Memories & Dreams: Holidays & baseball

By Marty Appel

            For baseball fans, Opening Day, the All-Star Game, and the start of the World Series are “national holidays.”

            But for the national holidays that all Americans celebrate, they have long been special days on the baseball calendar too.

The major American holidays that fall during the baseball season – Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day, have long been significant milestones in the baseball season.  For years, they regularly saw doubleheaders across the board – “holiday doubleheaders!” -, which was a significant part of a city’s holiday plans if the team was at home.  July 4th doubleheaders were often followed by fireworks at the ballpark, making for what certainly was a full day of celebration.

            For all teams, particularly in the decades before today’s lofty attendances at many parks, the holidays were critical to season attendance.  Teams might average 15,000 a date, but the three major holidays could really boost that.  Having two of the three scheduled as home dates could make the difference between a weak or a strong season attendance.  And schedule makers would feel a team’s wrath if they only got one of the three.  But you couldn’t please everyone.   

            “I think schedule makers back then tried their best to at least rotate the home holidays,” says Katy Feeney, Senior Vice President, Scheduling and Club Relations for Major League Baseball.  “Still, I’m sure there were times when a team might get shutout on holidays in a season.   Accommodating everyone when train travel dictated availability was difficult, even more so when baseball arrived on the west coast.  Today you also have mandated off-days when teams travel west coast to east.”

            The most famous July 4th in baseball history was probably Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day in 1939, when Lou was honored by teammates old and new along with almost 62,000 fans between games of the Yankee Stadium doubleheader, delivering his famous “luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech.  The event was hastily arranged after Lou, stricken with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), had been forced to step aside after his playing streak of 2,130 consecutive games ended.   

            But the Yankees themselves are conflicted over whether it was their most famous July 4th, for 44 years later – on owner George Steinbrenner’s 53rd birthday, no less – Dave Righetti threw a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox in Yankee Stadium.

            That wasn’t the only holiday no-hitter in major league history.  On July 4, 1908, the Giants’ Hooks Wiltse threw one against the Phillies at the Polo Grounds, and on July 4, 1912, the Tigers’ George Mullin pitched one against the St. Louis Browns in Detroit.  Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley threw a Memorial Day no-hitter for the Indians in 1977, stopping the California Angels at home in Cleveland.

            Another early Independence Day of note was July 4, 1905, when Boston’s Cy Young and Philadelphia’s Rube Waddell went 20 innings at Boston’s Huntington Park Grounds – in the first game of a doubleheader.   The Athletics won 4-2 do the dismay of the Red Sox’s Royal Rooters, (Waddell did cartwheels around the mound after the final out), and then a second game was played in full, with the Athletics’ Ossee Schrecongost catching both ends of the twinbill.  

            July 4, 1976 marked the bicentennial of the United States, a grand event from small towns to major city across the country.  Big crowds chose to head for major league ballparks, with the Cleveland Indians drawing 62,504 for their game against New York, followed by fireworks. 

            Yankee Stadium was also the scene for a historic holiday in Mickey Mantle’s career.  In 1956 – when Memorial Day was still known as Decoration Day (people decorating the graves of fallen soldiers), Mick hit a home run off the upper right field façade off Washington’s Pedro Ramos.  It came within 18 inches of being the only fair ball ever hit out of the stadium.  En route to the Triple Crown and his first MVP award, it was a historic day in Mickey’s career, and made for a memorable holiday.

            Yankee Stadium was the scene of the biggest holiday turnout in baseball history, when 83,533 turned out for the 1938 Decoration Day doubleheader against Boston A reported 6,000 fans were turned away – and 511 were given refunds when they found no place to sit. 

            Decoration Day of 1935 also marked Babe Ruth’s final appearance as an active player, as he played one inning for the Boston Braves in a game at Baker Bowl in Philadelphia.  And in 1970, (the last year of Decoration Day before it officially became Memorial Day), All-Star ballots were released in ballparks and retail stores across the country, marking the return of All-Star voting to the fans for the first time since 1957.  

            Patriot’s Day, celebrated each April in Boston, is a major holiday there, with the Red Sox always scheduled at home for a morning game – the only one regularly scheduled in the majors.  The intent is that it ends in time for fans to see the leaders finish the Boston Marathon.  Back in the first years of the National League, 1876, when the holiday was still called Fast Day (it changed in 1894), the major league team would play a “picked nine” squad of amateurs.  In the 1876 matchup, one of the picked nine – John Morrill – played so well that he got a contract on the spot to join the major league team.  He went on to become the team’s captain and manager.

            In Canada, there are also Victoria Day (in late May) and July 1 as holidays when the Blue Jays (and once, the Expos) hoped to be scheduled at home.  And then there are holidays linked to religious observances, like Easter (which sometimes falls during spring training), St. Patrick’s Day (in which a number of teams take to wearing alternative green uniforms), or the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, on which Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, among other Jewish players, did not play.

            Ron Blomberg, a Jewish Yankee and the game’s first DH, had a game-winning hit on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1971 as sundown was approaching.  After that hit, some took to calling him “The Sundown Kid.”

By Labor Day, fans are thinking “pennant races,” and over the years, major head- to-head matchups marked the holiday and the start of the intense play of September.  The holiday has become a time to take stock and measure what the final four weeks of the season is going to bring.  It has also been marked by the arrival of late-season call-ups as Minor League playoffs conclude.

            And when there have been collapses, they have been monumental.  On Labor Day in 1951, the Brooklyn Dodgers swept a twinbill at Ebbets Field, twice beating the Boston Braves by 7-2 scores.  That gave them a six game lead over the New York Giants.  But the Dodgers were about to be upended by the charging Giants, which led to the “Bobby Thomson” playoff game and a Giants pennant.  The sellout crowd at Ebbets Field could hardly imagine such a development on that Labor Day doubleheader with just 22 games left.

            And then there is Father’s Day.

Judge David Bunning was in the news over the summer of 2015, presiding over the much- publicized story of the county clerk in Morehead, Kentucky and the issuance of marriage licenses.

            There was a baseball connection to this story.  Judge Bunning is the son of Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning.  On Father’s Day, 1964, the first year of Shea Stadium, Bunning threw a perfect game to defeat the Mets – the first National League perfect game since 1880.

            Much was made of the fact that it happened on Father’s Day, for Bunning was the father of seven.  (David, his ninth child, was born two years later.)   Father’s Day has long been a day when families made outings to the old ball game as a special treat for dad.  And while female attendance at games was at a much smaller percentage than it is today, that was a day when there were many women in attendance, accompanying their husbands and observing in person what a fun environment a ballpark could be.  It was not surprising that one of the first things teams looked at when receiving their season schedule for the following year, was whether they had a home game on Father’s Day.

            Teams spent years cultivating Ladies Days, and especially Mother’s Day, to welcome women into their ballparks, and club officials from that olden era (Ladies Days were ruled discriminatory in the 1970s), will attest to the promotion and the holiday helping to develop new fans.  Today, Mother’s Day (think pink bats) calls awareness to breast cancer, as Father’s Day calls awareness to prostate cancer.

             New Year’s Eve is not really a “baseball holiday,” but it was historically important as 1974 turned into 1975, and the Yankees signed free agent Jim “Catfish” Hunter.  The contract preceded by a year the start of the free agent system – Hunter’s free agency was brought about by a contract breach – but the event remains historic for being the first significant modern contract that brought agents into the signing process, as well as million dollar deals and multi-year agreements.

            Christmas and baseball?  Lots of baseball related gifts for fans, no doubt.  And for 67 former players, also a birthday.   But bring on that baseball weather of spring and summer!