Under Biden and Trump, the presidential first pitch has disappeared

Under Biden and Trump, the presidential first pitch has disappeared

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

In 2010, then-president Barack Obama marked the 100th anniversary of a unique D.C. tradition, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the Washington baseball team’s home opener. From William Howard Taft to Richard M. Nixon, every president participated in this custom at least once during his presidency, and when baseball returned to Washington early this century, George W. Bush and Obama picked up where Nixon had left off.

But Donald Trump, despite being a star baseball player in high school, skipped it. So has President Biden. With the two men set for a rematch this fall, the D.C. presidential first pitch — like complete games and pitchers taking their turn at-bat — could be headed to oblivion.

“It’s been a tie, a continuity, an advertisement for baseball that it indeed has been the national pastime,” said Curt Smith, author of “The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House,” and a former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush. Smith called its possible demise “very sad.”

“And I say that as a student of history more than as a baseball fan, because we have so few rituals that endure,” he said. “And we have so few ways to pass the baton and pass the umbilical cord from one successor to another.”

In his first year in office, 2017, Trump declined an offer from the Nats to throw out the first pitch. The White House cited a scheduling conflict, and Trump met with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi the afternoon of the game. News stories at the time speculated that Trump, who received just 4 percent of the vote in the District in 2016, probably would have gotten booed at Nationals Park.

And in fact, his only presidential appearance at the ballpark, during Game 5 of the 2019 World Series, led to a torrent of boos when he was shown on the video screen. A few days before the game, the Nats had confirmed that Trump wouldn’t be throwing out the first pitch, and the president offered an unusual rationale. “They got to dress me up in a lot of heavy armor,” he told reporters in the Oval Office, referring to the bulletproof vests that other presidents have worn on the field. “I’ll look too heavy. I don’t like that.”

“Trump’s reluctance to appear in public throwing out a first pitch — even though he was a baseball player in his high school years — struck me as a reluctance to have a vocal plebiscite,” quipped John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian.

After Biden beat Trump in the 2020 election, the Nats immediately saw an opportunity to revive the ritual.

“We look forward to hosting President-Elect Biden on Opening Day of the 2021 season,” the team tweeted on Nov. 7, 2020, after The Washington Post and other media organizations called the race for him. “We’re excited to continue the long-standing tradition of sitting Presidents throwing out the first pitch at the home of the national pastime in our nation’s capital.” The tweet included a picture of Biden and his wife, Jill, smiling at a Nats game.

But on the eve of the ’21 season, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that Biden wouldn’t be tossing the first pitch. She added, “I know the president’s eager to get out to Nationals stadium — many beautiful days, many beautiful baseball games ahead this spring.” Later that season, it was Psaki, not Biden, who threw out the first pitch at a game.

The Nats announced that former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, who was instrumental in bringing baseball back to the city, will throw out the first pitch at the home opener on Monday.

The White House didn’t respond to an email seeking comment about why Biden hasn’t taken the mound at Nationals Park during his term in office.

Throughout the 20th century, the “presidential opener,” as it was called, had the feel of a holiday. For much of the century, Washington had an American League team, called the Senators, and it usually opened its season a day before the rest of the league. Congress would recess early so lawmakers could make it up to old Griffith Stadium, located at 7th Street and Florida Ave., NW.

It started when Taft made the Opening Day toss in 1910 to Senators pitcher Walter Johnson, who threw a one-hit shutout that afternoon. But according to Thorn, William McKinley whiffed on a chance to be the first president to do it. Thorn wrote in a 2014 blog post that when McKinley greeted members of Washington’s team at the White House in April 1897, the manager recalled that five years earlier, when McKinley was governor of Ohio, he had thrown out the first pitch in Columbus.

“McKinley was reported to have smiled and replied that he remembered the incident very well, indeed, and that if he saw his way clear he would repeat the performance at National Park on Thursday the 22nd for its NL opener against Brooklyn,” Thorn wrote. “He did not, however, so the Presidential honor of throwing out the first ball of the season would have to await the onset of William Howard Taft.”

McKinley’s successor, Teddy Roosevelt, was ill-suited for the role. He hated baseball, mocking it as a “mollycoddle game” — an old-school word that means pampered or overprotected.

So the honor fell to Taft. In an interview, Thorn called Taft “the accidental first.”

And it might have been a one-off, had it not been for the marketing smarts of Clark Griffith, who took over as manager and part-owner of the Senators in 1912.

