Maybe it goes back to performing in the chorus of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance in 1972, eight leap years after Frederic was finally freed from indenture on his 21st birthday at age 84.
Whatever the root reason, the rarest day on the calendar has always held a special fascination. So on Feb. 29, 2012, it seems like a good idea to use this space to share a little leap day nostalgia.
Feb. 29 has never been an especially good sports date. Only four times in the past century has it fallen on a Sunday. The last time was 2004, when the BCS agreed to add a fifth bowl game, Tiger Woods beat Davis Love III in the WGC-Match Play and Augusta’s Vaughn Taylor “played it safe” in his first final round contending in a PGA Tour event and wound up tumbling from two shots off the lead to 34th in the now defunct Tucson Open.
The two most significant sports milestones that took place on leap day were Hank Aaron signing Major League Baseball’s first $200,000 contract with the Braves in 1972 and Gordie Howe scoring his then-record 800th goal for the Hartford Whalers in 1980.
On the last Feb. 29th, in 2008, Jair Jurrjens made his spring training debut with the Braves and the Josey girls basketball team was eliminated in the Class AA quarterfinals after making a surprise postseason run with only six varsity players under first-year coach Ann Jennings.
The rare date hasn’t exactly stood out in the delivery department either, with the list of athletic leaplings being led by baseball’s Gashouse Gang member Pepper Martin (1904) and hockey’s “Pocket Rocket” Henri Richard (1936). Former Atlanta Hawks forward Chucky Brown was born on Feb. 29th along with three members of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team (divers Brian Gillooly and Chris Devine and rower Cyrus Beasley).
Dinah Shore, whose name headlined the LPGA’s most popular major for decades, was born on leap day in 1916.
My favorite obscure leapling trivia was provided by another former Braves player. Born on Feb. 29, 1952, Al Autry was the starting pitcher at Fulton County Stadium for the Braves against the Houston Astros on Sept. 14, 1976 (a leap year). He pitched five innings, giving up four hits and striking out three to earn the win in a 4-3 Braves victory. It was Autry’s only appearance in the major leagues.
Only one player has won the Masters Tournament in multiple leap years, with Arnold Palmer donning the green jacket in 1960 and ’64. Phil Mickelson (2004) and Trevor Immelman (2008) have the best chances to match that this year, though Vijay Singh (2000) might have had a better shot if he’d been born one year and one week later than his Feb. 22, 1963, birth date.
Outside the sports realm, leap day has its share of highlights going back to Sarah Good and Tituba being accused of witchcraft and sparking the famous Salem witch trials. (Another leap link since I played Giles “More Weight” Corey in my high school’s performance of The Crucible.)
For instance, there is the life story of Sir James Wilson – an Australian politician as Premier of Tasmania – who is the only notable person to have been born (1812) and died (1880) on Feb. 29.
The first Playboy Club featuring its famous bunnies was opened on leap day in Chicago in 1960.
The Beatles won a Grammy on Feb. 29, 1968, for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but it’s the Oscars that have the more notable leap day history.
The 1940 Academy Awards were held on the leap day when the Pirates’ Frederic finally came of age. Gone with the Wind blew away noteworthy rivals The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to win eight Oscars, including best picture. Hattie McDaniel took home Best Supporting Actress, becoming the first African-American to win an Oscar. Eighteen leap years later, Octavia Spencer won the same honor on Sunday for her supporting role in The Help.
In 2004, while Lord of the Rings swept up 11 Oscars on leap night, another strange confluence of leap significance took place. Charlize Theron won Best Actress for her leading role in Monster, in which she played the part of infamous serial killer Aileen Wuornos.
Wuornos, of course, was born on Feb. 29, 1956.
Happy leap day.