Opening Day in Cincinnati is special. Everything basically shuts down. A big parade is held and a party atmosphere pervades the city. The Reds have not gotten the honor of hosting the absolute first game of each year’s baseball schedule for some time, but the first Reds game each year — always at home, always a day game — is a special experience.
Opening Day 1996, however, was a tragic one, as home plate umpire John McSherry, working his 26th season as a major league umpire, collapsed and died during the first inning of the Reds game against the Montreal Expos.
McSherry was in good spirits before the game, jokingly telling Reds catcher, Eddie Taubensee, “Eddie, you can call the first two innings.” A few moments later, however, there were some signs — recognized only in hindsight — that something was off. Expos coach Jim Tracy said that when he brought out his team’s lineup card, McSherry slurred some of his words. Reds starter Pete Schourek was surprised when his first pitch of the game — a fastball delivered to leadoff hitter Mark Grudzielanek that was right down the middle — was hesitantly called a ball, as if perhaps McSherry didn’t really see the pitch.
Things proceeded normally for a few moments. Grudzielanek flied out to right. Expos second baseman Mike Lansing struck out swinging. Then Rondell White came to bat. With the count 1-1, McSherry stepped away from the plate, raised his right hand, and waved it toward second base. Taubensee later recalled that McSherry said “hold on, timeout for a second.” Taubensee thought that maybe McSherry had pulled a muscle in his leg or hurt his back. He walked back toward the gate in the stands that led to tunnel leading to the umpire’s room. That’s when he collapsed.
McSherry never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead of a massive heart attack at University Hospital in Cincinnati about an hour after the start of the game. He was just 51 years-old. His was the first death to occur in the course of a major league game since the Cleveland Indians’ Ray Chapman was struck and killed by a pitch during a game in 1920.
The immediate aftermath of McSherry collapsing and being taken away was, quite obviously, characterized by shock and confusion. At 2:45 — over an hour and a half after McSherry collapsed — the PA announcer told the 53,000 in attendance at Riverfront Stadium that the game would resume in 30 minutes. It was not until well after 3PM that the crowd was told that the game was postponed until the following day. It was not announced over the loudspeaker that McSherry had died.
That delay was a product of some understandable confusion and emotion on the part of umpiring crew and the teams on the field.
Third base umpire Tom Hallion followed McSherry to the hospital leaving umpires Jerry Crawford and Steve Rippley at the stadium. It’s hardwired in umpires that the game must go on and, often, umpiring crews will continue on when one or even two of their colleagues fall ill or get injured. They come up in the minor leagues working as two-man crews and they’re equipped to handle it. Reds manager Ray Knight told Crawford that he was 100% behind him and Rippley and would do whatever they wanted to do, and said that they were fine to just go home. Crawford — later admitting that he was in shock and was auto-piloting to some degree — said that he planned to go with two umpires and to play the game when the starting pitchers were ready.
At that point Knight and the players stepped in. From Tim Sullivan, writing that evening for the Cincinnati Enquirer:
On an afternoon when the umpires were incapable of dispassionate opinions, it fell to the players and managers to provide perspective . . . . “Barry (Larkin) told me very quietly and with very much emotion: ‘Ray, I’ve had a lot of deaths in my family. In good conscience, out of respect for life, I can’t go out there.’ ”
Larkin and outfielder Eric Davis then went to the umpires’ room behind home plate to offer their condolences and express their concerns.
A few minutes later, Crawford called the game off, citing the emotions of all involved. “It’s probably a little too traumatic,” he said.
Not everyone was as thoughtful as Barry Larkin, Eric Davis, and Ray Knight. Reds owner Marge Schott felt that this had all happened to her.
“I feel cheated,” said Schott, “This isn’t supposed to happen to us, not in Cincinnati. This is our day, our tradition, our team.” It had snowed that morning, threatening Opening Day, and Schott said “First snow, now this.” Schott called the National League office and complained to Vice President Katy Feeney, saying “This is screwy, I’m telling you . . . you can’t imagine the boos that are going on here. Why can’t we play the game? This man wouldn’t want to disappoint 50,000 fans.” Schott later said, “We’ll never play on April Fools’ Day again,” Schott said later.
A month later Schott would be caught on camera praising Adolf Hitler, saying “Everybody knows he was good at the beginning but he just went too far.” She would be suspended from active ownership for two years.
Perhaps his most notable game as an umpire came during game six of the 1977 World Series. That was the game in which Reggie Jackson hit three home runs off three different Dodgers pitchers. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda later told the story that, after Jackson’s first home run off Burt Hooton, Lasorda asked McSherry during a pitching change who he should bring in from the bullpen. McSherry said Lasorda should bring in Elías Sosa. Lasorda was going to bring in Sosa anyway — it was just banter — but for years he’d joke with McSherry that it was his fault that Sosa gave up Jackson’s second home of the night.
After his death it was revealed that McSherry had a doctor’s appointment scheduled for the next day. It was a followup due to the fact that he had been diagnosed with a cardiac arrhythmia. McSherry was well over 300 pounds as well, and after the incident, Major League Baseball began to require that its umpires be more physically fit. While some veteran umpires are, it would appear, given a bit of leeway in this regard, almost all newly-hired umpires since the 1990s have been in better shape than one might typically see from the men in blue in previous generations.
McSherry was not remembered just by his death, however. The National League retired his number 10 (it has since been re-issued after MLB assumed oversight of umpires). The Mets wore a patch on their sleeves that season in his honor. The Reds named the umpires room at Riverfront Stadium after him.
Still, anyone who was a baseball fan in 1996 will forever remember the tragedy of that afternoon. As well, quite obviously, the people who were at the ballpark that day.
“I watched a man die today,” Reds pitcher Pete Schourek said at the time. As did thousands more. It’s something they’ll always remember.
Also today in baseball history:
1950: The Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League wear shorts and rayon shirts as their Opening Day uniform. In 1976, the White Sox will do the same, to much greater notoriety.
1962: College basketball star Dave DeBusschere signs as a pitcher with the White Sox. He will compile a 3-4 record in 36 appearances with Chicago in 1962 and 1963 and will pitch in 67 minor league games in the minors between 1964 and 1965, winning 15 games in each of those two seasons. He does this all while beginning his NBA career with the Pistons in the 1962-63 season. He commits full time to basketball in 1966 and goes on to enjoy a Hall of Fame career with the Pistons and Knicks.
1963: The Mets purchase the contract of Duke Snider from the Los Angeles Dodgers for $40,000, bringing The Duke back to New York where his career began.
1969: The Seattle Pilots trade minor-league outfielder Lou Piniella to their fellow expansion team, the Kansas City Royals, for outfielder Steve Whitaker and pitcher John Gelnar. Piniella will go on to win the Rookie of the Year Award in Kansas City.
1987: Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden avoids suspension for substance abuse by agreeing to enter a drug rehab facility. Gooden will miss the first two months of the season, making his first start on June 5. He’ll win 15 games that year.