Archive for Sunday, April 2, 2006

Baseball revives presidential tradition

From Taft to Bush, U.S. leaders have thrown first pitch

April 2, 2006

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— For much of the last century, when Washington was home to a baseball team known as the Senators, presidents typically took center stage on opening day.

Starting with William Howard Taft in 1910 and continuing through Richard Nixon in 1969, every president threw out at least one opening-day pitch. After the Senators left town, presidents headed north to Baltimore for the duty.

When the capital got a team (the Washington Nationals of the National League) back last year, President Bush resumed the tradition, taking the pitcher's mound at RFK Stadium.

This season, the president is throwing the first pitch at the Reds' opener Monday in Cincinnati. The White House has not said whether Bush would do the honors April 11 at the Nationals' home opener.

Over the years, Washington usually started its season a day before the rest of the American League in what became known as the presidential opener. Congress recessed for the day so members could attend.

At the beginning, the president threw the ball to the starting pitcher or even the umpire.


President Bush throws out the first pitch prior to the Washington Nationals home opener in this April 14, 2005 file photo. The White House has not said whether Bush would do the honors this year at the Nationals' home opener April 11.

President Bush throws out the first pitch prior to the Washington Nationals home opener in this April 14, 2005 file photo. The White House has not said whether Bush would do the honors this year at the Nationals' home opener April 11.

Later, from his box in the stands, the chief executive tossed the ball over a scrum of photographers into a crowd of players from both teams. Whoever caught the ball brought it over to the president for an autograph.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed for White Sox outfielder Jim Rivera. According to a report years later by Chicago Tribune writer David Condon, "Jungle Jim" immediately demanded a more legible signature.

"Do you think I can go into any tavern on Chicago's South Side and really say the president of the United States signed this baseball for me?" Rivera said. "I'd be run off."

Laughing, the young president agreed to sign the ball more legibly. "You know," Rivera replied, "you're all right."

In the days before luxury boxes, Senators' owner Clark Griffith arranged for Woodrow Wilson to watch the game from his car parked in foul territory, outside the right-field line. Griffith made the arrangements because Wilson had been partially paralyzed by a stroke. Griffith even stationed a player in front of Wilson's car to protect it from getting hit by foul balls.

Sometimes, the star power of a president would lead to mishaps on the field. In the 1910 opener, Washington outfielder Doc Gessler was daydreaming about hitting a grand slam and talking to Taft about it. A fly ball quickly brought Gessler back to earth. Backing up, Gessler tripped over a fan (spectators could stand on the field behind a rope back then) and the ball dropped for a double. It was the only hit that pitcher Walter Johnson surrendered that day.

At the 1936 opener, Senators pitcher Bobo Newsom and third baseman Ossie Bluege converged on a bunt. As Bluege fielded the ball, Newsom took his eye off the play to glance at President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the stands. Bluege's throw to first nailed his distracted pitcher in the face, leading to a broken jaw.

Roosevelt threw out a record eight opening-day pitches - and made one crucial at-bat on behalf of baseball during World War II. On Jan. 15, 1942, little over a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt told the baseball commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, that the season should go on despite the war.

"There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before," FDR wrote in what became known as the "Green Light Letter."

FDR's successor, Harry Truman, had one of the worst receptions ever. His appearance at the Senators' home opener on April 20, 1951, came shortly after he had fired General Douglas MacArthur as Far East commander - and just one day after MacArthur went before Congress and uttered his famous line, "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away."

The crowd at Griffith Stadium booed Truman loudly. The Air Force Band tried to drown out the jeers with "Ruffles and Flourishes" and "Hail to the Chief."

Richard Nixon probably was the greatest baseball fan to occupy the Oval Office - with the possible exception of Bush, a former owner of the Texas Rangers, who originally had played in Washington.

In 1972, just a few weeks after the Watergate break-in that ultimately led to his resignation, Nixon wrote an article for the Associated Press that listed his all-time All Star teams.

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