As Chris Carpenter prepares to take the mound to start the 2011 season, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at some of the pitchers who took the mound in opening day. The Bob Gibson era (1959-1975) seemed to be as good a place as any to start. It may surprise you to learn that Gibby didn’t get the opening day call until 1965. In fact, early in the Solly Hemus era (1959-61), the future Hall of Fame pitcher would be moved between the bullpen, the rotation and the minor leagues, in spite of consistently demonstrating his enormous talent. It wasn’t until the arrival of Johnny Keane that Gibson got a chance to show what he was capable of – and National League hitters were never the same.
If Gibson wasn’t the opening day starter, who was and how did they do?
Larry Jackson (1959, 1960, 1962) 1-1 with 1 no decision
Larry Jackson was one of the best pitchers of his era but had the misfortune of playing his career on non-contending teams – sort of an anti-Jason Marquis. The first part of his career (1955-1962) was with the St. Louis Cardinals, who were rarely over .500. Unlike the his team, Jackson was consistently over .500, going 116-87 in those 8 seasons. He would earn 3 All Star Game invitations as a Cardinal plus one more with the Cubs in 1963. His 24-11 record with the Cubs in 1964 would earn him second place in the Cy Young voting. Unfortunately for Jackson, the award was only given to one pitcher, not one per league as it is done today. Jackson was clearly the best pitcher in the National League in 1964. Not only could Jackson pitch, but he could also field his position, earning him the reputation of being the best defensive pitcher of his generation. He would consistently lead the league in fielding percentage and at one time held the major league record for most consecutive chances without an error. By any measure, Larry Jackson was a bona fide ace.
Jackson would pitch well enough to win all three opening day starts, but would end up 1-1 with one no-decision. A blown save by Jim Brosnan in 1959 would cost him a win against the Giants. Some shaky Cardinals defense and a lack of hitting would hand Jackson a tough loss against the Giants in 1960. In his last opening day start for the Cardinals in 1962, the schedule makers gave Jackson the advantage as he would earn an easy win against the expansion New York Mets.
You may be asking why Jackson didn’t get the opening day start in 1961 ? During spring training, he was hit by a piece of Duke Snyder’s shattered bat and suffered a badly broken jaw. He would miss the remainder of spring training as well as the first two weeks of the regular season. Because his jaws were wired shut, the liquid diet did not give him adequate nutrition and he lost a lot of weight. As a result he struggled early in the season. By July 1, all of that was in the past and he would have a terrific second half, posting an 11-3 record with an ERA just over 3 runs per game.
As for home openers during Jackon’s era,Vinegar Bend Mizell and Lindy McDaniel would combine for a nice 5-2 win over the Cubs in 1960.
Before moving on, let’s close the book on Larry Jackson.
After a blowout season in 1964, Jackson ran into a bit of trouble in 1965, losing 21 games. He didn’t pitch poorly, in fact quite the opposite. It was more a reflection of the Cubs than anything Jackson had done. Early in the 1966 season he would be traded to the Phillies in their version of the Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio deal, with the Cubs receiving a young right hander named Ferguson Jenkins. After getting off to a slow start for the Cubs in 1966, Jenkins would go on to win 20 or more games for six consecutive seasons (67-72). He would start nearly 40 games a season, and average over 300 innings pitched during that stretch. He would win the Cy Young award in 1971 with his league leading 24 victories, and get a second place in 1967 and third place in 1970 and 1972. Yes, the Cubs got the better of that trade, perhaps to make up for the Lou Brock deal in June 1964.
While nowhere near as dazzling, Jackson had a fine end to his career in Philadelphia. Jackson was selected by the Montreal Expos in the 1969 expansion draft and rather than pitch for another losing team, he retired after the 1968 season.
Ernie Broglio (1961, 1963, 1964) 1-1 with 1 no decision
Ernie Broglio would get the next few opening day starts – 1961, 1963 and 1964. Like Jackson, the fan favorite would go 1-1 with one no decision.
The 1961 opening day in Milwaukee against the Braves was a great game. If featured two of the best pitchers at the time, Broglio (who had gone 21-9 in 1960) and Warren Spahn (who was one of the greatest left handed pitchers ever, and had gone 21-10 in 1960). Few runs were scored, as expected, and Broglio left after 7 innings with the Cardinals down 1-0. A late run by the Cardinals tied the game and a home run off Spahn in the 10th inning gave reliever Lindy McDaniel the victory.
