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…”

Louisville Slugger: the making of an American icon

“I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can.”
– Babe Ruth

BY CHRIS REWERS
EDITOR

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Since Babe Ruth was bigger than life, the 129-foot, 68,000-pound Ruth model replica bat – the “Largest Bat in the World” – that is displayed next to the entrance of the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory is a fitting tribute to the legendary slugger.

The museum, which is located in downtown Louisville and celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, is a slice of Americana, a candid look at the manufacturing process of an iconic product, and a celebration of a batter’s essential tool.

In 2015, a record 314,149 attended the museum, making it one of Louisville’s most popular attractions.

The Hillerich Company, which remains family owned, opened as a woodworking shop in 1855. For much of its first three decades, the company specialized in manufacturing an array of products like bedposts, table legs, stair railings, porch columns, and butter churns.

All of that changed in July, 1884.
Photo of Pete Browning
John “Bud” Hillerich, the 17-year-old son of company founder J. Frederick Hillerich was an avid baseball player and fan who was a regular at Eclipse Park – the home of the American Association’s Louisville Eclipse. The younger Hillerich developed a friendship with Eclipse star Pete Browning (right) – AKA “The Louisville Slugger.” Browning, who was mired in a hitting slump, broke his bat one afternoon.

The broken bat was a traumatic event for the eccentric Browning, a three-time American Association batting champion. It’s likely that no hitter prior to Ted Williams obsessed over bats as much as Browning. The slugger, who liked to swing a mammoth club that was 37 inches long and weighed 48 ounces, named each of his bats – often times after biblical figures. He spoke to his bats and, believing each one only contained only a certain number of hits, retired them on a regular basis.

After the game, Bud Hillerich invited Browning to his father’s shop and handcrafted him a replacement bat to the slugger’s exact specifications. The next day, Browning collected three hits. His teammates immediately placed bat orders. The Louisville Slugger was born.

J.F. Hillerich didn’t see much of a future for his company in bats but his son was persistent. The reputation of the bats began to spread throughout baseball and a steady stream of visiting players continued to visit the shop and place orders. By the time Bud assumed leadership of the company in 1897, the Louisville Slugger was its primary product.

In 1905, eight-time National League batting champion Honus Wagner signed a first-of-its-kind exclusive endorsement deal with Louisville Slugger and by 1923, the company which by then was known as Hillerich and Bradsby, was the nation’s top-selling bat manufacturer.

Upon entrance to the museum, visitors are greeted by an impressive wall display featuring the autographs of thousands of players, past and present, who had their signatures burned into Louisville Sluggers – ranging from Wagner to present day stars like Joey Votto, Curtis Granderson, and Dustin Pedroia. According to the display, over 80 percent of batters elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame used Louisville Sluggers.

On display in the museum gallery are models of Ruth’s 42-ounce bat in which he carved notches for each of his 60 home runs in 1927; the 36-inch bat Joe DiMaggio swung during his famous 56-game hitting streak in 1941, a bat Williams used when he became the last man to hit over .400, in ’41; and the P72 model bat that was used throughout the Hall of Fame careers of legends like Robin Yount, Cal Ripken Jr., and Derek Jeter. There are life-size mannequins of Ruth, Williams, Jeter, and Jackie Robinson spread through the center of the room.

Visitors are given the opportunity to swing a Louisville Slugger themselves in on-site batting cages. Among the bats available for use are replicas of the models used by Browning, Ruth, Williams, and Mickey Mantle. The pitching machines can be geared to slower speeds for novices including children ages 6 and older or, for the courageous, can be jacked up to reach speeds up to 90 MPH.

But the main attraction is the 30-minute factory tour which gives guests a thorough demonstration of how more than 1.8 million bats a year are made. And it’s no demo. The sight of flying wood chips, the smell of sawdust and the sounds of machinery upon entry makes it clear that real work is being done.

