This afternoon, President Barrack Obama extended a 100-year presidential tradition by throwing out a ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day. Dressed in a Nationals jacket and White Sox cap, the left-handed President Obama stepped atop the mound and lobbed a soft toss that would have been high and outside to a right-handed batter (see video after the jump). After delegating the honor to Vice President Biden last year, President Obama picked up a presidential baton that dates back to the administration of William Taft.
The very first presidential ceremonial pitch was thrown by President William Taft on Opening Day, April 14, 1910. In fact, the ambidextrous Taft threw out two pitches, one with each arm. Obviously, President Taft didn’t want to be accused of leaning left or right. The hefty Taft also didn’t take the pitcher’s mound to deliver the pitch. Instead, he hurled the pitch from his field side seat, a tradition that would remain prevalent for most of the 20th century, into the waiting glove of Senators’ legendary pitcher Walter Johnson. The shy Johnson at first begged off the honor, but eventually acquiesced. In fact, according to press accounts, he was hand picked by the president, who eventually returned the ball to the Big Train with the following inscription:
For Walter Johnson. with the hope that he may continue to be as formidable as in yesterday’s game. – William H. Taft
President Taft needn’t have worried. Although the Senators would finish in the second division again, Johnson, who was just starting to embark on perhaps the greatest pitching career in the history of the game, would go on to have a stellar season.
Baseball wasn’t a novelty to William Taft. He was an avid fan of the game and attended many during his presidency (14 in total). He also became the first President to attend a game outside of Washington, attending games in Pittsburgh and later Chicago during the 1909 season. President Taft was such a baseball fan that after leaving office, he was strongly pursued to fill the office of a one-man baseball commissioner after the 1918 season. At the time, baseball was ruled by a three-man tribunal system that had stirred up considerable controversy, not the least of which involved player-owner relations. Who knows, had President Taft taken the consolidated position as sole baseball executive, perhaps the Black Sox scandal could have been averted?
In many regards, President Taft’s first pitch put the presidential seal of approval on baseball’s status as the American pastime. Even though baseball teams had been invited to the White House as far back as the Andrew Johnson administration, and Benjamin Harrison had become the first president to attend a game back in 1892, Washington Senators’ owner Clark Griffith had actively sought the presidential stamp for years before Taft. Grover Cleveland famously turned down a first pitch invite out of fear of being portrayed as a slacker, while William McKinley accepted an invitation, but simply never bothered to show up.
After Taft’s historic first pitch, however, a tradition was born. Woodrow Wilson, himself an avid baseball fan, immediately continued the tradition (and extended it to the World Series when he tossed out the first pitch in 1915), and since then nearly every sitting President has undertaken the honor. In fact, only Jimmy Carter (an ironic omission, as Carter was a big baseball fan who was frequently seen at Braves games after he left office) has failed to throw out at least one pitch at an Opening Day, All Star Game or World Series game. Let that be a lesson to all future executives who hope for a second term!
While some Presidents have embraced the Opening Day first pitch more than others, the tradition has endured throughout baseball’s changing eras, including a period when there was no major league baseball in Washington D.C. Unfortunately for today’s Nationals fans, the hometown team has also kept up their end of another long tradition by ensuring that Washington remains first in war, first in peace and last in the National League East.
Number Of Ceremonial Opening Day Pitches Since 1910
William H. Taft: 2
Woodrow Wilson: 3
Warren G. Harding: 3
Calvin Coolidge: 4
Herbert Hoover: 4
Franklin D. Roosevelt: 8
Harry S. Truman: 7
Dwight D. Eisenhower: 8
John F. Kennedy: 3
Lyndon B. Johnson: 3
Richard M. Nixon: 2
Gerard R. Ford: 1
James E. Carter: 0
Ronald W. Reagan: 3
George H.W. Bush: 4
William J. Clinton: 4
George W. Bush: 5
Barrack Obama: 1