In 1963, Broglio would open the season in New York against the Mets. He would throw a complete game 2 hit shutout, striking out 8. Young Ray Washburn would follow that up with a 4 hit complete game shutout. And to complete the most amazing start to a season, veteran left hander Curt Simmons would throw a complete game shutout in the home opener against the Phillies. Three games, three shutouts. What a start to the 1963 season. If not for a certain left handed pitcher in Los Angeles, the Cardinals might have won the pennant in 1963.
Broglio would have the misfortune of hooking up against that same lefty, Sandy Koufax, in the last of his opening day starts for the Cardinals. The year would be 1964, and Broglio was about to be traded to the Cubs for a young unknown left fielder. The trade would be one of the most lopsided in baseball history – certainly one of the most unpopular. Broglio would develop arm trouble and his career would soon be over. We all know how the Lou Brock story ends – a trip to Cooperstown, NY.
In the 1964 opener, Broglio would be let down by his team’s defense and Ron Taylor could not keep the game close. Koufax was, well….. Koufax and he threw a nice complete game shutout. The Cardinals had their chances but could never break through against the lefty. Not many teams did.
Curt Simmons (1966) No decision
During the Ernie Broglio era, Curt Simmons would get the start in the home openers in 1961, 1963 and a rather late one in 1964. As he did so frequently in a Cardinals uniform, Simmons would pitch well and go 2-0 with one no-decision.
Curt Simmons would get the opening day start in 1966, the last of his Cardinals career. He would face the Phillies and their left handed ace, Chris Short. Short is at the high point in his career, winning 17 in 1964 and 18 more in 1965. He would go on to win 20 for the only time in his career in 1966. On this day, he was as good as any pitcher the Cardinals had faced. He would go 9 2/3 innings before being relieved by former Cardinal, Roger Craig. Simmons pitched well for the Cardinals, but the story was the bullpen. Nelson Briles, Joe Hoerner and Al Jackson had pitched 4 innings of shutout baseball. Dennis Aust, a short right hander would finish up the game with 2 strong innings. Unfortunately he would pitch three. In the twelfth inning, former Cardinal Bill White and future Cardinal Richie Allen would get to Aust and give him the only decision in his short career, an opening day loss.
Bob Gibson (1965, 1967-1975) 2-2 with 6 no decisions
The Gibson era would truly begin with a historic season opener in 1965 at Wrigley Field in Chicago. New manager Red Schoendienst was handed one of the finest rotations in Cardinals history, and at the top of it was Bob Gibson. Gibson would respond with the first of his five 20 win seasons (to go with two more 19 win seasons and an 18 win one). Facing Gibson was former Cardinal ace, Larry Jackson. Jackson wouldn’t make it out of the first inning as the Cardinals jumped out to a quick lead. Cubs errors (5 on the day) and the inability to find the strike zone doomed Jackson. Unfortunately Gibson was not all that much more effective and left after 3 1/3 innings. The bullpen did not fare any better as Ron Taylor, Tracy Stallard and Barney Schultz got roughed up by Cubs bats, although Stallard was the best of the three, going 4 1/3 innings and allowing only a single hit. It was that hit plus a walk that led to a Ron Santo three run homer in the bottom of the ninth off Barney Schultz which tied the game at 9.
What happens next makes this game historic. In the bottom of the tenth inning, a young left hander named Steve Carlton makes his major league debut. He faces one batter, and walks him. To make things even more historic, the game would end after 10 innings as a 10-10 tie. Yes, a tie in the Major Leagues. In 1965, there were no lights at Wrigley field and there was a late afternoon curfew that came into play.
The game would be made up on July 11 and the Cardinals would lose both games of the double header 6-0. Wrigley Field wasn’t being friendly to the Cards lefties on this day.
Gibson would return as the opening day starter in 1967 and throw a complete game shutout against the Giants, striking out 13 along the way. Not to be outdone, he would combine with Ray Washburn to throw a brilliant 3 hitter against the Braves in 1968. Washburn would collect the victory in relief. With a healthy Ray Washburn, the Cardinals run on their second consecutive National League pennant was all but assured. The only question would be who they would face in the fall classic.
