballplayer to volunteer for World War II. He returned to the Indians after the war, setting a major-league record with 348 strikeouts — and throwing another no-hitter — in 1946. His final no-hitter came in 1951, his last 20-win season.