Bob Feller’s name is synonymous with Cleveland Indians baseball. “Rapid Robert” was one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history and it’s not a stretch to say he was the greatest Indians player of all time. And the most memorable moment of his career was 72 years ago Monday.
It was Opening Day 1940. The 1940 season was a heartbreaker for the Tribe, as Cleveland finished just one game behind Detroit for the American League pennant. The Indians’ offense wasn’t much to write home about as the team managed an OPS+ of just 90 (not that anyone would have cared back then), but they had the best ERA in the league (3.63). The biggest reason why was Feller.
Feller had some phenomenal seasons in his career, but his 1940 campaign was one of the best. He won 27 games with a 2.61 ERA (163 ERA+), 261 strikeouts and 31 complete games—all of which led the league. He finished second in the AL MVP vote, and his 9.4 rWAR made him the best player in baseball.
On April 16, when Feller took the mound against the White Sox at Comiskey Park for the first game of the season and history was made. As the Plain Dealer’s Gordon Cobbledick wrote:
"The thing that had to happen sometime happened here this chilly afternoon.Bob Feller pitched a no-hit game — the first opening day no-hit contest in modern major league baseball history.The incredible farm boy, starting his first baseball season since he became of age last November, fired his bullets past the Chicago White Sox for nine long innings as he led the Indians to a 1-0 victory in the inaugural of the 1940 campaign."
While he walked five batters, “The Heater from Van Meter” held the White Sox hitless and racked up eight strikeouts—quite a feat considering the league average K/9 rate in 1940 was 3.9. It remains the only Opening Day no-hitter in MLB history, as well as the only game in which an entire team’s lineup’s batting averages stayed the same through all nine innings.
It was the first of three no-hitters Feller threw in his distinguished career; he blanked the Yankees on April 30, 1946 and no-hit the Tigers on July 1, 1951—oddly enough, Detroit managed to plate a run in that game despite not getting a hit.
Despite missing his age-23, -24, and -25 seasons to serve in World War II, Feller went on to win 266 games across his 18-year career, posting a 3.25 ERA and recording 2,581 strikeouts in 3,827 innings pitched. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962 (his first year of eligibility), earning 93.8 percent of the vote—though one wonders what was wrong with the 6.2 percent of writers who didn’t see him as worth of Cooperstown.
Sadly, Feller is no longer with us, but the memories of his incredible feats remain. And his Opening Day no-hitter was one of the greatest games in Indians history.