On This Date in Sports April 1, 1996: Tragedy on Opening Day

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

The celebration of Opening Day in Cincinnati turns somber, as home plate umpire John McSherry collapses at behind home plate a few pitches into the game against the Montreal Expos. McSherry would die a short time later as efforts to resuscitate failed. The 51-year-old had served as a National League umpire since 1971. The game would be postponed one day as both players and umpires were too upset to continue.

Opening Day in Cincinnati is like no other. The Reds, who are celebrated as the first professional baseball team dating back to 1869, are assigned to open at home every season. The City of Cincinnati celebrates with a parade as Opening Day is a Civic Holliday with schools closed for the day. Despite some snow in the morning, Opening Day in Cincinnati was like any other. After the 1995 season following the strike, the opener in 1996 felt like a return to normalcy. Riverfront Stadium was full, the Montreal Expos and Cincinnati Reds were introduced, the lineups were exchanged, and John McSherry had yelled play ball. Just seven pitches later, McSherry singed to his other umpires and tried to walk back to exit the field. He did not make it, collapsing behind home plate. Doctors rushed to the field as everyone watched in shock. Efforts to save John McSherry were in vain as he was pronounced dead from heart failure at a local hospital.

John McSherry had been a National League umpire since 1971. One of the most recognizable umpires due to his size. McSherry was born in the Bronx on September 11, 1944. He was one of the most popular and respected umpires in the league. He worked two World Series, three All-Star Game and was assigned the NLCS eight times. He finished the 1995 season working in the NLDS and was in his 26th year as an umpire working as a crew chief. 

Mark Grudzielanek was the Expos' leadoff hitter; he took the first pitch from Pete Schourek, which was down the middle but called a ball. Signs of trouble were there, but nobody seemed to notice as John McSherry was struggling. Grudzielanek would fly out to right on pitch two. Mark Lansing struck out on three pitches. Ronell White followed and had a 1-1 count when McSherry called time and began to walk to the back exit to get off the field. The game was delayed over an hour, with no announcement. Third base umpire Tom Hallion followed McSherry to the hospital, while Jerry Crawford and Steve Rippley stayed behind and waited for word. After McSherry was pronounced dead, a decision to postpone the game was made as Crawford and Rippley were too upset to continue.

Fans at Riverfront booed the decision to postpone the game, as communication was poor. Few in the stadium had known what had happened, as no announcements were made. Reds Owner Marge Schott did not help matters, saying that two umpires should have manned up and continued the game, even though Reds captain Barry Larkin had told manager Ray Knight he did not want to play after watching McSherry suffer a heart attack on the field. Schott acted like she was the victim, saying, “I feel cheated.” She would later send flowers to McSherry's family, the flowers given to her for opening day. A month later, Marge Schott was interviewed on ESPN over the incident. In that interview, she praised Adolph Hitler, beginning her eventual exit from baseball and the Cincinnati Reds.