It began as it always begins, with a ritual which might be ridiculous if it were not so strangely exciting. The man, young for a President, old for a pitcher, shed his overcoat and picked up a new ball and glove. He examined both for a moment, as most men might, finally putting aside the glove. Then he reared back vigorously and hurled the ball over a bank of photographers and into the rear ranks of the players gathered before him. With this act, baseball began again in America.
In some respects it seemed on Opening Day that nothing in baseball had changed from the year before. Pittsburgh won its opener with a typical ninth-inning rally, beating the Giants, who have been known to fold. Milwaukee's Warren Spahn pitched well, losing only because Ernie Broglio and Lindy McDaniel of the Cardinals combined to pitch a little better. Robin Roberts was back on the mound for Philadelphia, pitching in his 12th opener. Cleveland's Jim Piersall made headlines, getting bombarded by golf balls and other refuse from peculiar Detroit fans and rising to the occasion with four base hits. Boston's batting champion Pete Runnels made three hits, but Boston's infield made four errors to blow the game.
Some things had changed. Ted Williams was gone and so was Casey Stengel. Stengel's replacement, Ralph Houk, saw his New York Yankees shut out on three hits by Pedro Ramos, representing Minnesota, a new franchise. But nothing in baseball on Opening Day 1961 was quite as new or the subject of so much curiosity as the American League's ninth and 10th teams, the new Washington Senators (the old Senators are now the Minnesota Twins) and the Los Angeles Angels. Composed of rejects? True. Doomed to finish historically deep in the cellar? Maybe. But the opening games of the Senators and Angels were important nonetheless, for they marked the birth of expansion, the first change in the numerical structure of major league baseball in 60 years.
Washington was in a jubilant, holiday mood for the opener between the Senators and the Chicago White Sox. Congress convened at noon, then adjourned 10 minutes later and left for the ball park. Outside the main entrance to the stadium a fiveman combo in candy-cane shirts played Alexander's Ragtime Band. Vendors, dressed in wild red-and-blue blouses and pantaloons, did a brisk business. The crowd seemed anxious to welcome the new team, eager to love and support the players—if only out of resentment at Calvin Griffith who had moved the old Senators away.
April 24, 1961
Before the game each member of the Senators was introduced to the crowd. Unknowns like Chester Boak and Ed Hobaugh received polite applause. Dale Long and Gene Woodling got genuine roars. But the big noise, the hero's welcome, was given to Mickey Vernon, the manager. For Vernon, an oldtime Washington player, this was his 12th presidential opener, and John F. Kennedy would be the fourth President he had seen throw out the first ball.
"My favorite opener was 1954," Vernon had said earlier. "I hit a home run in the 10th inning to win the game. When I reached home plate there was a Secret Service man waiting for me. He took me over to President Eisenhower, who shook my hand."
After the introductions came the President's throw (a distance record, said old hands) and the national anthem. Then a voice boomed out over the public-address system. "Ladies and gentlemen," it said, "here comes your New Frontier Senators." With that, nine players, unwanted by the rest of the American League last winter, charged out across the field to a pennant-winning roar.
Historians may wish to record that the first pitch of the expansion era was thrown by Dick Donovan of the Senators and was taken for a ball by Luis Aparicio of Chicago. (So were pitches two, three and four.) The first hit was made by the Senators' Coot Veal, a dribbler up the third-base line. Minutes later he scored the first run, driven home on a triple by Gene Woodling. When Willie Tasby dropped a simple fly ball in the fifth inning, it was the first error, for which Tasby received the first boo.
Washington should have won the first game, too, but it did not. Donovan, drafted from the White Sox, pitched with bitter determination, anxious to prove Chicago's mistake at letting him go. His teammates got him an early lead, two runs in the first on Woodling's triple and another in the second to lead 3-1. Then, one by one, Chicago got the runs back as the Washington defense fell apart.
Pop flies dropped in front of Left Fielder Woodling for doubles in the second and third innings. The ground was soggy, making running difficult, but a faster man would have caught both. The first double didn't hurt, but the second cost a run. That made it 3-2. Donovan pitched superbly through the fourth, fifth and sixth, apparently unshaken when Tasby carelessly dropped the easy fly ball. Then, with one man out in the seventh, Jim Landis hit a long fly to left. Woodling moved back on his 38-year-old legs, turned one way and then the other. The ball fell over his head and Landis was at third with a triple. Donovan struck out his old catcher Sherm Lollar, and made pinch hitter Earl Torgeson ground a ball toward first base. But Dale Long bobbled the ball, sprawled after it and then threw it wildly to let in the tying run.
The White Sox won the game in the eighth. Donovan hit Minnie Minoso with a pitch, and when Minoso broke for second in an attempted steal, Catcher Pete Daley threw the ball into center field, allowing Minnie to reach third. He scored on a sacrifice fly and the White Sox won 4-3.
