Ronald Reagan once said, "Baseball is our national pastime, that is if you discount politics."
With that remark, the 40th President illuminated a link between our national sport and the nation it helped to build. In fact, the game is almost as old as the presidency itself. George Washington was said to "sometimes throw and catch a ball for hours with his aide-de-camp." Meanwhile, the academically inclined Thomas Jefferson believed, "Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind." Even Abraham Lincoln once missed a Cabinet meeting because he was busy watching the Brooklyn Excelsiors cream the Washington Senators 33-28 down at the ball field.
That's just the beginning. Being a fan of American politics can sometimes feel a lot like cheering on your favorite team. Hell, even the Oakland A's have an elephant logo. With ten candidates taking the stage tomorrow night in Colorado, I thought it would be fun to take pinstriped look at the executive branch.
The first president to attend a Yankees game was Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President. Wilson was on hand at Griffith Stadium to watch the hometown Senators take on a team that was a long way from becoming the Bronx Bombers. In fact, they were barely even the Yankees. Wilson's game, Opening Day 1913, was the first time the team officially went by that nickname. They had been the Highlanders for the previous ten seasons. That particular Yankees team rostered such "legends" as Ezra Midkiff, Birdie Cree, Hall of Famer Frank Chance, and Roger Peckinpaugh who captained the squad from shortstop nearly a hundred years before Jeter. They lost to the Senators, 2-1.
After Wilson came Warren Harding, the 29th President. Harding was the first POTUS to visit Yankee Stadium, and he arrived in its inaugural 1923 season. The Yankees, as revenge for 1913, shut out the Senators 4-0. It was the first shutout at the House that Ruth Built. In the game, Babe cranked his second home run of the season. He would hit 39 more and after falling short the previous two Octobers, the Yankees won their first-ever World Series title, defeating the Giants in six games.
What brought President Harding to the ballpark that day? Let Walter Johnson answer, from an interview with the Hall of Fame:
"I distinctly remember the last game President Harding witnessed. He was in New York and showed up at Yankee Stadium unannounced. Before the game he sent for me, and as we shook hands he said, just as informally as possible, ‘Well, Walter, I came out to root for Washington.'"
Thirteen seasons later, the Yankees once again squared off against the Giants in the Fall Classic. Again they won, four games to two. A babyfaced young outfielder, the 21-year-old Joe DiMaggio, batted .323 with 29 homers in one of the greatest debuts of all time. The 33-year-old Lou Gehrig whomped a career-high 49 homers, drove in 152 runs, and worked 130 walks while striking out just 46 times. The Babe was gone, but Murderers' Row was still very much alive.
In Game 2, the Yankees sent Lefty Gomez, one of many, many iconic Bronx southpaws, to the mound. Warming the rubber up for him was President Franklin Roosevelt, the 32nd President, who became the first Commander-in-Chief to toss a first pitch at a World Series match. The Yankees won commandingly, 18-4. Gomez fired a complete game, striking out eight to earn the win. Tony Lazzeri bashed a grand slam off of Giants reliever Dick Coffman to blow the game open. FDR: good president; so-so highway.
Maybe the greatest-ever feat of presidential athleticism came in 1960, when former President Herbert Hoover (the 31st President) threw out the first pitch at Old Timers' Day at Yankee Stadium. Not impressed? How about this—Hoover was 86 years old at the time. Eyewitness accounts say the pitch crossed home plate on a bounce. Not bad for a truly old timer! Hoover was also the target of Babe Ruth's famous "Well, I had a better year than he did," quip when asked how he felt earning a salary that was larger than the President's.
Speaking of first pitches, it's a tradition with Presidential origins. The first ever "first pitch" was thrown by President William Howard Taft, the 27th President. Taft, whose handlebar mustache could rival Rollie Fingers, hurled the first ball from his box seat on the first base line. I can only assume the reason he never made it onto the field was that the tiny old-fashioned wooden seats constrained his 400-pound frame. It's easier to huck it from the stands than try and wriggle out of those things.
The most recent president with ties to the Yankees was the onetime owner of the Texas Rangers, George W. Bush The 43rd President stepped onto the field amidst an avalanche of cheers when he appeared in the Bronx to throw the first pitch of Game 3 of the 2001 World Series. For a nation reeling from tragedy, it was a moment to display resilience.
Something about the President attending a baseball game felt authentically American. It was a sign that we would be okay. As great as the cheers for the President were, they were golf claps compared to the raucous roars that billowed into the darkness early the next morning. Serious. November. Baseball.