Our divided nation just went through a hotly contested presidential election. The big question in Hot Stove land?
Will President Joe Biden throw out the first pitch on opening day in Washington? The Nationals open at home against the Mets on April 1, 2021. This past Saturday night, as Joe Biden was giving his first speech as President-Elect, the Nationals extended the invitation…
Ceremonial first pitches by presidents have been a tradition since William Howard Taft tossed his on opening day in 1910. These have included opening day, all-star games and the World Series. All presidents, Republican and Democrat, participated for a century, from Taft (1910) to Barack Obama (2010). Presidents #27 to #44. There will be a gap for #45, but hopefully #46 Biden will start a new string.
Biden has some history with baseball – as a center (i.e., not left or right) fielder for the Democrats in the annual Congressional baseball games. Just after Biden’s election, Keith Olbermann tweeted a copy of a newspaper photo from one of the games. It shows Biden in a Phillies uniform (as in Pennsylvania electoral votes) with a prophetic number – 46. It’s back to the future stuff.
I don’t have a date on the photo (other than the “1970s”). The Baltimore Sun recapped the 1973 Congressional game, opening with this: “The Republicans, who haven’t had much to cheer about in Washington lately, subdued the Democrats in a 12-to-4 landslide.” All of the runs for the Democrats came in the second inning which featured triples by Senator Birch Bayh and Congressman Andrew Young and a single by Senator Joe Biden of Delaware. Biden also had a good fielding play, “Former major league pitcher Wilmer (Vinegar Bend) Mizell, now a Congressman from North Carolina…was robbed of a hit by Biden’s centerfield circus catch.”
May there be some circus catches in the Biden administration. Starting with the defeat of COVID-19.
And may Biden be on the mound on April 1, 2021, to open the baseball season.
A Tradition Begins: In 1897, William McKinley hosted the National League’s Washington team in the Oval Office. Sporting Life reported that McKinley was a lover of the national game, and he was scheduled to throw out the first pitch for the home opener. A presidential box was built with flags and bunting, and many members of Congress attended the festivities. Alas, McKinley was a no-show and blew his chance to make baseball history.
McKinley was succeeded by Teddy Roosevelt who had little interest in baseball (a “mollycoddle sport”). So it was up to the next president, William Howard Taft, to begin a century-long tradition.
Taft’s military aide Archie Butt encouraged Taft to go to baseball games. Butt worked with the team owner in Washington to replace a box seat area with a large chair to accommodate the 330-pound president. Taft became a fan and found it was also good politics – baseball was popular and game photos in the paper were good for his image. Butt accompanied Taft to many games, including when the president threw out the first pitch on opening day in 1910 (photo below) and again in 1911. But Taft did not go in 1912 – his friend Archie Butt died when the Titanic went down four days before the opening game.
Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Republicans Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover followed in Taft’s footsteps to create a bi-partisan tradition. Herbert Hoover found that the occasion could also be uncomfortable. In 1931, Hoover went to Shibe Park in Philadelphia to throw out a first pitch at a World Series game. It was during the Great Depression, and he said he made the appearance as “a gesture of reassurance to a country suffering from a severe attack of ‘jitters’.” It did not go well. He was booed plus thirsty fans suffering through Prohibition chanted “We want beer.”
FDR and Harry Truman: Keeping a campaign promise, Franklin Roosevelt helped end Prohibition. The ballparks again had beer. From 1933 to 1941, Roosevelt missed only one year in home openers at Griffith Stadium.
World War Two then intervened, and Roosevelt never returned for a first pitch. In 1945, Vice President Harry Truman was scheduled to make the opening day pitch on behalf of Roosevelt. A week before the game, Roosevelt died. Truman sent a hand-written note to Washington owner Clark Griffith: “We must postpone it now. I’m in it up to my neck and must think of my terrible responsibilities for some days to come.”
On September 2, 1945, Japan formally surrendered in a ceremony aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay.
On September 8, 1945, Harry Truman threw out the first pitch at a Senators game. It was the first presidential pitch since Roosevelt had opened the season in 1941. It was a welcome signal that the country was returning to normal. Cool newsreel footage of Truman’s pitch can be seen here.
For the next seven years of his presidency, Truman threw out the first pitch to open the season in Washington. But the photo below is not one of them. It is from the 1955 when former President Truman opened the first major league game in Kansas City. I picked this photo because I was at that A’s game with my 8th-grade classmate Jay DeSimone.
