Remembering when George Bell hit three homers on Opening Day

How big of a deal was it when Toronto Blue Jays slugger George Bell belted three home runs on Opening Day in 1988? Well, the feat was celebrated on the first card (above front and back) of the 792-card Topps set the following year.

By Kevin Glew

Cooperstowners in Canada

It’s the most dominant Opening Day performance in Toronto Blue Jays history.

On April 4, 1988, George Bell unleashed his frustrations and fury on Bret Saberhagen at Royals Stadium in Kansas City to become the first big leaguer to belt three home runs on Opening Day.

Almost as newsworthy was that the spirited slugger’s power barrage came with him as the Blue Jays’ designated hitter. Coming off his 47-home run, 1987 American League MVP season, Bell, the Blue Jays’ longtime left fielder, was informed by manager Jimy Williams that he’d be the club’s DH in 1988. In moving Bell to DH, Williams then shifted veteran centre fielder Lloyd Moseby to left field and inserted rookie Sil Campusano in centre.

It was a move that the fiery Bell refused to accept without a fight. The feisty outfielder and Williams had warred all spring about the decision and the feud reached its climax on March 17 in a spring training game against the Boston Red Sox in Dunedin when Bell, slated to be the club’s DH that day, declined to walk to the plate when his name was announced in the first inning. Bell was suspended and fined for his actions.

In the following days, the two sides managed to come to a truce, but Bell never embraced the idea of becoming a full-time DH. Fortunately for Bell, the experiment only lasted until April 17, when Campusano, who was hitting only .115, was benched and Moseby returned to centre field and Bell to left.

But getting back to Bell’s three-homer Opening Day outburst, while most Jays fans know of its historical significance, here are some facts you may not have known about that game, which was a 5-3 Blue Jays’ win over the Royals:

– Bell clubbed all three of his home runs off of Saberhagen, a two-time Cy Young Award winner. It was the only time in his major league career that Bell socked three homers in a game and it was the only time that Saberhagen permitted three round-trippers to one batter in the same game.

– Royals Stadium was known as a pitchers’ park. Multi-home run games there were relatively rare during that era, but the last player to hit three taters at Royals Stadium prior to Bell was future Blue Jays great Paul Molitor. He smashed three balls over the fence there as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers on May 12, 1982.

– Here’s how Royals catcher Mike MacFarlane described Bell’s homers to the Toronto Star after the game: “He hit two fastballs and a curve. The first one was a fastball up and in and he tomahawked it. The second was breaking ball down and away, and he golfed it with one arm. The third was a fastball in and he turned on it.”

– The only two players to hit home runs in that memorable 1988 opener were DHs named George (also with the initials “GB”). Royals DH George Brett belted a two-run homer off of Blue Jays’ lefty Jimmy Key in the first inning.

– Including Bell, five Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductees appeared in that 1988 season opener. The others were Lloyd Moseby, Tony Fernandez, Ernie Whitt and Tom Henke. 2002 inductee Cito Gaston was also present as the Blue Jays’ batting coach.

– Speaking of Henke, he had the best line about Bell’s performance after the game. According to Bell’s excellent biography (co-written by Bob Elliott), Henke walked by Bell’s locker and quipped, “What’s the big fuss? You haven’t even got a hit inside the park yet.” Even Bell laughed. Henke loved Bell as a teammate and told the Toronto Star, “This guy (Bell) won the game by himself. The guy is amazing. He’s my man.”

Photo: Zach Harmer, Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame

-Amazingly all three of Bell’s home run balls were retrieved and they are now part of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s collection in St. Marys, Ont. (see photo above).

– Often forgotten is the fact that Bell went 5-for-5 (with two doubles and three singles) in the Blue Jays’ 11-4 romp over the Royals in the second game of the 1988 season. It was the first time that a Blue Jay had gone 5-for-5 in a game. After two contests, Bell was hitting .888 with six runs.

– Three other players have hit three home runs on Opening Day since Bell did it: Tuffy Rhodes in 1994 for the Chicago Cubs, Dimitri Young in 2005 for the Detroit Tigers and Matt Davidson in 2018 for the Chicago White Sox.

– Five other Jays have hit two home runs on Opening Day: Doug Ault (1977), John Mayberry (1980), Shannon Stewart (2000), Tony Batista (2000) and J.P. Arencibia (2011).

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