100 Years of a Presidential Baseball Tradition

Adam Burns is a PhD student in American history at the University of Edinburgh.

President Obama had the weight of public expectation resting upon his performance this year.  Before he was elected, many Americans expected great things from this vigorous and youthful president, but for some the disappointment continued this month.  On April 5, Obama was deemed by critics to be “high and wide,” whereas last year he was a deemed to have fallen “a little short” of expectations.  However, he still has at least two more attempts to make his mark as a presidential pitcher.

As has been reported widely in the press in the last week or so, the tradition of the president throwing out the first pitch of the season is now a century old.  Some might see this as a shame, as it would have surely been a great thing to see Teddy Roosevelt put his strenuous athleticism to work on the opening day of the season, or see Lincoln casting his measured eye toward the catcher.  However, the tradition owes its origins to the more unlikely figure of William Howard Taft.  Better known for his love of a gentle round of golf than anything that required breaking into a sweat, Taft might seem an unlikely sporting trendsetter, but such an assumption would be misplaced.  So keen was Taft to enjoy his baseball that in September 1909 his box at a Chicago Cubs vs. New York Giants game was refitted to provide the president with a chair of “ample comfort.”  Taft was not only the first presidential pitcher, but also the first presidential baseball fanatic.

As a boy Taft had supported his local Cincinnati Reds, but as president he showed his utmost support for the Washington American League team.  In April 1910, unlike the on-field Obama, it was from a box in the grandstand that Taft threw his pitch in the opening game of the season:  Washington Senators (or “Nationals” as they were also known) vs. Philadelphia Athletics.  Taft later autographed the opening ball, at the request of the Washington pitcher Walter Johnson, inscribing it with his best wishes for success in the future.  The president’s affection for the game was, however, not limited to an annual photo opportunity and that same month Taft invited his “double” to a game in Pittsburgh.  A friend of the president had informed him that he had a veritable doppelganger in Desk Sergeant Thomas J. Morley of the Pittsburgh police force and sent him a photograph of the man in question.  The president responded by inviting his double to dine with him in Chicago and then sit alongside him during the baseball game later that day.  The New York Times commented, somewhat predictably, that the president might well feature in a “double play.”  Sadly, Morley later refused the offer, citing potential embarrassment for the president and himself, as well as denying the press a field day of such witticisms.

In May 1910 the president praised baseball as “a clean, straight game” that furnished amusement to thousands, and said that he was glad if his presence at games could encourage the sport. The sport’s National Commission quoted these very words later that month, when the manager and two players of the Chicago Nationals were fined for “rowdyism” – hardly in keeping with Taft’s view of the game.  In 1918, while a law professor at Yale, Taft was approached by Colonel Jacob Ruppert, president of the New York Yankees, in regard to him becoming a one-man National Commission on baseball – an idea that met with popular acclaim from the leaders of baseball.  Ruppert felt that Taft would be an ideal candidate to adjudicate the various controversies that arose in the game – after all Taft had also served on the U.S. federal circuit in the 1890s and was seen as a potential future Supreme Court justice.  Taft declined the offer, saying he preferred to remain simply a fan. Indeed, the president had expressed his unwillingness to get involved in baseball “law” early on in his presidential term, when he visited his alma mater Yale and was asked to umpire an alumni game.  Taft replied in the negative, stating:  “I value my life too much for such a job as that.”

Taft attended numerous baseball games during his presidency across the country and at various levels.  In 1912, things looked ominous for Taft’s political future, when he faced the potential challenge of his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt for his party’s nomination as a presidential candidate.  Nevertheless, while the Republican Convention met in Chicago in June 1912, the president sat cheering on his adopted Washington team as they recorded their seventeenth straight league victory over the Philadelphia Athletics.  At a dinner held by the National League at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1916, Taft went so far as to proclaim baseball as a civilizing force.  As a former Governor-General of the Philippines, Taft argued that baseball had done much for the good of the nation’s island possessions, distracting the more remote inhabitants from such activities as “head hunting.”  Seemingly for Taft, baseball was more than simply a game.  However, despite such devotion, the president was keen that his position as “Fan in Chief” was not given undue importance in relation to the national pastime.  In 1910, he objected vociferously to an advertisement he spotted posted on a Pittsburgh streetcar, urging people to “Go see Taft” in foot high letters, followed by, in a rather smaller font “At the ball game.”

Taft should not be remembered simply as the first president to throw out the first pitch of the season, but a genuine baseball fan who was in the stands as often as it was possible for a U.S. President to be.  Returning to the present day, perhaps President Obama could go further in following Taft’s 1910 precedent – given the recent press antipathy toward his pitching prowess – and revert to throwing the ball from the relative safe haven of the presidential box.

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