Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 4/5/12

‘What’s to-day?’ cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.
‘Eh?’ returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.
‘What’s to-day, my fine fellow?’ said Scrooge.
‘To-day?’ replied the boy. ‘Why, Christmas Day.’
Charles Dickens, 1843

“Happy opening day,” Bobby Valentine says, and then he pauses to reconsider. “Third opening day. Yesterday, Japan and today. Happy third opening day.”
The New York Times, 2012

For many a year one had no difficulty in answering a version of Ebenezer Scrooge’s simple question: what is today? When does the baseball season start? It starts on Opening Day, of course. But how do we define what is and what is not Opening Day?

Traditionally, we think of Opening Day as a think that happens in April and in America (or Canada). But it has not always been thus. In fact, the first game of the 1871 season was played on May 4, as the Ft. Wayne Kekiongas defeated the Cleveland Forest Citys 2-0, behind a shutout by Bobby Mathews.

The great Deacon White was behind the plate for the Forest Citys, and he led off and had two of his team’s four hits, including a double, their only extra base hit. But he also allowed three passed balls. It was that kind of season for White, who batted .322 on the season but committed 34 recorded errors in 29 games. In later years he would play most of his games in the outfield and at third base.

White was also known for being a bit pious, if you will. (Will was also his brother’s name, as Bradley Woodrum has written.) As his SABR biographer, Joseph Overfield, put it: “He saved his money, made it a habit to go to church (hence his name Deacon), neither drank nor smoked, and was never known to sit in on a game of stud poker.”

In any event, baseball has not always opened in April — indeed, baseball’s historic trendline has always been toward expanding to more teams, more playoff teams, more playoff rounds, and a longer overall season. This year, the first official game took place on March 28, the ninth year in which baseball’s regular season began in March and the fourth that it did so in Japan. In addition to the four trips to Japan, teams also began their season in Mexico in 1999 and in Puerto Rico in 2001.

The first March Opening Day was in 1996 in the States, as the Mariners beat the White Sox 3-2 behind a 14-strikeout performance by reigning Cy Young winner Randy Johnson. If anything, the league may have been making up for lost time; the strike-shortened 1995 season had opened on April 25, which (as far as I can tell) is the latest opening day since the 1870′s, though the 1943 season opened on April 20. However, Retrosheet box scores are spotty between 1871 and 1918, so I would be happy to be corrected.

Two years ago, Major League Baseball explicitly tied its March Opening Day for the 2011 season to a desire to make sure the postseason ended in the month of October, as indeed it did, with Game Seven being played on October 28. But this year, the World Series is slated to begin on Wednesday, October 24, five days later than last year. Assuming that baseball follows the same World Series schedule as last year — Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Thursday, Friday — then the potential seventh game of the World Series would fall on November 2.

Since the playoffs expanded in 1995, baseball has only been played in November three times: Game Seven in 2001 was on November 4, as was Game Six in 2009, and Game Five in 2010 was on November 1. Prior to the playoff expansion, the latest the playoffs had ever gone was Game Four on October 28, in 1981 and 1989, but that was because the strike delayed the 1981 season and the 1989 World Series featured a 10-day break due to the Loma Prieta earthquake during Game Three.

For many years, the team most associated with Opening Day has been in Cincinnati, home of the first professional baseball team, Harry Wright’s Cincinnati Red Stockings, founded in 1869. (The modern Reds are technically descended from a later team called the Cincinnati Reds, founded in 1876 in the National League. The earlier Red Stockings decamped to Boston, where they became the Boston Red Stockings of the National Association and later the Beaneaters, Bees, and finally Braves of the National League. They’re in Atlanta now, the oldest continuously-operating franchise in baseball.)

Since the founding of the first modern major league, the National League, in 1876, the Cincinnati ball club has been granted the right to open its season at home nearly every year. This was even true during an eight-year period in the wilderness of the American Association from 1882-1889; the Reds were booted from the NL in 1880, but still managed to retain their Opening Day privileges in their new league, and kept them once more when they came back to the NL in 1890. The Society for Cincinnati Sports Research explains the circumstances of the ban:

At a special league meeting in October of 1880, the other seven clubs passed a rule prohibiting the sale of alcohol at league parks, even at non-league games, and use of the park on Sundays. Failure to comply would mean termination of the franchise. These new rules were directed squarely toward Cincinnati. Unlike the other league cities whose population was rooted in old English puritanical leanings, Cincinnati consisted of a heavy beer-drinking German population. It was customary for Cincinnati’s German immigrants to serve beer at all gatherings, and the revenue generated by beer sales was vital to the Reds. When Reds ownership refused to sign the pledge, Cincinnati was unceremoniously dumped to be replaced by the Detroit Wolverines for the 1881 season.

Well, Deacon White may have preferred Cleveland, but Cincinnati sounds like my kind of city. The Reds opened their season today at 4 pm, in their home stadium, as they have done for a century and more. Even if it’s the third Opening Day of the year, it’s still Opening Day. As Tiny Tim might say, God bless us, every one!

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