Today’s topic is certainly old news, because Major League Baseball’s opening day happened eleven days ago. This reminds many of us of the Ceremonial first pitch by incumbant US Presidents. We enjoy watching our chief executive bobble the ball or sometimes do a respectable job of the all-important first pitch. The result provides fodder for talk shows and special interest filler for newscasts.
Some people wonder why Presidents don’t boot the first football kick-off for professional football, nor is there any mention of a presidential first hockey puck drop. Maybe that’s because those games are much more fast-paced than the pastoral game of baseball. On the other hand, our current President is a pretty good basketball tosser, yet Mr. Obama hasn’t made an honorary layup to start the NBA season. I suppose it helps that baseball’s first pitch tradition is more than a century old.
We have to go back through the mists of time, the administration of William Howard Taft, and lists of fond baseball legends to April 14, 1910.
A special seating box was placed in the stands for the roly-poly President, the First Lady, and the Presidential staff. The home team Washington Senators were all set to host the visiting Boston Red Sox with the Senators’ Walter Johnson scheduled as the starting pitcher.
There was one potential snag. The ace pitcher was actually quite shy, so he declined the honor of catching the first pitch. The catcher, Gabby Street, was asked to take up the slack. Senator’s manager Jimmy McAleer did not want his star pitcher to miss the once in a lifetime opportunity to make history, so McAleer told President Taft about Johnson’s decision.
When the time came to begin the game, Street was on the mound and Johnson stood nearby. From the special box in the stands, Taft heaved the ball to Johnson, not Street. The first Presidential throw was caught by the shy pitcher. Johnson’s name was then written in the ledgers of baseball history.
Johnson went on to have a great Opening Day game. He pitched a one-hitter as Washington blanked Boston 3 to 0. By the way, because the President was a big baseball fan, he remained in the stands to enjoy the entire game. The event was a huge success for everyone. President Taft received much needed positive publicity and had a fun day at the ballpark, baseball bigwigs were satisfied, the newspapers and fans were thrilled, and the game finally got it’s endorsement as the national pasttime.
Dyed in the wool baseball fans know that there was a chance that Taft might not have gotten the honor to become the first President to throw that very first pitch. Among the earlier Presidents who were offered an invitation was Grover Cleveland. He nixed the idea because he worried what the American public’s reaction would be if he “wasted” his time at a baseball game. So Taft is noteworthy in that he was the first to accept his invitation and show up for the event.
Why was there such a hubbub over getting the President to appear at a baseball game? Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith knew that baseball’s popularity was beginning to flag so the game needed a boost to prove its superiority over other sports. Griffith believed that getting the chief executive to attend a season opener would help. If the President actually participated in a meaningful way, so much the better. He knew that the ensuing publicity would stir up fan interest, too.
Griffith couldn’t have made a better choice, because Taft was already an enthusiastic baseball fan. The President was quite flattered to be asked to throw the first pitch. The gambit worked and the tradition took root during later presidencies.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes President Taft. “I like it (baseball) for two reasons. First, because I enjoy it myself and second, because if by the presence of the temporary first magistrate such a healthy amusement can be encouraged, I want to encourage it.”