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Tar Heel Firsts: UNC’s first MLB Opening Day starter

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The first former Tar Heel pitcher to take the mound on Opening Day came back in 1957.

Kansas City Royals v Detroit Tigers Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

It’s taken quite a while, but MLB had it’s Opening Day on Thursday. With the ongoing worries about COVID-19, this one is a bit different, but normal Opening Days are seen as a time of hope. We’re getting closer towards summer. Every team starts with the same record and all theoretically have a chance at the World Series.

One of the biggest distinctions you can have is to be a team’s Opening Day starting pitcher. Unless there’s an injury of some sort, they are the guy is a team has designated as their ace. That pitcher is the one they’re sending out to try and put their best foot forward for that season.

One former UNC baseball player to get an Opening Day starting spot is Matt Harvey, who did so for the Mets in 2016. However, he was far from the first. To find the first Tar Heel to get that honor, you have to go back to 1957.

Hal Brown was entering his seventh big league season and third with the Baltimore Orioles in 1957. He had originally been signed by the Red Sox out of UNC, but was traded to a Pacific Coast League team while still in the minors.

While there, he caught the eye of the White Sox, for whom he would make his big league debut in 1951. He spent two mostly below average seasons there, moving between the rotation and bullpen. In the offseason before 1952, he went back to Boston in a deal involving both Sox teams. He spent parts of the next three seasons there, again putting up average numbers as both a starter and reliever.

During the 1955 season, the Red Sox let him walk and he returned out west to join a Pacific Coast League team. He wouldn’t stay long out there as he put in several dominant performances and was quickly picked up by the Baltimore Orioles.

The 1955 Orioles were a very bad team in just their second year in the city after moving from St. Louis. Brown again didn’t put up overwhelming numbers, but they were pretty solid for an otherwise dismal team.

His 1956 was more of the same, but he was again a bright spot on a team with not a lot of them. That allowed him to get the nod on the very first day of the season the next year.

Brown started off well that day against the Washington Senators, retiring nine of the first ten hitters he faced. However, that was followed with a five-run inning. The first Opening Day starting pitcher in UNC history was chased from the game after 3.2 innings. The Orioles did actually rally to win the game 7-6.

The 1957 one was another average one for Brown, but after that he became a very solid pitcher. His best season came in 1960, where he put up a 3.06 ERA and helped Baltimore to second place in the AL, by far their best finish since their move.

Brown played through 1964, playing a couple more years with the Orioles before finishing his career with stints on the Yankees and Astros, then called the Colt .45s.

One thing that should be noted is that it’s unclear from my research just how much, if at all, Brown played for the UNC baseball team. He spent just one semester at the school before joining the Air Force and serving in World War II. When he finished his service, he signed with the Red Sox to start his pro career. The UNC baseball media guide claims him, so we will too.

Hal Brown is not the best baseball player to come out of UNC, but he is a notable one.

Sources

https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/brownha01.shtml

https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/hal-brown/

https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/WS1/WS1195704150.shtml

https://goheels.com/documents/2020/2/13/2020_UNC_Baseball_Guide_Final.pdf