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Hit Me With Your Best Shot: A Brief History of Presidential Pitching

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"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.

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing

INGREDIENTS

1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.

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