Ike, JFK, LBJ and Nixon: On Dwight Eisenhower’s first chance to attend an opener, he opted to play golf at Augusta National. Fortuitously, the game was rained out, and so he got to do the makeup opener. Ike did six openers in his eight years and added a World Series game in 1955.
Jack Kennedy attended the last opener at Griffith Stadium (1961) and the first and second in the new D.C. Stadium (1962 and 1963). Lyndon Johnson then took over the duties and attended three during his presidency. At his first in 1964, Johnson is said to have broken the record for most hot dogs eaten by a president on opening day (four). In 1968, his popularity was so low that he sent VP Hubert Humphrey in his place.
In 1969, D.C. Stadium was renamed RFK Stadium, and Richard Nixon threw out the first pitch. It was the last presidential opening day pitch in D.C. until 2005.
The Years Washington Did Not Have a Team: From Taft to Nixon, each president threw out the first pitch at an opener in Washington D.C. But from 1972 to 2004, there was no team in D.C.
So the presidents had to be creative during these years. Nixon opened the 1973 season at Anaheim Stadium. Gerald Ford at Arlington Stadium in 1974. Jimmy Carter threw out his only first pitch in the 1979 World Series.
Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush traveled to nearby Baltimore for opening day. Bush also attended openers in the Skydome in Toronto and Arlington. Bill Clinton did the honors for opening day six times, each in a different city.
George W. Bush: Bush #43, a former MLB team owner, threw many first pitches during his tenure, including the opener at RFK Stadium when baseball returned to Washington in 2005.
His most important first pitch was on October 30, 2001, in Game 3 of the World Series. This was just seven weeks after 9/11 and the game was in New York at Yankee Stadium. Bush wore a bullet-proof vest under his jacket. One of the men dressed as an umpire was a secret service agent. It was a touching moment for unifying and healing a country in an incredibly dark time. Bush threw a strike (video here).
Barack Obama – A Century After Taft: Barack Obama’s opening day toss in 2010 was timely. It was 100 years after William Howard Taft had thrown the first presidential pitch. Obama wore a Nationals jacket and was bareheaded until he got to the mound. He then put on his cap, revealing that it was for his hometown Chicago White Sox. That move brought him some friendly jeers from the Washington crowd (video here).
Above is the official White House photo of Obama’s pitch, taken by Pete Souza. This past September, Rita and I had planned to attend the Telluride Film Festival, but it was cancelled because of the pandemic. One of the scheduled films was the world premiere of The Way I See It, a documentary on Souza’s career as chief White House photographer for Reagan and Obama. We have since seen the movie on television, and it is superb. It is available on most streaming services. Click here for the trailer.
Donald Trump – Baseball Player: When it comes to baseball ability among the presidents, George H. W. Bush is usually mentioned because he played varsity baseball for Yale. As it turns out, his main competition may be Donald Trump. I just started reading a book titled The Presidents and the Pastime (Curt Smith, 2018), and I jumped to the end to see what it says about President Trump.
The author interviewed Trump’s high school coach who described Trump as “Good hitter, good fielder, good attitude. He was a good athlete. I’d give him an eight and a half out of ten…We had Phillies [scouts] to watch him, but he wanted to go to college.”
The author also quoted Trump’s opinion of his baseball talent, “Always the best player…I always knew I was good, the best baseball player in New York when I was young. Not only baseball, but every sport.” Trump had a visit from the Red Sox in 1964, suggesting he delay college to try pro ball. This was long before baseball players had decent salaries, so Trump declined and moved on to college. And eventually, the presidency.
Donald Trump – President: In Trump’s first year, the Nationals extended an invitation for him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the 2017 season. He declined. Some said Trump was wary that local D.C. fans might boo him. He would not be the first. Truman was booed in 1951, with one fan shouting “Where’s MacArthur?”. Bush #41 was booed at a the 1992 All-Star Game. Bush #43 at a Nationals game in 2008. Obama at the All-Star Game in 2009. As noted above, Lyndon Johnson dodged the 1968 game because of low approval ratings.
Trump attended Game 5 of the 2019 World Series at Nationals Park, but did not throw out the first pitch. He said he did not want to dress up in a lot of heavy armor, saying “I’ll look too heavy.” When he arrived at the game, he was showered with boos and part of the crowd chanted “Lock him up.” Not as colorful as the Hoover chant of “We want beer.”
