Hail to the Chief: Presidents and baseball

“I’ll never forget the first time President Taft appeared at our ballpark, in the season of 1909. Our players got so excited that we booted the game away to the Red Sox.”
-Walter Johnson
Washington Senators Hall of Fame pitcher

BY CHRIS REWERS
EDITOR

Just five weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Commisioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis sent a handwritten letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

“The time is approaching when, in ordinary conditions, our teams would be heading for Spring training camps,” Landis wrote. “However inasmuch as these are not ordinary times, I venture to ask what you have in mind as to whether professional baseball should continue to operate.”

Roosevelt, in what became known as “The Green Light Letter,” responded to Landis the next day.

“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” he wrote. “There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”

Woodrow Wilson did baseball no favors during World War I. Wilson’s “work or fight” order forced the 1918 season to end on Labor Day. That year’s World Series, between the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, was played in early September.

The first president to host organized baseball teams at the White House was Andrew Johnson who met members of the Washington Nationals and Brooklyn Atlantics at the executive mansion on Aug. 30, 1865.

The Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball’s first all-professional team who completed an undefeated 1869 campaign, were honored that year at the White House by President Ulysses S. Grant.

The 1924 world champion Washington Senators
during their White House visit in 1925
(Library of Congress).

The first world championship team to be feted at the White House were the 1924 Washington Senators who paid a visit to President Calvin Coolidge the following year.

The world champion White House visit became an annual tradition during the Ronald Reagan administration. The Chicago Cubs – then known as the White Stockings – first visited the White House to see President Grover Cleveland following their offseason world tour in 1889 and paid their second visit to the White House last week during the final days of Barack Obama’s stay in office.

Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president of the United States, was the first commander in chief to attend a major league game while in office when he witnessed the National League’s Washington Senators loss at home to the Cincinnati Reds on June 6, 1892. Harrison also attended the Senators’ game 19 days later when they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies.

President William Howard Taft started a baseball tradition on April 14, 1910 when he attended Washington’s season opener against the Philadelphia Athletics at Griffith Stadium. Taft threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the game from his front-row seat and then stayed to watch Walter Johnson shut out the Athletics, 3-0. Legend has it that the portly Taft, who tipped the scales at over 300 pounds, was feeling cramped in his seat. He stood up to stretch his legs midway through the seventh. Out of respect, other spectators also rose to their feet. The tradition of the “seventh inning stretch” was born.

Since Taft, every U.S. president, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, has thrown a ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day.

FDR owns the record with eight ceremonial first pitches between 1933 and 1941. Warren G. Harding and John F. Kennedy did not miss an opener during their three years in office.

Image result for john f. kennedy chicago white sox

President John F. Kennedy (left) was joined by managers
Mickey Vernon of the Washington Senators and Al Lopez
of the Chicago White Sox during pregame ceremonies on
Opening Day of 1961 at Griffith Stadium (JFK Presidential
Library).

On April 10, 1961, Kennedy attended Washington’s opener against the Chicago White Sox and was the guest of broadcaster Vince Lloyd on WGN-TV’s pregame “Lead-Off Man” show.

By that time, the ceremonial first pitch tradition had evolved to include two balls.

The second ball was sent to the White House as a presidential souvenir.

The first ball was a free-for-all. Players from both teams lined up in front of the presidential box. The president threw the ball into the crowd of players, like a groom hurling the bride’s garter into a crowd of bachelors at a wedding reception. The player lucky enough to catch the ball got to keep it.

Kennedy’s toss in 1961 was hauled in by Jim Rivera. The White Sox outfielder approached the presidential box and asked JFK to sign the baseball. The president sloppily scribbled his autograph on the ball and handed it back to Rivera.

White Sox trainer Ed Froelich, recalling the occasion years later to the Chicago Tribune’s David Condon, remembered that Rivera, upon inspecting the ball, barked at the president.

“What kind of garbage college is Harvard, where they don’t even teach you how to write?” Rivera shouted. “What kind of garbage writing is this? What is this garbage autograph? Do you think I can go into any tavern on the South Side and really say that the president of the United States signed this ball?”

Rivera shoved the ball back into Kennedy’s hands.

“Take this thing back and give me something other than this garbage autograph!” Rivera exclaimed.

Froehlich remembered that Kennedy laughed hysterically and wrote “JOHN F. KENNEDY” on the ball in big block letters.

Rivera looked at the baseball and told the president, “You know? You’re all right!”

President George Herbert Walker Bush – who was the captain of the baseball team while he attended Yale – attended all four Baltimore Orioles home openers during his one term in office and Herbert Hoover was a perfect 4-for-4 in attending Senators’ opening days during his time in office.

Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower each attended seven Washington opening days during their presidencies.

Gerald Ford had the ceremonial first pitch honors at the 1976 All-Star Game in Philadelphia during the nation’s bicentennial celebration.

President Reagan, who once broadcast Chicago Cubs games for Des Moines, Iowa radio station WHO, showed up at Wrigley Field for a late-season game between the Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates on Sept. 30, 1988. Reagan donned a Cubs jacket, strolled out on the field and from several feet in front of the pitcher’s mound, fired a pitch to Cubs catcher Damon Berryhill.

ESPN Does 30 for 30 on George W. Bush's First Pitch and the Healing Power of Baseball

President George W. Bush throws a perfect strike to Derek Jeter before Game 3 of the 2001 World
Series (still from Fox broadcast).

One of the highlights of George W. Bush’s presidency came in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks when he let loose the ceremonial first pitch at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 30, 2001 before Game 3 of the World Series between the New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks.

Bush, who wore a bulletproof vest beneath a New York Fire Department jacket, walked out to the mound and gave the crowd a thumb’s up before firing a perfect strike to Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.

