The first Monday in April is one of my favorite evenings to be at a sports bar; it's when the NCAA men's basketball championship is decided, and also the beginning of the professional baseball season. In honor of the tipoff to the boys of summer's season, some excerpts from Frederic J. Frommer's "The Washington Nationals: 1859 to Today"
on the presidential tradition of throwing out the first pitch:
For most of the last century, when Washington was home to a baseball team known as the Senators, presidents typically took center stage on opening day.
Starting with William Howard Taft in 1910 and continuing through Richard Nixon in 1969, every president threw out at least one opening-day pitch. After the Senators left town, presidents headed north to Baltimore for the duty.
At the beginning, the president threw the ball to the starting pitcher or even the umpire.
Later, from his box in the stands, the chief executive tossed the ball over a scrum of photographers into a crowd of players from both teams. Whoever caught the ball brought it over to the president for an autograph.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed for White Sox outfielder Jim Rivera. According to a report years later by Chicago Tribune writer David Condon, "Jungle Jim" immediately demanded a more legible signature.
"Do you think I can go into any tavern on Chicago's South Side and really say the president of the United States signed this baseball for me?" Rivera said. "I'd be run off."
Laughing, the young president agreed to sign the ball more legibly. "You know," Rivera replied, "you're all right."
In the days before luxury boxes, Senators' owner Clark Griffith arranged for Woodrow Wilson to watch the game from his car parked in foul territory, outside the right field line. Griffith made the arrangements because Wilson had been partially paralyzed by a stroke. Griffith even stationed a player in front of Wilson's car to protect it from getting hit by foul balls.
Sometimes, the star power of a president would lead to mishaps on the field. In the 1910 opener, Washington outfielder Doc Gessler was daydreaming about hitting a grand slam and talking to Taft about it. A fly ball quickly brought Gessler back to earth. Backing up, Gessler tripped over a fan (spectators could stand on the field behind a rope back then) and the ball dropped for a double. It was the only hit that pitcher Walter Johnson surrendered that day.
At the 1936 opener, Senators pitcher Bobo Newsom and third baseman Ossie Bluege converged on a bunt. As Bluege fielded the ball, Newsom took his eye off the play to glance at President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the stands. Bluege's throw to first nailed his distracted pitcher in the face, leading to a broken jaw.
Roosevelt threw out a record eight opening-day pitches — and made one crucial at-bat on behalf of baseball during World War II. On Jan. 15, 1942, little over a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt told the baseball commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, that the season should go on despite the war.
"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," FDR wrote in what became known as the "Green Light Letter."
FDR's successor, Harry Truman, had one of the worst receptions ever. His appearance at the Senators' home opener on April 20, 1951, came shortly after he had fired General Douglas MacArthur as Far East commander — and just one day after MacArthur went before Congress and uttered his famous line, "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away."
The crowd at Griffith Stadium booed Truman loudly. The Air Force Band tried to drown out the jeers with "Ruffles and Flourishes" and "Hail to the Chief."
Richard Nixon was probably the greatest baseball fan to occupy the Oval Office — with the possible exception of Bush, a former owner of the Texas Rangers, who had originally played in Washington.
In 1972, just a few weeks after the Watergate break-in that ultimately led to his resignation, Nixon wrote an article for The Associated Press that listed his all-time All Star teams.
In 1959, on the eve of then-Vice President Nixon's opening day pitch, Truman sent Griffith this telegram: "BEST OF LUCK TO YOU ON OPENING DAY AND EVERY DAY. WATCH OUT FOR THAT NIXON. DON'T LET HIM THROW YOU A CURVE. YOUR FRIEND, HARRY TRUMAN." ...
After the Senators announced they would move to Texas following the 1971 season, Nixon met with Washington Mayor Walter E. Washington to discuss prospects of a new team.
In a taped Oval Office conversation on October 13, 1971, the president mentioned the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians as possible replacements. Nixon also teed off on the Senators owner, Bob Short, who had been a chief fundraiser for Nixon's 1968 opponent, Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey.
"Short is a jerk," Nixon declares. "... I sat behind him at games, and I can tell you — moaning and bitching all the time."