President's Pitch Means Baseball's Back

"He did it with his good, trusty right arm, and the virgin sphere scudded across the diamond, true as a die to the pitcher's box, where Walter Johnson gathered it in."

April 2, 2006 — That was a local newspaper's account of President William Howard Taft throwing out the first pitch on April 14, 1910, as the Philadelphia Athletics took on the Washington Senators on baseball's opening day.

Back then, there were no Secret Service snipers on the roof, no bomb-sniffing dogs in the stands, and no bulletproof vest under Taft's suit. He was simply asked to toss the ball from his seat in the stands to future Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson, who stood by home plate.

That toss started a tradition that has carried on through the past 106 years. Though Major League Baseball's 2006 season actually begins tonight when the Cleveland Indians visit the Chicago White Sox -- the World Series champion -- President Bush will throw out the ceremonial opening day first pitch at the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati on Monday as the Chicago Cubs face the Cincinnati Reds.

Ohio University history professor Charles Alexander, a baseball historian and author of "Our Game: An American Baseball History," believes that when Taft threw out the first pitch, a bond was created.

"I don't see much relationship between baseball and the presidency until Taft, although the famous Chicago White Stockings of the 1880s did meet Grover Cleveland in the White House during his first term (1885-1889)," Alexander said. "Taft established the custom of throwing out the first ball of the season, always at the American League ballpark in D.C. Wilson carried it on, as did Harding, Coolidge and on down the line."

Washington, Lincoln and Other Early Presidents

One can research the archives of the Baseball Hall of Fame ( and find numerous tales linking the oval office to the baseball diamond.

Presidents George Washington and John Adams played all types of ball-and-stick games that were early variations of baseball.

In 1860, as Abraham Lincoln was running for the nation's highest office, a Currier and Ives lithograph depicted him and the other candidates debating the rules of baseball. It was also said, as it is today, that baseball metaphors were very popular and used often by Lincoln and the other candidates. According to legend, when Lincoln learned of his nomination for president, he was playing baseball in his hometown of Springfield, Ill.

Andrew Johnson was the first president to host amateur baseball teams at the White House, and Chester Arthur was the first to invite a major league team there. When the Cleveland Blues visited Arthur in 1883, he told the team, "Good ballplayers make good citizens."

President Benjamin Harrison was the first to attend a major league baseball game back in 1892 when he watched the Reds take on the Senators.

When Taft was unable to attend the Senators' home opener in 1912 due to the sinking of the Titanic, Vice President John Sherman was called in from the bullpen to become the first VP to relieve the commander in chief of his opening day duties, something not covered by the 25th amendment.

The only president since Taft not to throw out the first pitch was Jimmy Carter. Alexander said he did not know for sure why Carter broke the opening day tradition while living on Pennsylvania Avenue.

"I'm not a great admirer of Carter," Alexander said, "so I would be inclined to attribute his absences to his being as out of contact with baseball when he was president, as he was with most other things."

Alexander's favorite tale centers on a commander in chief Yogi Berra would have mistakenly called "amphibious."

"Harry Truman was ambidextrous and threw out the first ball in Washington right-handed one year, left-handed the next," Alexander said.

In Good Times and Bad

The relationship between the president of the United States and baseball is not limited to memorable first pitches and entertaining anecdotes. As baseball and the president have been there in good times, both have been there in bad times, too.

During the Civil War, Union and rebel soldiers would separately play games of baseball to pass the time. There are even stories of combating soldiers facing off against each other from time to time in friendly matches.

During World War II, when young American men -- including professional baseball players -- were being sent halfway around the world to fight for freedom, President Roosevelt sent the famous "Green Light Letter" to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis asking him not to cancel the 1942 Major League Baseball season.

FDR wrote, "As you will, of course, realize the final decision about the baseball season must rest with you and the baseball club owners -- so what I am going to say is solely a personal and not an official point of view. I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before."

Perhaps one of the most memorable events involving a president, a first pitch and a country in need was after the 9/11 attacks.

"I don't think there's any question that President Bush's appearance to throw out the first ball for the opening of Game of the 2001 World Series in New York was the most significant event of its kind," Alexander said. "It came about five weeks after 9/11 and had a lot to do with creating a sense of normality in the face of fear and adversity."

Before the Diamondbacks and Yankees took the field that night in the Bronx, Bush walked to the mound, gave the fans and the country a thumb's up, and fired a strike across home plate.

When Bush takes the mound this opening day in Cincinnati, he'll continue the tradition started by Taft and carried on by 15 other presidents. His pitch will signify the start of the season for America's pastime as well as renew a friendship the president has had through the years either as a player, a supporter or a fan of baseball, just like the rest of America.