President Bush's first pitch, FDR's Opening Day record: Baseball plays major role in US history
For millions of fans, baseball’s Opening Day is renewal itself, a new season after months of winter. America’s pastime has also been a staple of White House history – a public reminder of the joy of play and companionship, even during our hardest times.
As baseball emerged in the 19th century, an early fan named Abraham Lincoln offered the game a presidential boost. During the Civil War, the grounds just south of the White House (now known as the Ellipse) played host to games, where Lincoln would slip out after the working day with his son Tad to watch a game. (Local Black teams like the Mutuals and the Alerts also played there, until the field was declared whites-only in 1874.)
By the 20th century, presidents were lining up to connect to a game that was becoming embedded in American culture. President William Howard Taft began the tradition of throwing a first pitch on Opening Day in 1910.
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Presidents making their pitch
Woodrow Wilson, who played center field at Davidson College, was the first presidential baseball fanatic, attending games and getting to know many of the players, some of whom campaigned for his re-election in 1916. Decades later, the Washington Senators’ owner recalled that even after being incapacitated by a stroke, Wilson would be driven into the stadium and his car parked next to the home bullpen with the top open (a player was stationed on the bumper to protect him from foul balls).
President Coolidge threw a record six ceremonial pitches as president, but First Lady Grace Coolidge was the enthusiast, tracking games on her scorecard and listening to the hometown Senators on the radio from the presidential yacht. When the president rose to leave a tied World Series game in the ninth inning, she politely asked him to sit down. (The Senators were the first baseball champions to be invited to the White House.)
Although President Franklin Roosevelt got picked last for schoolyard baseball, he loved the sport and was almost fired from a law firm for sneaking off to games. FDR made a record eight Opening Day appearances. The 1937 All-Star game in Washington, D.C., was an A-list event attended by the president, cabinet members, U.S. senators, and embassy officials
As the nation reeled from the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the nation girded for total war, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis asked Roosevelt if he wanted to suspend the sport during wartime.
"I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going," Roosevelt replied. He even suggested more night games that day-shift workers could enjoy. “I would go out to see a baseball game played by a sandlot team – and so would most people," he said in 1945.
First Lady Bess Truman was an avid fan, even more so than her husband, President Harry Truman. She had played baseball with her brothers when growing up. After leaving the White House, Bess became an avid Kansas City fan and often listened to the radio or watched them on television.
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Richard Nixon was a lifelong baseball fan who attended his first pro game in 1936, a July 4 doubleheader in the nation’s capital with Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig. As president, he hosted an East Room reception celebrating the sport’s 100th anniversary and bylined an Associated Press article naming the best players of all time. (He turned down an offer to become baseball’s commissioner before becoming president, but after leaving office he agreed to arbitrate an umpire’s wage dispute.) “Baseball is great,” said Nixon, “because anything can happen through the ninth inning.”
Nixon’s wife Patricia became the first First Lady to throw out a first pitch, followed by Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush. Michelle Obama is a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan who describes her partnership with President Barack Obama – a White Sox partisan – as a “mixed marriage.”
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The role of baseball during a national crisis
President George W. Bush, who came to office having served as a managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, opened the South Lawn of the White House to T-ball players. Just weeks after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bush appeared at a World Series game at Yankee Stadium, wearing a bullet-proof vest under his jacket as he threw a strike from the mound. The jacket he wore that night is now on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and George W. Bush saw the value of doubling down on baseball during times of national crises. But White House history also records one dissenter – Theodore Roosevelt, who turned down a presidential box and a lifetime pass to attend games. Roosevelt, who reveled in physical stress and boxed at the White House, pooh-poohed baseball as a “mollycoddle game,” according to his daughter Alice.
And yet, more than 80 times a year, Theodore Roosevelt attends Washington Nationals games – as part of a fourth-inning mascot race along the outfield warning track, against fellow Mount Rushmore namesakes George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. (William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover joined the fun for several years, but have “retired” to Florida to race in spring training games). The Nationals’ races are run just a few miles from the White House – where President Lincoln used to sneak out to watch a game with his son.
Stewart D. McLaurin, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, is president of the White House Historical Association, which sponsored the Coolidge and Hoover mascots and content on White House history for fans attending Washington Nationals games. The Association is a private nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Beyond first pitch: Baseball's major role in US presidential history