MLB’s first Memorial Day without games in 140 years ends history-filled streak of holiday baseball


On May 30, 1871, the Boston Red Stockings featuring the Wright brothers, Harry and George, and Al Spalding outlasted 19-year-old Cap Anson and the Rockford Forest Citys by a score of 11-10. That was the lone game on the docket for the fledgling National Association, which would disband after the 1875 season and quickly reemerge as the National League. That same day, an escaped slave named Frederick Douglass, who would go on to become one of the most important political orators and writers in U.S. history, delivered an address at Arlington National Cemetery in which he extolled the sacrifices of the Union dead. He said in part

“Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable.”

In addition to the vastly lesser occasion of that Red Stockings’ victory, May 30, 1871 was also Decoration Day in the United States. That was the first time a baseball circuit considered to be major league in historical terms played on that day of observance. The holiday, not unlike organized professional baseball, emerged from the ruins of the American Civil War. Originally conceived as an homage to Union soldiers, Decoration Day following World War I and other global entanglements expanded to honor all fallen U.S. soldiers. The solemn holiday was observed every May 30 from 1868 until 1971, when it became formally known as Memorial Day and was instituted as a federal holiday on the last Monday of every May.  

That day in 1871 at Boston’s South End Grounds didn’t mark the uninterrupted origins of baseball’s pairing with Memorial Day, as no games were held on the day in 1875, the final year of the National Association. In 1876, though, the freshly minted National League held a four-game docket (an uncommonly large crowd of 12,000 saw the White Stockings fell the Red Stockings 5-1 in Boston), and another run of Memorial Day baseball lasted through 1879. The tradition, such as it was at the time, resumed in 1881 and grew, evolved over time. On a couple of early occasions, the day’s schedule included only one game. Eventually, though, league-wide twi-night doubleheaders became a tradition within a tradition. Thanks to the doubleheader and the short-lived presence of the major league-adjacent Federal League, 24 games peppered the schedule for May 30, 1914. Whatever the specifics of a given year, baseball on Memorial Day has been a reliable Memorial Day presence for well more than a century.

As professional sports leagues go, MLB is a relatively ancient one. As such, it’s seen plenty of tumults and upheaval over the years. On Monday, though, the league will endure something unprecedented in modern times — no baseball on Memorial Day for the first time in 140 years. 

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the start of the 2020 season is still tangled in uncertainty. If good fortunes prevail, then baseball will return by early July. Whatever the path forward, though, it’s too late for this particular streak to be extended. Given the sprawl of the game’s annals, it seems an unlikely end.

Memorial Day baseball survived the merging of the American and National Leagues in 1903, even though the early hostilities between the leagues snuffed out the 1904 World Series. U.S. involvement in World War I — and on a lesser level the flu pandemic of 1918 — compromised the 1918 and 1919 MLB seasons, but baseball on Memorial Day persisted. Baseball was played each May 30 through the Great Depression. 

Near the outset of American’s entry into World War II, FDR implored commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to keep baseball going, for purposes of uplift and consoling distraction, with his famous “Green Light Letter.” A week before U.S. forces prevailed in the Battle of Midway, MLB held a 16-game slate on Decoration Day 1942. A week before the Allied assault on Normandy, MLB marked Decoration Day 1944 with another 16 games. Memorial Day occasioned baseball even as seasons were periodically interrupted by labor strife from the 1970s through the 1990s. The labor stoppage of 1994 carved out the end of one season and the beginning of another, but Memorial Day baseball carried on. 

Not surprisingly, all these Decoration and Memorial Days have borne witness to a number of memorable instances of the sport. 

  • In 1904, Cubs first baseman Frank Chance was struck by a pitch five times across the span of a doubleheader (one of the five pitches knocked him unconscious). 
  • In 1913, Harry Hooper of the Red Sox became the first player to hit a leadoff home run in both games of a doubleheader. 
  • In 1922, Cliff Heathcoate of the Cubs and Max Flack of the Cardinals were traded for each other between games of a doubleheader featuring those same two teams. The players dutifully swapped uniforms.
  • In 1932 — again between games of a doubleheader — multiple White Sox players and even manager Lew Fonseca brawled with the plate umpire. 
  • In 1935, Babe Ruth, then of the Braves, played his final big-league game. 
  • Mickey Mantle on May 30, 1956 came within inches of hitting a ball over the upper deck of Yankee Stadium. 
  • Eighteen years later, Ken Brett of the Pirates shut out the Padres 6-0 in a full nine-inning game that lasted just one hour, 38 minutes. 
  • In 1977, 21-year-old Dennis Eckersley of the Indians authored a 12-strikeout Memorial Day no-hitter against the Angels. 
  • In 1990, Rickey Henderson broke Ty Cobb’s AL stolen base record. 
  • The Indians on Memorial Day 2009 came back from 10 runs down to the Rays to win.

That is but a sampling. Consider it a reminder of how often occasion has met moment, and also consider it a nod to the kind of thing we may miss this year because of the coronavirus. Perhaps, though, it’s fitting. Memorial Day at its heart is not a day for the living. It’s a day to remember those who died in service, so maybe we can view this extra layer of solemnity placed upon this year’s holiday as somehow appropriate. However you approach it, baseball on Monday will in a sense be dominating in its absence. 





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