As Bush, who once was a managing partner of the Texas Rangers, warmed up in the tunnel beneath the stands, Jeter warned the president to not bounce the ball.

“They will boo you,” Jeter told him.

” I was nervous, really nervous,” Bush recalled. “The ball felt like a shot put.”

It was an emotional and powerful moment.

“What President Bush told us without uttering a single word was that we could once again attempt to carry on our lives,” sportscaster Jim Gray told the Dallas Morning News. “What an amazing symbol it was. It’s a moment that when I think about it, I get goosebumps.”

Image result for obama first pitch

President Obama delivers to Cardinals star Albert Pujols before the 2009 All-Star
Game in St. Louis.

President Obama handled ceremonial first pitch honors at the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis, at the Washington Nationals’ home opener in 2010 and before last year’s historic exhibition game in Havana between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.

“We do a lot of tough stuff as president,” Obama told ESPN. “And by definition you don’t end up being president if you don’t handle stress well. [But] nothing is more stressful than throwing a first pitch.

“They just hand you the ball. And I don’t care if you’ve been practicing ahead of time. When they just hand you the ball…”

DiPoto’s audacity offers Mariners fans more than hope

In his book, The Power of Negative Thinking, Bob Knight expressed his disdain for the word, “hope.”

“Positive results don’t happen simply because we believe they’re going to happen,” Knight wrote. “Hope may spring eternal, but it’s a lot better to work and plan for something than just to hope for it.”

Simply relying on hope without taking proactive steps toward a goal places destiny into fate’s hands. It’s possible that had Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry DiPoto (left) stood pat, the Mariners could match or exceed last year’s success. But it’s just as likely that the team could regress. By taking bold action toward addressing some of his team’s most glaring weaknesses, DiPoto is taking the bull by the horns. For better or for worse, he is taking control of his team’s destiny.

The Mariners were among the most exciting teams in the major leagues last season, winning 86 games – including 15 in their final at-bat. They won nine games in extra innings, claimed eight walkoff victories, and smashed six walkoff home runs. Their 223 home runs ranked second behind Baltimore in the American League. They remained in playoff contention until the eve of the regular season finale.

Seattle features plenty of star power with the likes of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, and Felix Hernandez on its roster. But this talented core has a rapidly approaching shelf life.

Cano is 34 and Cruz will turn 37 on July 1. Hernandez (11-8, 3.82 ERA), who will turn 31 on April 8, is still an ace caliber pitcher but at 33 is on the downside of his career and no longer the doninant presence he once was. At 29, Seager is in his prime but will be on the down side by the time the sun sets on the careers of Cano, Cruz, and Hernandez.

By standing pat, the Mariners would have been hard pressed to equal last year’s success – especially because they reside in a loaded division. The Texas Rangers have claimed the AL West crown in each of the last two years. The Houston Astros took a step back last year after reaching the divisional playoff round in 2015. But with their dynamic group of young players, a bounce back is a distinct possibility. And the Angels, with Mike Trout, can’t be counted out.

The time is now for the Mariners, and with that in mind, DiPoto made his first bold move on Nov. 23 when he sent 23-year-old shortstop Ketel Marte and 24-year-old starting pitcher Taijuan Walker to the Arizona Diamondbacks in a six-player trade that netted him former All-Star shortstop Jean Segura and outfielder Mitch Haniger.

Segura will be 27 on March 17 but already has five years of experience under his belt. Segura played primarily at second base last year but in three years as the starting shortstop in Milwaukee, he averaged 16.67 errors and 646 chances. Marte committed an alarming 21 errors in 476 chances last year.

On Friday, DiPoto completed two trades. He sent another young pitcher, Nate Karns, to the Kansas City Royals for outfielder Jarrod Dyson, and a short time later, shipped veteran outfielder Seth Smith to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for veteran starter Yovani Gallardo.

With the additions of Haniger and Dyson, DiPoto has upgraded the athleticism of his outfield. Haniger, Dyson, and the team’s other projected starting outfielder, Leonys Martin are quick and versatile. Each is capable of plying center field.

Dyson, Seattle’s projected leadoff man, had a .340 on-base percentage last year and has swiped 156 bases in a part-time role with Kansas City the last five years. The spacious dimensions of Arizona’s Chase Field are comparable to Safeco Field and last year, Segura – who is projected to bat second – turned in his best offensive season with a .319 average, 203 hits, 41 doubles, and 20 home runs.

Dyson and Segura should provide plenty of RBI opportunities for the middle-of-the-order sluggers – Cano, Cruz , and Seager.

There’s no debate that the Mariners’ lineup is better, but the jury is out on whether Gallardo will be a productive back of the rotation option to Walker or Karns.

Unlike Walker and Karns, the soon to be 31-year-old Gallardo has a track record with 108 career wins under his belt. But there is no sugar coating his poor performance in 2016. The right-hander walked a career-high 11.6 percent of the batters he faced and had a career high 5.42 ERA. He allowed 16 home runs in just 118 innings.

But Gallardo has won 10 or more games six times and his penchant for serving up home runs should be offset by moving from Camden Yards to the more spacious Safeco.

He’ll be worth a look.

Manny signs with Japanese team

Manny Ramirez, who last played in the major leagues in 2011, signed with the Kochi Fighting Dogs of Japan’s independent Shikoku Island League. In 19 major league seasons, Ramirez hit .312 with 555 home runs and 1,831 RBI.

Statland

Gallardo hasn’t played in the National League since 2014, but during his eight seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers, he proved himself to be a force with the bat. He has 85 career hits – 33 for extra bases including 12 home runs.

Best of the Web

“Lee Smith has a Hall of Fame resume, but the timing of his career may keep him out” by Matt Snyder