Gibson would again take the mound in the 1969 opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates, but would be long gone by the time a decision was recorded. As they had been for several years, Bob Gibson and Joe Hoerner were brilliant. Gibson went 9 innings, striking out 10. Hoerner went another 4 innings without allowing a hit, facing the minimum number of hitters (12). Mel Nelson would take the mound in the 14th inning give up 4 runs in 2/3 of an inning. This was Nelson’s second time with the Cardinals and this would be his only decision in his final year in the majors.
In 1970, Gibson would open the season in Montreal and combine with Chuck Taylor for a nice 7-2 win. George Culver, obtained from Cincinnati for long time fan favorite Ray Washburn, got the home opener against the Mets and pitched a good game for the win.
The 1971 opening day game was one for the ages. It featured two of the best right handers in the game – Bob Gibson and Chicago’s Fergie Jenkins. The battle in Chicago did not disappoint anybody, although Cardinal fans didn’t like the outcome. Both men brought their “A” game, as they always did when facing each other. Jenkins went 10 innings, allowing only a single run on a home run by Joe Torre. Gibson went the distance as well, 9 1/3 innings. A one out home run by Billy Williams in the bottom of the 10th inning was the difference in the game as the Cubs won 2-1.
The home opener in 1971 was a sentimental one as the St. Louis native, lefty Jerry Reuss took the mound against the Giants. He lasted all of three innings and would take the loss. Reuss would never live up to his potential for the team he grew up watching. After a clash with Cardinals owner Gussie Busch over facial hair, Reuss would be sent to Houston following the season. He would go on to have a nice long career for Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, helping both teams get into post-season with regularity. He would end his 22 year career with an amazing 220 victories, which proves that if you are a lefty and can throw strikes, you can have a long career in the major leagues.
In 1972, Gibson would open the season at home against the Montreal Expos. Montreal would get off to a quick lead on a two run homer by future Cardinal Mike Jorgensen. Gibson would settle down and leave after 6 innings, down 2-0. The Cardinals would later tie the game at 2. In his second inning of relief, Al Santorini would give up a leadoff single to future Cardinal, Ron Hunt. Jose Cruz misplayed Hunt’s single, allowing him to advance to second. An infield ground out and a sacrifice fly and the Expos led 3-2, a lead they would make hold up. One hit and Santorini takes a hard luck loss.
Bob Gibson takes a 5-2 lead into the bottom of the 8th inning in the 1973 opener at Pittsburgh. With one out, the Pirates loaded the bases against Gibson and Red Schoendienst went to his bullpen, calling on Diego Segui. Segui would be lit up like a Christmas Tree and would take the loss as the Pirates scored 5 runs, three being charged to Gibson.
Bob Gibson would face former Cardinal Jerry Reuss in the home opener in 1974. It was a typical Reuss pitched game. The Cardinals always seemed to have runners in scoring position, and managed to plate 4 of them in his 7 innings. Gibson went 8, and while he looked much better than Reuss, the score was tied at 4. The Cardinals would light up former Cardinal relief specialist, Dave Guisti and Al Hrabosky would earn the first of his 8 victories, although it was not a spotless outing for the Mad Hungarian. Al Hrabosky put together two amazing seasons in 1974 and 1975, going a combined 21-4, all in relief. Many of those appearances were multiple innings. Nobody was any better than Hungo and he received quite a few Cy Young votes for his 13-3 1.66 ERA 1975 season.
In his last season in the majors, Bob Gibson took the ball on opening day against the Montreal Expos. This was a historic game as two of the best pitchers of their era were making their last opening day starts. Facing Gibson was former Baltimore Orioles ace, Dave McNally. Both hurlers would finish the season with 3 victories, McNally getting one of them in this game. A huge crowd turned out to cheer on these two legends, and both starters turned in a good game. Had Red gone to his bullpen after 7 innings like he should have, Gibson might have one more victory. Cardinal fans will still remember those 12 strikeouts, as if it was Gibson’s farewell gift to all those in attendance.
In the post-Gibson era, Lynn McGlothen would get the first opening day start in 1976. It was hoped that McGlothen would follow in Gibson’s footsteps, but alas that was not to be. John Denny and Bob Forsch would get the next opening day starts as the Cardinals searched for an ace to anchor the top of the rotation. That would eventually happen as Joaquin Andujar and John Tudor formed one of the best 1-2 starters in the 1980s.