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04/16/10 8:00 AM ET

Feller's Opening Day no-hitter turns 70

Hall of Famer says 'luck' led to historic feat at old Comiskey

CLEVELAND -- The first thing that Bob Feller will tell you about his Opening Day no-hitter, which took place 70 years ago today, is the same thing you'd expect to hear from a person who won a few grand at a slot machine or a person who pocketed a few hundred on a scratch-off ticket.

"It's purely luck," the 91-year-old Feller says, with his characteristically gruff and blunt delivery.

But the luck that "Rapid Robert" had against the White Sox on a brisk and windy day at old Comiskey Park went a long way. What Feller achieved on April 16, 1940, is a special, lasting legacy that many fans and those around baseball think about every time a season begins anew.

At its core, Opening Day is a day about hope, a day in which all things seem possible. But only once in the grand history of the game has a pitcher taken that idea to the extreme, the way Feller did that day in Chicago.

"Whatever the percentage of luck is," Feller says, "I wouldn't know."

But Feller knew a thing or two about pitching in his day, and he proved that against the White Sox.

Feller opened the 1940 season facing skepticism from reporters. Already, at the ripe old age of 21, he had 55 career wins under his belt, and he had gone 24-9 with an American League-leading 246 strikeouts the previous season.

But Feller did not have much of a spring camp, and the writers took notice.

"I had pitched [the previous] Saturday in Cleveland," Feller remembers. "I went five innings and gave up about 15 hits and 10 runs, getting ready to open the season. I had a bad spring. All the writers were saying, 'Bob doesn't have it. He might have a bad year.'"

It didn't take long for Feller to quiet that talk.

But any time Feller talks about his Opening Day feat -- and he's been talking about it more frequently than ever in the months leading up to this particular anniversary -- he inevitably mentions that he didn't have his best stuff early on that day.

"I was a little wild," he says.

The White Sox loaded the bases on Feller in the second inning. Center fielder Roy Weatherly dropped Taft Wright's one-out fly ball, allowing Wright to advance to second. It could have been ruled a hit, as Weatherly battled the wind on the play, but the official scorer made it a two-base error.

Then, with two out, Feller walked Mike Tresh and the opposing pitcher, Edgar Smith. But he struck out Bob Kennedy to record the third out.

"After that," Feller says, "I started pitching better."

The cold weather -- the temperature was reportedly in the 40s, contributing to a paltry attendance total of about 14,000 -- affected Feller's ability to throw his curveball well. So he relied primarily on his blazing fastball.

Feller got his only run of support in the fourth.

"My roommate, Jeff Heath, hit a single in the fourth inning," Feller recalls, "and my catcher, Rollie Hemsley, hit a triple to right-center to score Heath."

It was 1-0 Indians, and it would remain that way.

That's not to say, however, that Feller, who struck out eight and walked five in the game, cruised the rest of the way. The ninth inning is always nerve-wracking when a no-hitter is on the line, and that was definitely the case in this instance.

"My Opening Day no-hitter, of course, has gotten a lot of publicity. But my no-hitter at Yankee Stadium [in 1946] was against a much better team, by far, than the White Sox. I had to pitch to Tommy Henrich, Charlie Keller and Joe DiMaggio in the ninth inning to get the Yankees out."
-- Bob Feller

The first two batters in the bottom of the ninth went down quickly. But Feller found the last out of the game more difficult to come by. Shortstop Luke Appling, who always gave Feller fits, worked the count to 2-2. One strike away from the no-no, Feller saw his next four pitches fouled off by the pesky Appling, who was in the prime of his Hall of Fame career. Rather than tempt fate, Feller threw the next two pitches outside to walk Appling.

"I walked him on purpose," Feller says, "but nobody knew it but me."

Up came Wright, and he hit a sharp grounder to the right side of the infield, to the left of second baseman Ray Mack.

"Mack dove for the ball, knocked it down, picked it up barehanded and threw him out at first base," Feller says. "That was the ballgame."

It was a two-hour, 24-minute game, and Feller's parents, Bill and Lena, and his 11-year-old sister, Marguerite, were there to see it. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis was also in attendance that day.

When it comes to celebration, there wasn't much to speak of.

"We were staying at the Congress Hotel downtown on Michigan Avenue," Feller says. "My dad, mother and sister and I had breakfast the next day. That was about the size of it."

Though the Opening Day no-hitter is a singular achievement in the history of the game, Feller doesn't rank his performance that day as high as his two other no-hitters -- against the Yankees on April 30, 1946, and against the Tigers on July 1, 1951 -- or even some of his record 12 one-hitters.

"My Opening Day no-hitter, of course, has gotten a lot of publicity," Feller says. "But my no-hitter at Yankee Stadium was against a much better team, by far, than the White Sox. I had to pitch to Tommy Henrich, Charlie Keller and Joe DiMaggio in the ninth inning to get the Yankees out."

And if you want to know the whole story, that no-hitter on Opening Day was hardly a precursor to great things for the 1940 Indians team.

"I always kid about it," Feller says. "Everything after Opening Day that season, as far as I was concerned, was downhill. We lost the pennant by one game to Detroit."

But Feller did have a great season on his own. He won a career-high 27 games that year, leading the league with a 2.61 ERA, 261 strikeouts and 320 1/3 innings pitched.

Still, when people remember Feller's 1940 season, they remember that Opening Day gem. Feller is the last surviving member of that 1940 team, and it's amazing that he remembers seemingly every last detail of the game.

Feller got to share those memories when he attended the Tribe's Opening Day game in Chicago earlier this month, and the Chicago Baseball Museum and Jerome Holtzman Library held a luncheon the next day in his honor.

Several pitchers have flirted with Opening Day no-hitters, but no one else has pulled it off. Red Ames threw nine no-hit innings for the New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1909, but his no-hit bid was broken up after the game went into the 10th inning.

Feller was in attendance at the first-ever game at what was then known as Jacobs Field in 1994, when the Mariners' Randy Johnson no-hit the Tribe through seven innings. Sandy Alomar Jr. broke that bid up in the eighth.

"I went on the radio during that game and started talking about it on the air," Feller recalls. "So I jinxed it."

Yet there was no jinxing Feller that day in Chicago.

"I wasn't superstitious at all," he says. "I might be suspicious, but I'm not superstitious."

But one thing Feller will admit to being is lucky.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.