Gene Budig: Baseball's Opening Day a thrill for players, fans

Gene Budig: Baseball's Opening Day a thrill for players, fans

Larry Doby, the first black man to play in the American League, liked to talk with me about Opening Days at old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland.

"The colors that I remember were the pristine white and sharp gray of the neatly pressed uniforms, depicting the home and visiting teams," he would say.

The Hall of Fame center fielder who led the Indians to the World Series championship in 1948 said the color of skin was not, in any way, a factor at the openers.

It was a reunion with the community, celebrating the return of America's pastime.

What he vividly remembered was the massive size of the stadium, the beauty of the freshly cut grass and manicured field, the smell of ballpark foods like hot dogs with mustard and freshly prepared popcorn, and the always novel and entertaining moments that legendary owner Bill Veeck would provide for themultitude of patrons.

He especially liked to recall the bright faces of the youngsters and their attentive parents, all captivated by the significance of the moment and thrilled to be a living part of it.

Larry looked forward to seeing opposing players like outfielders Ted Williams and Dom DiMaggio of the rival Boston Red Sox, and catcher Yogi Berra and shortstop Phil Rizzuto of the always contending New York Yankees. It was against the rules to talk to opposing players, but those four always went out of their way to address Larry.

That special recognition meant a lot to Larry Dobyas did the feeling of being wanted and valued.

Larry Doby was my special assistant when I served as president of the American League from 1994 to 2000. He was a superior human being and player, being the first black to win the home run title in the major leagues and the first to win an RBI title in the American League. He was on pennant-winning teams in Cleveland in both 1948 and 1954.

Another legendary player who loved Opening Day was Joe DiMaggio, who once told me that playing in New York on Opening Day "was like a rite of passage in a cathedral." He still holds the 56-game hitting streak streak, was a 13-time American League All-Star, and played in nine World Series as the center fielder for the New York Yankees.

I first met Joe when I was president of West Virginia University in the 1970s, when he would visit the state regularly to inspect his mineral investments with coal and natural-gas owners. When I assumed the American League position, we rekindled our friendship and talked regularly and attended World Series games at Yankee Stadium.

His memories of the openers at the stadium were vivid, remembering the large number of beaming faces of the kids and the intensity of the fans.

"Yankee fans were like no others," he told me. "They knew the game, and losing was not an option with them. They came to Opening Day to win, cheer and boo, to begin something memorable for the season. You had to respect their knowledge of the game."

Both Hall of Famers thought Opening Day was a time to be thankful for the privilege of playing the game.

Gene Budig was president of the Major League Baseball's American League, president of Illinois State University and West Virginia University, and chancellor of the University of Kansas. He is a co-owner of the Charleston, S.C., RiverDogs, a Class A team of the New York Yankees.

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