Baseball and the presidency - forever linked together
First, I have a confession to make.
I have a passion for politics – otherwise, without a complete and utter fascination with politics at all levels, how I could stand to be a journalist covering it for 40 years?
But my first love is baseball, the greatest game ever conceived by the human mind. A thing of beauty. Always has been, always will be. And, in 22 days, it all begins again, with Cincinnati’s unique holiday, Opening Day.
So It’s not surprising that I can, now and then, combine the two in my head. And nowhere is that easier than when considering the long and deep connection between two American institutions – the presidency and baseball.
The two have been intertwined since the earliest days of the republic. Even before the game evolved in the 1840s into what we would recognize as baseball, there were games like rounders and old cat and town ball that involved striking a round ball with a bat.
An unidentified soldier in the Revolutionary War wrote that even Gen. George Washington “sometimes throws and catches a ball for hours with his aide-de-camp.”
Some of the Founding Fathers did not approve of such foolishness. The nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind.”
American history abounds with stories where the presidency and baseball intersect – and many of them have direct ties to Cincinnati.
Here’s a sampling:
No president ever carried a greater burden than Lincoln, leading the nation through four years of bloody civil war. But it clear from the historical record that the 16th president loved the game that was, in the 1860s, sweeping the nation, particularly in the north.
During Lincoln’s presidency, there was a team named the Washington Nationals (yes, just as the Washington team is named today) that played its games on the Ellipse on the south side of the White House. Lincoln, often with his son Tad, attended many a Nationals game.
Pick-up games by teams of young boys were also played on the south lawn of the White House; and there are reports that Lincoln would sometimes come out from the White House and join the boys on the field – taking his turns at bat and running the bases in his long-legged strides.
William Howard Taft:
Taft, the Cincinnati boy who grew up to become president and, later, chief justice of the Supreme Court, is thought of as an enormous man who tipped the scales at over 300 pounds.
But as a boy growing up in Mount Auburn, he was quite the athlete and a very good baseball player on local amateur teams.
He was elected to his one and only term as president in 1908. His best known connection to baseball was that, on April 14, 1910, he became the first president to throw out a ceremonial first pitch at a game in capital between the Washington Senators and the Philadelphia Athletics.
Some say the “seventh inning stretch” began at a game Taft attended in Washington. As the story goes, the over-sized president was uncomfortable in the tiny ball park seat and got up in the middle of the seventh inning to stretch his legs. Seeing the president rise, everyone in the ball park stood up as well. But this story is what we would call today an “urban legend.”
History records that Taft attended 14 major league ball games during his presidency. Only one was in Cincinnati – a game between the Reds and the Philadelphia Phillies on May 7, 1912. It was the first season for a brand-new ball park, Redland Field, which later was re-named Crosley Field.
Taft saw his home town team lose that day, 8-5.
Franklin D. Roosevelt:
FDR loved baseball. And there is no American president who had a greater impact on the game.
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 and the U.S. was plunged into World War II, there was much talk among baseball club owners and the commissioner’s office that the 1942 season should be canceled; and that baseball should stop as long as the war went on.
Most of the game’s best players either enlisted or were drafted in the armed services; and it appeared baseball was finished for the foreseeable future.
Then Roosevelt wrote a letter to the commissioner of baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,’’ Roosevelt wrote. “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.”
That’s all it took. The quality of the teams that played during the war years were sub-par. But there is no question that Roosevelt saved the game.
On July 14, 1970, only a few weeks after Riverfront Stadium opened its gates for the first time, Nixon became the first sitting president to throw out a ceremonial first pitch at a Cincinnati Reds game.
Nixon loved baseball. In 1972, he and his son-in-law, David Eisenhower, each drew up lists of their picks for the best players of all time at each position. Nixon’s list of players from 1925 through 1945 included Reds catcher Ernie Lombardi, a Hall of Famer.
In 1992, two years before he died, Nixon drew up a new list. Nixon included three members of the Big Red Machine on his list of the best players from 1960 through 1991 – Johnny Bench at catcher, Joe Morgan at second base and Pete Rose as designated hitter.
The 39th president is an avid fan of the Atlanta Braves; and can still be seen sometimes sitting in the front row at Braves’ home games.
In 1995, the former president stepped into the middle of one of baseball’s greatest controversies – the banishment from baseball of Pete Rose in 1989 for gambling on the game.
Carter wrote a column for USA Today under the headline, “It’s Time to Forgive Pete Rose.”
“I have never met or communicated with Pete Rose, but would like to join with other Americans to help give him – and the game of baseball – this opportunity for redemption,” Carter wrote.
Carter’s words fell on deaf ears in Major League Baseball; and Rose remains banned to this day.
As a young man, Reagan worked as an announcer at a radio station in Iowa, where he recreated Chicago Cubs games by reading the play-by-play off a telegraph machine.
As president, Reagan was scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium on Opening Day. But Reagan had been seriously wounded eight days before in an assassination attempt and, of course, could not be there.
George H.W. Bush:
The 41st president was probably the best baseball player ever to occupy the White House. He had been primarily a first baseman on the Yale University team, throwing left-handed and hitting right-handed. Bush hit .264 for Yale in 1948.
Years after leaving the White House, the elder Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the very first official game at Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park. The left-hander threw a high strike to Reds’ shortstop Barry Larkin.
George W. Bush:
“Bush 43” is the only president to have been a managing partner of a Major League Baseball club. He ran the Texas Rangers from the late 1980s until he was elected Texas governor in 1994.
But Bush will be remembered in baseball for throwing out the first pitch in an emotional ceremony before the third game of the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium in New York – only six weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
On April 3, 2006, Bush became the first sitting president to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Cincinnati Reds’ Opening Day game.
Basketball is clearly the favorite sport of the incumbent president, but he is an avowed fan of the Chicago White Sox.
In July 2009, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Major League Baseball’s All Star game in St. Louis – a left-handed toss to Albert Pujols.
He had been invited that year to attend Major League Baseball’s Civil Rights Game at Great American Ball Park, the first of two consecutive years Cincinnati hosted the event. But his schedule would not allow him to come.
Too bad, too. He could have watched his White Sox beat the Reds 10-8 that day.