Trump did not throw out the first pitch in any of his four years in office.
In the Year 2020: The 2020 season, reduced to 60 games because of the pandemic, began on July 23 when the World Champion Washington Nationals hosted the New York Yankees. The invitation to throw out the first pitch went to a person Trump was criticizing – Dr. Anthony Fauci. There were no fans in Nationals Park as Fauci took the mound, but a nationwide TV audience tuned in. Fauci, wearing a Nationals mask and a jersey with #19 (as in COVID), made one of the worst ceremonial first pitches in history (video here).
As of the end of the baseball season, Fauci and Trump were still at odds. Trump rallies included chants of “Fire Fauci” and Trump hinted he might do so.
In the Bullpen – Joe Biden: In his first year as VP in 2009, Joe Biden got some practice throwing out first pitches. He opened Baltimore’s season at Camden Yards (video here).
Looking forward to April 1 of 2021.
Lonnie’s Jukebox (1) – “Landslide”: As the election approached, I kept telling friends that I thought Biden would win in a landslide. In the last Hot Stove, I predicted like 350 electoral votes. I was wrong. He only got 306, missing Florida and North Carolina to get to 350.
To assure that I will always remember my mistake, Bill Carr sent me a musical hook to serve as a permanent earworm reminder. It’s a song written and performed by Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac. Click here for “Landslide.”
There was some support four years ago that 306 was a landslide. Alternative facts anyone?
Lonnie’s Jukebox (2) – Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President: In December of 1974, the Democratic Party held a Midterm Conference in Kansas City. Three months earlier, President Gerald Ford had pardoned Richard Nixon. So there were high hopes of taking back the presidency in 1976. At least ten potential candidates came to Kansas City to scout support for a campaign.
This was good timing for local politicos. My law school classmate Mike White had just won his County Executive race. I was Jackson County Democratic Chairman. The two of us and our friend Ken Hill put together events to host some of the candidates while they were in town for the conference. One event was a breakfast with Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia. Mike found Carter to be the most intense and remembers him finishing his talk with “I don’t intend to lose.” After the breakfast, Mike told Ken and me that we had just been sitting with the next president. At that stage, Carter had about 1% in the polls.
Obviously, Carter picked up more supporters, and some of the most helpful were entertainers he had befriended as governor. Carter was a true fan of many music genres – gospel, blues, jazz, folk and rock ‘n’ roll. Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and members of the Allman Brothers Band had been to events at the governor’s mansion. Carter knew that the entertainers were much better known than he was, and so he asked them to perform at fundraisers to draw better crowds. Candidates in the past had done some of this (Frank Sinatra for Jack Kennedy), but Carter’s campaign took it to a new level that continues to this day. Example: John Legend and Lady Gaga in Pennsylvania in the last week of the Biden campaign.
And that is the subject of the new movie Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President. Click here for the trailer. It is available on streaming services (we watched on Amazon Prime, $5.99).
The new post-Watergate election law provided matching federal funds for small donor contributions, and so tickets sold for events with the musicians had double value. Among those donating their services to Carter were the Allman Brothers Band, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett, John Denver, the Marshall Tucker Band and the Charlie Daniels Band.
After Carter was elected, he held many events at the White House with entertainers from all genres. My favorite story is that Willie Nelson admitted to Carter that he had smoked pot at the White House with a staff member. Carter later found out that the “staff” person was one of Carter’s sons. Below, Willie in the Oval Office.
Now for some music from President Carter’s friends. Click on the song title to listen.
“Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers Band.
“The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” by Bob Dylan.
In the movie, there are two versions of “Georgia On My Mind.” Reminds me that we have two Georgia Senate races coming up in January.
“Georgia On My Mind” by Ray Charles.
“Georgia On My Mind” by Willie Nelson. Willie sang this song at the ceremony for Carter’s 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.
Above, Bob Dylan and Governor Carter in 1974. Carter learned to appreciate Dylan’s lyrics by listening to albums being played by his teenage children. On the night Carter won the 1976 Democratic nomination for the presidency, he borrowed a quote from Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma”:
“I’ve never had more faith in America than I do today. We have an America that, in Bob Dylan’s phrase, is ‘Busy being born, not busy dying’.”
Still good words to live by. Thank you President Carter.