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.

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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.”

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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…”

Socks appeal: The colorful history of baseball hosery

BY CHRIS REWERS
EDITOR

For most of baseball’s history, socks were one of the most important uniform components.

But now, from T-ball to the major leagues, a part of the uniform that teams used to wear with pride has been reduced to a mere optional necessity. The downfall of baseball socks began in the 1960s and by the turn of the century, they had disappeared beneath baggy pajama-like pants.

Socks have made somewhat of a comeback in recent years, but to a guy like me, who appreciates structure and conformity, the state of sock style is an absolute mess.

Baseball teams experimented with a plethora of uniform styles during the sport’s infancy and by the team the game began being played professionally in the years following the Civil War, most teams had adopted military-style uniforms that featured long trousers that were held down by pant clips around the ankles.

Harry Wright, the manager of baseball’s first all-professional team, in Cincinnati, had experimented with several uniform styles but by 1869, finding that his players felt more comfortable and could move more quickly, he had adopted white or gray baggy knicker pants with long, wool red knee-high stockings.

The look, which became familiar to generations of baseball players and fans, became the team’s trademark. So much so, that “Red Stockings” had become the team’s nickname by the summer of ’69.

The Red Stockings, who went 65-0 in 1869, became a sensation. Photographs of the Red Stockings regularly appeared in newspapers from coast to coast. They traveled to play teams on the east coast, and thanks to the just completed Transcontinental Railroad, completed their undefeated campaign with a victory in San Francisco.

By the time the National League debuted in 1876, the Cincinnati look had become universal and a majority of professional teams were being identified by the color of their socks.

Wright’s team had relocated to Boston in 1871 and had continued to be called the Red Stockings. Charter National League teams also included the Chicago White Stockings, St. Louis Brown Stockings, Louisville Grays, Cincinnati Reds, and Hartford Dark Blues. Other nicknames that originated thanks to the color of hoisery in the late 19th century were the Detroit Tigers (the National League’s Detroit club in the 1880s wore black and yellow striped socks), the St. Louis Cardinals (cardinal red hose), and the Baltimore Orioles who had adopted black and orange striped socks by the 1890s.

The stirrup sock, the predominant look in baseball’s history originated in 1905 and had become baseball’s universal look – from sandlots to major league ballparks, within a few years.

Early in the 1905 season, Cleveland star Nap Lajoie was spiked by a sliding baserunner while covering second base. An infection set in and Lajoie missed most of the campaign with blood poisoning. At the time, since clothing dyes were not colorfast, it was widley believed that Lajoie’s infection had been caused by dye from his stocking seeping into his wound.

Soon after the nature of Lajoie’s injury spread, players began the practice of wearing white “sanitary” socks beneath their baseball socks. The stirrup was developed to allow players to better fit into their cleats.

Joe Jackson (from left), Ty Cobb, and Nap Lajoie wearing the early version of the stirrup sock.

Most of the early stirrups were solid in color, but striping at the calf level became popular by the 1920s. By the mid-1930s, the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals were wearing stripe patterns on their stirrups that would remain in vogue for the remainder of the century.

The styles of baseball hoisery, as well as the other components of the uniformremained fairly static from the early 1920s until the late 1960s.

By 1963, the days of Nap Lajoie were distant memories, and that year Kansas City Athletics owner Charlie Finley broke from baseball tradition by introducing gold sanitaries under green stirrups.

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Reggie Jackson wearing the Athletics’ gold sanitary socks in 1969.

Players had pretty much worn their socks the same way for mist of the game’s history but that began to change when Hall of Famer Frank Robinson joined the Orioles in 1966. Robinson popularized the practice of “high cut” socks. He would stretch his socks higher and higher so that more of his sanitaries showed. Robinson even went to the extreme of cutting his socks and adding fabric to extend the stirrups.

Robinson would tape the stirrups to his sanitaries so that they wouldn’t sag. He would put on his pants inside out. When he pulled up his pants, his socks would remain in place.

Frank Robinson sporting his long stirrups.

“You’re not allowed to cut your baseball socks,” Seattle Pilots pitcher Jim Bouton wrote in Ball Four, his diary of the 1969 season. “But if you don’t cut your socks, you’re nothing … The higher your stirrups, the cooler you are. Your legs look long and cool instead of dumpy and hot.”

Polyester double knits replaced wool as the fabric of choice in the 1970s and the length of stirrups continued to lengthen. It became fashionable for players to wear a 2-in-1, a sanitary socks with stirrups stitched into them.

Slowly and steadily pants got longer. Many players of the ’70s and ’80s showed just a bit of their 2-in-1s. George Hendrick, who played for several major league teams, went to the extreme of showing no sock with his pants length reaching his shoe top.

During his tenure as general manager of the Chicago White Sox, Larry Himes instituted a dress code that required players to show enough sock so that striping would be visible but the players rebelled and the mandate was soon discontinued. Today, the basic agreement forbids teams from dictating sock length.

By the 1990s, most players wore their long, baggy trousers to their shoe tops with some players like Barry Bonds going to the extreme of strapping their pants to their cleats. But there were a few holdovers. Prominent players of the era who still showed stirrup included George Brett, Darryl Strawberry, Jim Thome, and Chipper Jones.

In the modern era, more and more players have began to show their socks, but stirrups have lost favor to solid-colored baseball socks. Brendan Ryan brought new life to the Cardinals stripes. Curtis Granderson and Adam Jones hiked up their pants in tribute to Negro League pioneers.

Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen often hikes up his pants on Sundays to sport striped socks that he designed himself.

Curtis Granderson rounds first after hitting a single

Curtis Granderson

Teams like the Tampa Bay Rays, Seattle Mariners, Oakland Athletics, Pittsburgh Pirates, Orioles, and San Francisco Giants introduced striping, Andrew Toles became the first Dodgers player to feature striping on his socks since the 1930s. Jesse Chavez, while with Oakland, reintroduced the 2-in-1.

The problem is that the ankle portion of baseball uniform has become anything but uniform.Some players hide their socks. Others hike their pants to their knees. Some show stripes and other opt for solid hose. Some players feature stirrups and some don’t.

But at least one player doesn’t mind the variety of looks.

“I definitely do notice when guys on the other team wear (high socks),” Tampa Bay shortstop Brad Miller told MLB.com. “They look sharp. There’s a lot of good looks out there.”

Around the majors

The Washington Nationals announced on Twitter on Monday that NL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer has a stress fracture on the knuckle of his right ring finger … ESPN reported that the Tampa Bay Rays have agreed to a contract with free agent outfielder Colby Rasmus who hit .206 in 107 games with Houston last year.