Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

Presidential First Pitch — a Century of Tradition

President Barack Obama is scheduled to throw out the first pitch for today’s opening day game between the Washington Nationals and the Philadelphia Phillies.  One hundred years ago, on April 14, 1910, President William Howard Taft threw out the first pitch to start the game between the American League teams Washington Nationals and the Philadelphia Athletics, managed by the great Connie Mack and led by Hall of Famers Eddie Plank and Eddie Collins.

Unlike today’s highly choreographed Presidential event, Taft’s first pitch and the game itself had plenty of unplanned and surprising twists.

The appearance of President Taft and his entourage was actually spontaneous and unannounced and took the team’s management by surprise. Nevertheless, the team’s management rolled out the red carpet treatment.  Here is an accounting of how and, more importantly, why Taft arrived at the ball park during the fine Spring day.

Taft had sweated through a rough reception earlier in the day from the 42nd annual Suffergist convention, which hadn’t taken kindly to his suggestion that “Power might be exercised by the least desirable persons” should women be allowed to vote. “This did not please the Suffergists,” reported the Washington Post, ” and although President Taft was their guest, his speech was interrupted by an outburst of hisses from all over the hall.  Withe the hisses were halfe-suppressed “catcalls””  After that “trying moment.” Taft suggested to (Vice President) Sherman that they take in the game.[1]

We actually have Washington manager Jimmy McAleer to thank for this grand tradition. Once they arrived at the game, it was McAleer’s insistence that Taft throw out the first pitch and Walter Johnson, Washington’s star pitcher, catch the throw. The complete spontaneity of the situation was underscored by Taft’s reaction when he was handed the ball:

The president took the ball in his gloved hand as if he were at a loss what to do with it until Evans told him he was expected to throw it over the plate when he gave the signal. He handed to the ball to Mrs. Taft, who accompanied him. She weighed it carefully in her hand while the president was doffing his new kid gloves in preparation for his debut as a baseball pitcher. The president watched the players warm up, and a few minutes later shook hands with the managers, McAleer and Mack. When the bell rang for the beginning of the game, the president shifted uneasily in his seat, the umpire gave the signal, and Mr. Taft raised his arm. Catcher Street stood at the home plate ready to receive the ball, but the president knew the pitcher was the man who usually began business operations with it, so he threw it straight to Pitcher Walter Johnson. The throw was a little low, but the pitcher stuck out his long arm and grabbed the ball before it hit the ground, while the insurgents in the bleachers cheered wildly. The ball was never actually put into play, as it is to be retained as a souvenir of the occasion. [2]

The game , itself, was nearly marked by tragedy. 

Secretary of State Charles Bennett, sitting in the White House box with the President and Vice President Sherman, was struck on the head by a foul drive from the bat of Frank “Home Run” Baker of the Athletics, and the park was in panic until Bennet waived off first aid and demonstrated he had not been hurt. [3]

The Philadelphia Athletics would go on to win the World Championship in 1910.  However, on this opening day, they wre held to a single hit by the great Walter Johnson as the Senators won 3-0.  The hit itself was controversial as Washington right fielder Doc Gessler tripped over a fan who had encroached onto the field.

Gessler was heartbroken, feeling that he had cost johson the no-hitter, and afterwards apologized profusely when the two met at the hotel.  Johnson, accoridng to the Post’s account of the conversation, assured Gessler there was no reason to feel bad.  “That’s all right, Doc,” he told him, “We won, didn’t we?  Well, that is good enough.” [1]

Since President Taft inauguaral throw, a number of other chief executives have throw out the ceremonial first pitch including Presidents Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Bush

Baseball historian Peter Morris talks about Presidential first pitches in this NPR interview

See NBC’s David Gregory talk about this great tradition (see video at bottom)

Sources

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