Opening Day 1939: Bob Feller, Chief Wahoo and Judy Garland
To diehard baseball fans’ delight, but to traditionalists’ chagrin, Opening Day is here. But MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and the players union have agreed to so many preposterous rule changes that fans might have trouble recognizing the game they once revered as the national pastime.
The designated hitter, an American League abomination since 1973, will now be utilized in National League; the ghost runner, so-called even though he’s clearly visible to all, will begin the 10th inning on second base; post-season playoffs will be expanded to include 12 teams instead of 10, with the top two seeds getting a first-round bye, and, most laughable, special rules have been approved for individual players, the Shohei Ohtani rule.
Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants 2014 World Series Most Valuable Player now pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks, best summed up the latest baseball nonsense. Said Bumgarner: “I don’t know, I’m sure we’ll have a different rule in three months, maybe the next year after that. We’ll just make it up as we go. We’ll see whatever they like, the flavor of the week.… Maybe we’ll start playing with a wiffle ball or something.”
None of the 2022 changes are surprising. The players, despite their average $4.5 million annual salaries, want to get off the field and to their awaiting post-game buffets ASAP. Expanded playoffs mean more money for the players and owners, and the Ohtani rule helps keeps baseball’s biggest draw on the field longer.
Pity the beleaguered Cleveland cranks who must put up with MLB nonsense and their team’s woke new nickname, the Guardians. The Indians are gone, and their 100-plus year history down the memory hole where they’ll co-exist with their old mascot, Chief Wahoo. Indian fans can take comfort, however, in their rich past. Fire-balling 21-year-old Bob Feller, a World War II hero, started seven Opening Days, and in the 1940 game, he pitched a no-hitter. On the road in Chicago and at the White Sox Comiskey Park, Feller, in 40-degree weather, fired a 1–0 no hitter, the first of three in his career, along with 12 one-hitters.
More to the point about the former Indians, now Guardians, in 1939, Feller got the nod to open the season, this time at home in Cleveland Stadium against the Detroit Tigers. The Cleveland weather was so frigid that only about 24,000 fans showed up in a ball park that accommodated 80,000 to watch Feller dominate the Tigers 5–1, and shut down future Hall of Famers Charlie Gehringer and Hank Greenberg, although the pair did draw their team’s only two walks. In his compete game win, Feller struck out 10, and allowed three hits.
Those fans that braved the cold got a special treat. Judy Garland, only 16 but already an MGM contract player, sang the National Anthem. Garland had completed filming on The Wizard of Oz; the movie was in the can as they say in Hollywood, but had not been released. In Cleveland for a two-week performance at the old State Theater, Garland got her manager’s permission to attend the senior prom at the University School, a local prep school. Since young Judy’s schedule didn’t allow much time for socializing, her manager okayed the prom.
On game day, despite the bitter, wet weather, Garland willingly posed for photos with Indians’ manager Oscar Vitt and the Tigers’ pilot Del Baker. And — get this — she also posed in a magnificent full-feathered Indian headdress.
Although both superstars in their respective professions, the lives of Feller and Garland took different directions. From an early age, relentless overwork that studio bosses forced upon her, despite her tender age, eventually led to Garland’s drug and alcohol abuse. Garland had financial trouble with the Internal Revenue Service for nonpayment of back taxes, and eventually died in London from a drug overdose at age 47.
Feller, a teen standout like Garland, was so popular at such a young age that NBC broadcast his high school graduation to a national audience. “Rapid Robert,” as Feller was called, went on to a Hall of Fame career, and served as a U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer during World War II where he earned six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars. Ironically, because he was attending to his cancer-stricken, dying father, the patriotic Feller had a military deferment, but nevertheless enlisted only days after Pearl Harbor.
After Feller’s death at age 91, Mike Hegan, then-Indians’ broadcaster and son of former Feller battery mate Jim Hegan, said that the Indians of the 40s and 50s were the face of Cleveland, and Bob was the face of the Indians. Hegan continued: “But, Bob transcended more than that era. In this day of free agency and switching teams, Bob Feller remained loyal to the city and the team for over 70 years. You will likely not see that kind of mutual loyalty and admiration ever again.”
The Guardians’ woke ownership, the meddling, menacing Manfred and the selfish players union have little concept of loyalty or of honoring baseball’s rich tradition. As Bummy said, “It is what it is,” like it or lump it.
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.