Typically, the factory produces 3,000 full-sized bats per day. In peak production during spring training, about 5,000 bats are manufactured.
Our family’s tour last November, which concluded with the presentation of a souvenir mini bat to each visitor, included roughly a dozen people. Our guide, Larry, was friendly, informative, and paused regularly to answer our questions.

Larry gave us an overview of the company’s history and of the bat-making process. We then made several stops along the production line.
We were shown how bats were handcrafted prior to the computer age. A block of wood called a billet, which matched the weight and length of the model requested, was guided onto a lathe machine by a highly-skilled craftsman and carved into a bat. A model bat was placed on a rack above and behind the lathe. The craftsman then revolved the billet on the lathe, sanding and shaving it until it was an exact replica of the model.

Each bat was custom made to the exact specifications of each player. Ruth, for example, demanded that each of his bats include pin knots in the barrels. Williams would visit the factory each offseason to personally oversee the production of his bats.

The heaviest bat – 48 ounces – was ordered by Edd Roush, a Cincinnati Reds star a century ago. The lightest bats on record – 30 ounces – were ordered by 1950 AL batting champion Billy Goodman and 1975-76 NL MVP Joe Morgan. The longest bat – 38 inches – was brandished by 1920’s and 30s slugger Al Simmons. The shortest Louisville Slugger used by a big leaguer was owned by late 19th and early 20th century star Willie Keeler.

On our next stop on the line, we witnessed the branding process that goes into every Louisville Slugger. Each ash bat is branded with the familiar Louisville Slugger trademark – one-quarter of a turn from the sweet spot.

Each player’s model is also branded with his signature, taken directly from his endorsement contract. The sizzle of the branding process is audible and the smell of burning ash permeates the room.

On the harder maple bats, branding decals are applied.

After branding, some bats are dipped into a staining vat (including the pink models many major leaguers use on Mother’s Day) and all of the clubs are varnished. They are inspected. Bats that pass inspection are packed and shipped. Bats that don’t pass muster are repurposed for souvenir use.

Shavings from the bat production are sold to area farmers and are primarily used as livestock bedding.

We were then shown how contemporary bats are made. Williams pioneered and modern players like Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn popularized the theory that how heavy a bat was wasn’t as important as how fast a batter could swing it. Therefore today’s batters are lighter than ones that were used in the old days. Today’s players have more than 8,000 variations to choose from but they typically order from a list of approximately 300 popular models.

The bat specifications for each player contracted by Louisville Slugger are entered into a computer and with a touch of a button, bats are produced from billets. Players are shipped bats, usually in sets of 12, several times throughout the season and some players’ specifications change as the year progresses. Most players prefer a lighter bat later in the year as the hot summer months take their toll. A typical major league batter will order 120 bats during the course of a season.

A common specification of modern players is a cupped bat in which a portion of the top of the bat is carved out. This specification, according to our guide, was invented by Chicago Cubs outfielder Jose Cardenal during an MLB All-Star tour of Japan following the 1973 season and quickly caught on with other players. Cardenal’s model, the C271, remains the company’s most popular today.

Bats have traditionally been made from northern white ash cultivated from company owned forests – about 6,500 acres – in New York state and Pennsylvania, but surprisingly, roughly 80 percent of the bats used by current major leaguers under contract by Louisville Slugger use maple.

The maple bats, which were popularized by Barry Bonds, are a harder wood but tend to shatter easier than ash models. In the past, hickory was a popular wood for bats but today the material is deemed to be too heavy.

The featured product of the museum’s gift shop is the customized bat which must be pre-ordered. The shop also features an array of souvenir bats (world championship Cubs bats were a hot item during our visit), replica bats of legends like Ruth and Williams and of current stars like Granderson and Evan Longoria, and usual gift shop fare like postcards, T-shirts, and coffee mugs.

The museum is located at 800 W. Main Street in Louisville. Admission is $14 for adults, $13 for seniors 60 and older, $8 for children ages 6-12, and free for children 5 and younger. The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. It is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.