Obama to mark 100th anniversary of first pitch on Nationals Opening Day, April 5
On April 5, next Monday, President Obama will mark the 100th anniversary of the American and DC baseball tradition of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch as the Nationals open their season against last year’s National League Pennant winning Philadelphia Phillies. Since 1910 every President has thrown out at least one ceremonial first ball or pitch, either for Opening Day, the All-Star Game, or the World Series. This will be the 48th time a President has thrown out the first pitch in the city.
“I am proud that President Obama will continue the long presidential tradition of throwing out the first pitch of opening day in Washington, D.C.,” baseball commissioner Bud Selig said.
Obama will have an experienced target, too: When he played in Texas, new Nationals catcher Ivan Rodriguez, a 14-time All-Star, twice caught ceremonial pitches from President George W. Bush, a former Texas Rangers owner.
The tradition began April 14, 1910 when President William Howard Taft threw out the first pitch from the grandstand on a warm spring day before a record crowd of 12,226 fans filled Griffith Stadium.
According to Baseball Almanac and the thorough research of Christine L. Putnam in a April 2003 post,
“The President and Mrs. Taft along with the presidential party including Vice-President Sherman and Secretary of State Charles Bennett arrived at the ballpark on schedule. Taft had just come from giving a speech to a large contingency of Suffragists at their annual convention; and after being booed by them, was no doubt thankful to be at the ballpark among friends. At the given time, Street took his place opposite and some distance from President Taft. Mrs. Taft held the baseball while the President removed his new gloves. The crowd (and Clark Griffith) waited in eager anticipation.
Finally, the moment that would live on in baseball legend and lore had arrived. With all eyes on him, the 300-pound right-hander turned slightly and threw the ball to Walter Johnson. Although the throw certainly lacked style or grace, Johnson managed to catch it, thus saving the President any embarrassment. The crowd roared. It was no accident or errant pitch that sent the ball to Johnson. A Presidential aide overheard the earlier conversation between McAleer and Johnson and informed the President. Taft refused to let the shy pitcher back out of history. A grateful Johnson would never make that mistake again.
The Presidential party stayed for the whole game even after a line drive foul ball, off the bat of A’s Frank “Home Run” Baker, shot into the Presidential Box and bounced off the Secretary of State’s head. Silence filled the park. Secretary Bennett waved to the crowd and the game continued. Johnson struck out nine batters and had a no-hitter going into the seventh inning when Senator’s right fielder Doc Gessler running back for an easy fly ball collided with a young fan 5. The ball fell for a ground-rule double. In the end, the Senators won 3 to 0 and Johnson was satisfied with a one-hitter.
The next day, President Taft’s season opener first pitch dominated the sports pages across the country. One newspaper account stated, “He did it with his good, trusty right arm, and the virgin sphere scudded across the diamond, true as a die to the pitcher’s box, where Walter Johnson gathered it in.”
The Associated Press reported that “Mr. Taft was as interested as all the rest. He knows Base Ball thoroughly and is up on all the finer points of the game.” Americans adored their President for enjoying the true pleasures of life: a bag of peanuts and a ball game. Griffith’s public relations move was a success. Players and baseball fans considered Taft one of their own; and the Washington Senators held the interest of the nation and the Oval Office.
That opening day presidential pitch had a profound influence on the men who held the spotlight that afternoon: Walter Johnson and William Howard Taft. The following day at the White House, Taft received the baseball he had thrown in the ceremony with a humble request from Johnson for his autograph. Taft must have chuckled at the thought of himself signing a baseball like a ballplayer, and the little boy inside of him, who played with youthful passion was certainly delighted. He wrote across the meat of the ball, “To Walter Johnson with hope that he may continue to be as formidable as in yesterday’s game. William H. Taft.” Thus was the first baseball in what would someday become Johnson’s large collection of ceremonial first pitch baseballs autographed by U.S. Presidents.
After the season opener Taft became baseball’s most enthusiastic fan and advocate. In a speech a month later, Taft declared, “I like it [baseball] for two reasons – first, because I enjoy it myself and second, because if by the presence of the temporary chief magistrate such a healthy amusement can be encouraged, I want to encourage it.” 9 And Taft did. He attended another baseball game a few days after the opener and shared a five cent bag of peanuts with the Vice-President while they watched the Boston Americans beat their beloved Senators.
Despite the chilling afternoon, Taft threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Washington season opener in 1911. And he stayed for the game. The President had plans to do the same in 1912 but the Titanic disaster a few days earlier made it impossible. Determined to keep his presidential tradition going, Griffith rescheduled the ceremony for a June home game. Not to be outdone, Congress adjourned early that day and many of them watched President Taft toss the ball to Walter Johnson in front of a packed house in Washington.
By continuing the opening day tradition through Taft’s presidency, even in the wake of disaster, Clark Griffith forever bonded baseball and the American Presidency. The national pastime was now not only sanctioned by the Chief of State, he became its biggest fan among the millions of average Americans who filled ball parks every season across the country. While the opening day ritual became engraved on the list of presidential duties, back in 1910, Taft did more than establish a custom, he set the standard. Taft added peanut eating, score keeping, and appropriate robust cheering to the list of duties, thus compelling his successors to become ordinary fans if only for nine innings.
President Taft made baseball history that day and his act of ceremony and gamesmanship gave him a place in Baseball’s most revered inner sanctum. In the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York, next to a collage of photographs honoring past U.S. Presidents throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, there is an inscription which includes the lines, “In 1910 William Howard Taft was induced to attend the season opener of the Washington Senators and make the honorary first pitch. Thus was launched a remarkable tradition…”
Here’s to hope that President Obama can improve on his performance in last year’s All-Star Game in St. Louis. From The Guardian,
Finally, the president of the United States has met his match. He may have shown extraordinary prowess at winning elections, making speeches and swatting flies, but his technique at pitching from the mound leaves definite room for improvement.
To be fair to the president, this was not his sport of preference. “I did not play organised baseball when I was a kid and so, you know, I think some of these natural moves aren’t so natural to me,” he said as he commented on the game on TV later that evening.
In preparation, he had practised on Monday night with an aide in the Rose Garden of the White House, and spent some time in the warm-up area of Busch stadium, home of the St Louis Cardinals. Dressed in the jacket of the Chicago White Sox, he took to the mound facing the Cardinals’ star hitter Albert Pujols, fully 60 feet and 6 inches away.
Surprisingly for Obama, who has had plenty of exposure to far larger crowds, he looked apprehensive in front of the 46,000 fans. He bit his lip as he lobbed a left-handed pitch that went high and fell perilously short of the plate. Pujols came to the rescue, stretching forward his special black glove marked “Obama 44″ to grab the ball before it hit the dirt.
The world of baseball was respectful, if underwhelmed. The St Louis Post-Dispatch compared him with the Cardinals’ starting pitcher Adam Wainwright, saying the high and looping pitch was like one of Wainwright’s killer throws “only 50 mph slower”.
Great photo gallery of all the Presidents throwing out a first pitch from Obama to Taft.