“It occurred to me that this would be a fine annual custom,” Griffith wrote in a 1955 Washington Star piece titled “Presidents Who Have Pitched for Me.”

So he requested a meeting with Taft. “‘I’d like to establish this as an annual function,’ I told him, ‘and if you would cooperate it might catch on,’” Griffith wrote.

“Why sure, Griff. I’ll be glad to start the ball rolling,” Taft replied, according to Griffith’s account.

Today, fans are used to seeing presidents and other notables throwing out the first pitch from the vicinity of the mound. But back in the day, the president would make the throw from his box in the stands. And instead of throwing to a specific player, a new routine evolved: He’d toss the ball up for grabs to congregating players from both teams. The winning player would bring the ball over to the First Fan for an autograph.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who served for 12 years, made a record eight Opening Day tosses. The tradition was suspended during World War II, but resumed afterward with Harry S. Truman, who threw out the first pitch in September 1945, less than a week after the Japanese surrender was formalized. His appearance at the ballpark helped signal to Americans that things were back to normal.

Before TV became widespread in the United States, baseball was undisputedly America’s game. And that, Thorn noted, helped cement the relationship between the sport and presidents.

“It was easy for FDR or Truman to attach himself to the mantle of baseball,” Thorn said. “So it wasn’t merely that the president was according dignity to the game. It was that the game was according dignity to the president.”

But not always. At the 1951 home opener, Truman was greeted by boos. He had fired General Douglas MacArthur less than two weeks earlier, and the day before the game, the popular military man gave a speech before a joint session of Congress, including his famous line, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” The U.S. Air Force Band played “Ruffles and Flourishes” and “Hail to the Chief” to try to drown out the boos. The Washington Evening Star called the fan reaction “the coldest reception ever given a Chief Executive at an opening baseball game.”

Truman’s successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, infuriated Washington when he skipped the 1953 opener — his first as president — to go golfing in Augusta, Ga. The game was rained out, giving Ike a mulligan, so he came back to Washington to attend to his baseball duties. Then he left after 1½ innings to return to his golfing trip.

“He was so thoroughly eviscerated by the American press — even though he was a war hero — that he never made that mistake again,” said Smith, the author, who also teaches public speaking and presidential rhetoric as a senior lecturer of English at the University of Rochester. “So essentially, we do have a precedent of someone maybe appearing to break the tradition, but then reverse himself very quickly.”

In 1961, Chicago White Sox outfielder “Jungle” Jim Rivera caught President John F. Kennedy’s toss and brought it over for an autograph, but he was not happy with Kennedy’s penmanship. According to a Chicago Tribune story a couple years later, Rivera told JFK:

“What kind of garbage college is that Harvard, where they don’t even teach you to write? What kind of garbage writing is this? What is this garbage autograph? 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? I’d be run off.”

Even as Secret Service agents tried to chase him away, the irate ballplayer demanded: “Take this thing back and give me something besides your garbage autograph.” A laughing JFK obliged and signed it “in very regular letters,” the newspaper reported. “Even a first-grader could read it.” Rivera was satisfied, telling the president, “You’re all right.”

When Nixon appeared at Washington’s home opener in 1969, his first year as president, he was excited to see his pal Ted Williams, who was about to make his managerial debut with the Senators. Despite the mutual admiration, the jock in Williams couldn’t help but grin when Nixon dropped one of the two ceremonial balls he was to throw out that afternoon.

That wasn’t the only hit to Nixon’s pride. The presidential seal in front of his box had an embarrassing typo, reading, “The Presidnt of the United States.”

Still, Nixon, a huge baseball fan, stayed for the entire game. The Senators played to part, losing 8-4 to the Yankees.

The Washington tradition paused when baseball left D.C., with presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton all throwing out first pitches in Baltimore instead. But Trump and Biden would have seemed naturals to follow Bush’s and Obama’s lead with appearances at Nationals Park.

Both candidates had first-pitch experience before becoming president. Trump, for example, made the ceremonial toss at Fenway Park in 2006, before a Boston Red Sox game against Trump’s favorite team, the New York Yankees. In 2009, then-Vice President Biden threw out the first pitch at an Opening Day game between the Baltimore Orioles and Yankees.

But given their advanced ages — and the likelihood that Trump would get booed by an unfriendly blue-leaning crowd in Washington — it seems doubtful that either man would reverse course in a second term in office. Which means an enduring presidential tradition might remain on hold for at least four more years.

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