Hit Me With Your Best Shot: A Brief History of Presidential Pitching
"Last year, more Americans went to symphonies than went to baseball games. This may be viewed as an alarming statistic, but I think that both baseball and the country will endure."
"“ President John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Last Tuesday, President Barack Obama threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Washington Nationals home opener against the Philadelphia Phillies. It wasn't pretty. Obama's pitch was high and outside, which juxtaposes nicely with the too-low toss that was the first presidential opening day pitch, made 100 years ago today.*
On April 14, 1910, President William Taft, an avid sports fan, went to see the Washington play their home opener against, coincidentally, Philadelphia (back then, however, the teams were the Senators and the Athletics). A few members of his administration came along, including military aide Archibald Butt. Just before the game started, umpire Billy Evans walked over to Taft's seat on the first base line, unprompted, and handed him a new baseball. He asked the president to throw the ball from the stands to Senators pitcher Walter Johnson at home plate to officially start the American League season. Taft rose, turned and threw a right-handed pitch low and inside. Contemporary accounts say the throw had little grace or style, but Johnson caught it and the crowd went nuts. Washington beat Philadelphia 3-0 and Taft later autographed the ball for the team.
Taft threw out the first pitch of the 1911 season, too, but the budding tradition experienced some growing pains in the following years.
Taft skipped the 1912 home opener when his close friend Butt went down with the Titanic —on the return trip from a vacation Taft had urged him to take. The United States occupation of Veracruz kept Woodrow Wilson from throwing the first pitch of 1914, and he missed four more home openers because of World War I (1917 and 1918), the Paris Peace Conference (1919) and a stroke (1920).
Even with the shaky start, the president's ceremonial pitch became cemented as a part of baseball tradition. Until 1972, when the Senators moved to Texas and became the Rangers, every president threw at least one first pitch at a Senators home opener.** Between 1972 and 2005, when baseball came back to D.C. with the Washington Nationals, Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43 threw the Opening Day first pitch outside of Washington D.C., most often in Baltimore. Every president from that era except Jimmy Carter has thrown out at least one ceremonial pitch, either at an Opening Day game, the All-Star Game, or a World Series game.
Since we're talking baseball, let's get down to the stats and trivia:
- Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower tie for most pitches thrown at opening day games with 8 pitches each.
- In 1946, Harry Truman was the first president to throw out a first pitch left-handed. In 1950, he threw two pitches—one with each hand.
- Ronald Reagan was the first President to throw from the pitcher's mound; Bill Clinton was the first to get the ball from the mound to the catcher without it bouncing.
- 1921 marked the first time the Senators lost when a President (Warren Harding) threw out the first pitch before the game.
- Obama's pitch last week was the 50th time a President has thrown the Opening Day pitch in Washington D.C. and the 67th time in any city.
"“ And if you're looking for the most emotional first pitch, whatever your political leanings, George W. Bush's post-9/11 strike is tough to beat:
*Presidential being the operative word. Contrary to popular belief, the tradition of a ceremonial first pitch by an important guest didn't originate in America, but Japan, where former Prime Minister and Waseda University founder Okuma Shigenobu threw the first ball of the Waseda team's season in 1908.
**In 1960, the Washington Senators moved to Minnesota and became the Twins. The following season, an expansion team in Washington, D.C., also called the Senators, began play. That's the franchise that relocated to Texas before the 1972 season.