Tag Archives: Opening Day

Gomer Hodge and other forgotten baseball heroes of Opening Day

Opening Day in baseball always brings up memories for me, most of them taking me back to the finger-stinging cold that usually accompanied an Indians opener on the shore of Lake Erie. And somehow this week popped into mind Gomer Hodge, a utility infielder who was the toast of Cleveland in April 1971.

Keep in mind that in those days, the name Gomer was fully in the public consciousness because of the simple country boy Gomer Pyle character that Jim Nabors played on the Andy Griffith show and on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.

Gomer Hodge had labored in the Indians farm system for eight years before getting his chance with the big-league club. Baseball Reference has a fine summary on him, which I won’t repeat here. In the Tribe’s home opener, the late innings of which I caught on the radio, Gomer delivered the game-winning hit.  Cleveland went crazy.

Alas, Gomer played nothing more than a utility role that year, appearing in about half the Indians’ games during his only season in the majors. He later managed in the minors for the Indians farm system before dying at age 63 in 2007.

Hodge played a bit part in Tribe history, but he made his mark. Today, there are other rookies getting the first crack in the big-leagues and none of them knows whether they’ll see several seasons or just a few games in “The Show.”

It’s a good reminder for us all to “seize the day,” or “carpe diem,” as the Romans used to say.

 

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On Presidents’ Day, a tip of the cap to William Howard Taft for starting the ‘first pitch’ tradition

Baseball Hall of Fame photo of William Howard Taft following through

For most Americans, William Howard Taft is not the first chief executive to leap to mind as we celebrate Presidents’ Day. But we baseball fans owe him homage for starting one of our country’s most enduring traditions: the president throwing out the ceremonial first pitch of the season.

From a specially built box at National Park (later and better known as Griffith Stadium), Taft tossed the old horsehide out to Walter Johnson to mark the beginning of the 1910 season as the Washington Senators hosted the Philadelphia Athletics.

Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of how the tradition evolved, and it’s ready-made for trivia questions. (E.g., who was the second vice president to throw out the ceremonial first pitch? Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon, 1959. The first was Taft’s VP, James Sherman, in 1912.)

Over at Baseball Almanac, there’s a great summary of how the tradition began. Clark Griffith had asked both William McKinely and Grover Cleveland to do the honors but they turned him down. It took a baseball fan like Taft, who at 300 pounds was only slightly heavier than C.C. Sabathia, to do the honors.

The Senators won 3-0, and Taft came back to open the 1911 season. A tradition was born.

Taft had plenty of troubles to manage in his administration, but he had the good sense to take in a baseball game every now and then. For that, we salute him.

Memorable opening days in Major League Baseball

The two most memorable opening days in my memory are marking significant anniversaries this year.

Forty years ago, on April 8, 1971, an unheralded rookie named Gomer Hodge drove in the winning run in the Cleveland Indians’ home opener. Somewhere in a scrapbook I have clippings from that game, the exciting finish of which I caught on the radio.

Thirty years ago, on April 16, 1981, a Thursday, I had the day off from new job at The Associated Press bureau in Milwaukee. Knowing that it was the day of the home opener for the Brewers, my wife suggested we go to the game. It was sold out, but we thought, what the heck? Let’s check the want ads.

This was long before StubHub. So we picked up that morning’s Milwaukee Sentinel and called a guy who lived not too far away on the South Side who had a pair of tickets. I don’t recall what we paid or even how we picked the tickets up, but when the game started, we were somewhere in the lower deck behind home plate at County Stadium.

We were bundled up as the temperature likely was in the low 40s, and the Brewers lost to the Indians 1-0 in a good pitching matchup between Wayne Garland of the Tribe and Mike “Mr. Warmth” Caldwell” of the Brew Crew.

I remember little of the game other than it was cold, that we wore buttons given to the fans by Pabst Blue Ribbon (they’re somewhere in the house; I’ll add the photo when I find them) and that we had  a grand time.

My wife was six month pregnant with our first child, and our best memory is of leaving at the end of the game. One of the fans exiting with us jokingly accused  my wife of trying to steal seat cushions by hiding them under her coat.

Those weren’t seat cushions. It was our daughter, who I’m proud to say inherited the baseball gene from her father.

Happy baseball season, everyone!

p.s. I cannot recall specifically it was opening day, but early one season in the mid-90s a group of us had a bratwurst and beer tailgate party at the Oakland Coliseum before an Athletics game. I’ll have to check with my suspects, er, sources.