It was a hard defeat for the Senators to bear. No team likes to give away a game, and it is especially hard for a team that realizes victories may be scarce. The dressing room was somber. Dale Long sat on his stool and stared at the floor without moving for 10 minutes. Dick Donovan walked aimlessly about, like a man waiting for his wife. When someone offered him better luck next time, he almost spit in fury. Only Gene Woodling seemed to realize that life would go on. Asked about the shower of fly balls that dropped in his area, Woodling replied lightly, "I'll catch what I get to and what I don't get to I'll have to pick up off the ground, won't I?"
Mickey Vernon, his Lincolnesque figure draped in a chair, said little, listening to reporters' questions as though they were posed by the Gestapo, pausing before answering to look for snares. A radio man asked him why he did not switch to his defensive players when he still had a lead. Vernon murmured that both Long and Woodling were due to hit in the eighth. The radio man misunderstood the answer, so Vernon explained it again. His face registered no annoyance, merely the resignation of a man who realized he would be doing a lot of explaining in the next six months.
The other expansion baby, the Los Angeles Angels, opened the season the next day in Baltimore, 40 miles to the northeast. It was a harsh, windy day, and the flags and orange-and-black bunting flapped wildly. Still, the mood was as merry as it had been in Washington the day before, although Baltimore's excitement was directed toward their old Orioles instead of the new Angels. Having cheered the Orioles to second place last year, Baltimore now wants a pennant. All over town, in store windows, hotel lobbies, restaurants, everywhere, signs proclaimed "It can be done in '61." Radio announcers identified their stations as, say, "WBAL, Baltimore, where it can be done in '61." The day before, a huge party had been given to launch the Orioles to a successful start. Pennant fever had hit town before the first game.
Taking batting practice, the Angels paid no attention to the signs, the hoots, the whistles, the blast of deafening music as the band played numbers like It's a Great Day for the Orioles. What they did mind was the wind.
"This is worse than Candlestick Park," said Manager Bill Rigney. "Oh, for Palm Springs," a player said.
Ted Kluszewski, forced to wear a long-sleeved sweat shirt over his muscular arms and hating it, drove a ball to deep right. It died in the gale and dropped short of the stands. "That's as good as I hit them," he said to Bob Cerv. "It's a long way out there today," Cerv nodded.
From the Oriole dugout, Brooks Robinson, Baltimore's fine third baseman, watched the Angels in practice. "They have good hitters," he said. "They may surprise a lot of people, maybe even themselves." Gus Triandos, the big catcher, agreed. "If this club gets hot, they could put a dent in anybody. We have to hope they don't get hot when we're playing them."
The Angels started as hot as they may get all season. In the first inning Kluszewski drove another ball into the wind, but this one carried into the stands for a two-run homer. Cerv shook his hand at home plate, and then hit a ball even farther over the fence in right center field. In the second inning Kluszewski hit another with two men on and the Angels had a 7-0 lead.
The game followed the same pattern as the one between the Senators and White Sox the day before. The Angels stopped scoring after the second inning and then began to fritter away runs. Eli Grba, a Yankee cast-off, pitched what should have been a shutout, but his defense was weak. Fritz Brickell, whose father had died two days before, booted a ground ball, then threw wild into right field, letting in one run. Ken Aspromonte, trying to complete a double play, threw the ball away, allowing another. But the Angels' lead was too large and Grba's new curve ball too sharp ("Sam Jones showed me something"), and the Angels won 7-2.
If the Angels ever win the World Series, the dressing-room scene will be no wilder than it was after victory No. 1. Club Owner Gene Autry, dressed in a white cattleman's coat and a white cowboy hat, circled the room, shaking hands, back patting and beaming. "Guess we won't lose them all," he yelled to Bill Rigney. Rigney beamed back. Eli Grba grabbed his catcher, Del Rice. "Fabulous, Del, just fabulous." Rice smiled. "You were terrific, Eli," he said.
"I guess this makes me a great manager," Rigney told reporters. He had batted Albie Pearson third, just before Kluszewski, and Pearson had gotten on base before each of Kluszewski's home runs. "If he doesn't get on I'm a bum," said Rigney. "But he does, so I'm great. Oh, we'll make runs this year. Those big guys will do a job. We're not claiming anything, but we'll surprise. We'll show up. All the time."
Three days and two rain-canceled games later, Washington won its first game, beating Cleveland 3-2. Vernon moved Woodling to right field, where he had less ground to cover. He also moved Dale Long to the bench, where he had no ground to cover at all. Washington made only one error, and it was not damaging. A day later Los Angeles lost its first game, getting shut out by Boston 3-0. Kluszewski had no hits. Neither did Cerv.
So it was that after two games the new teams had experienced both victory and defeat. This put them in the same category with the Yankees and White Sox, the Indians and Tigers. It probably wouldn't last, but for the time, at least, the Senators and the Angels were right in the middle of the pennant race.