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…”

1930: One Hack of a season

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Agony & Ivy on Sept. 7, 2010.

BY CHRIS REWERS
EDITOR

The story of Hack Wilson’s incredible 1930 season began the previous autumn, on Oct. 12, 1929 at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park.

Wilson and his Cubs teammates led the Philadelphia Athletics 8-0 heading into the bottom of the seventh inning of Game 4 of the World Series. The North Siders appeared well on their way to evening the series at two games apiece – and with the final two games scheduled at Wrigley Field – they had to like their chances of rewarding their long-suffering fans with their first world championship in 21 years.

Wilson was an odd-looking man. He stood 5-foot-6 and weighed 190 pounds. The hard-drinking Wilson was described as looking like a beer barrell and not being unfamiliar with its contents. He had a size 18 neck; bulging biceps; stumpy, muscular legs; and wore size 6 shoes.

He may not have looked swift, but Wilson was athletic enough to patrol center field – and he did so adequately – committing 12 errors in 406 chances for the ’29 Cubs.

But Wilson’s defensive reputation was forever tarnished on that sunny Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia.

The Athletics finally scored against Cubs starter Charlie Root, who up to that point had only surrendered three hits, when Al Simmons led off the bottom of the seventh with a home run.

Jimmie Foxx followed with an opposite-field single to right and Bing Miller hit a fly ball to center that Wilson lost in the sun. It dropped in for a single. Jimmy Dykes singled in Foxx and Joe Boley singled in Miller to make it 8-3.

Pinch hitter George Burns popped out to short, but an RBI single by Max Bishop cut the Cubs’ once seemingly insurmountable lead in half.

With two runners on base, manager Joe McCarthy called upon veteran left-hander Art Nehf to relieve Root. Up stepped Mule Haas.

Haas hit a looper to shallow center. Wilson started in on it, but suddenly froze. Seemingly blinded by the sun, Wilson ducked away as the ball shot past him and rolled into the deep recesses of center field. By the time right fielder Kiki Cuyler chased the ball down and relayed it to the infield, Haas had circled the bases for a three-run, inside-the-park homer and trimmed the lead to 8-7. A once quiet Shibe Park was up for grabs.

After walking Mickey Cochrane, Nehf was replaced by Sheriff Blake. A Simmons single advanced Cochrane to third and a Foxx safety drove him in with the tying run.

Pat Malone became the fourth Cubs pitcher of the inning, but he hit Haas in the ribs with a pitch to load the bases and surrendered a two-run, go-ahead double to Dykes. The 10-run inning remains a World Series record.

The Cubs lost that game 10-8 and then allowed three runs in the bottom of the ninth to lose Game 5, 3-2, to close out the series.

Wilson, despite hitting .471 in the World Series, was tagged by Cubs fans as the goat and apparently he entered the 1930 season determined to win the Wrigley faithful over.

In 1930, major league owners introduced a livlier baseball in hopes of promoting offense and increasing sagging attendance, Many hitters obliged, but none more impressively than Wilson.

Wilson’s 1930 stat line on http://www.baseball-reference.com is astounding.He hit .356; smashed 56 homers (an NL record that stood for 68 years); had an incredible, major league record 191 RBI; scored 146 runs, collected 423 total bases, and amassed a .723 slugging percentage. He also was credited with 18 sacrifice hits and walked 105 times.

Of Wilson’s 208 hits, 111 were singles, 35 were doubles, and six were triples.

He was a fearsome sight to opposing pitchers and his batting style was described by The Bleacher Report’s Cliff Eastham:

“At the plate he was a sight to see, squat, stumpy, and menacing, with an earnest, clenched-jaw look on the square face. He loved the high fastball and brought the bat around from the right side to meet it with little grace and mighty effort.”

Warren Brown of the Chicago Herald-Examiner called Wilson, “A highball hitter, on and off the field.”

Wilson’s season highlights included:

* On June 23, he hit for the cycle and drove in six runs as the Cubs routed the Phillies 21-8 at Wrigley Field.

* On July 26, he homered three times in the Cubs’ 16-2 victory over host Philadelphia at Baker Bowl.

* On Aug. 10, he had three homers and seven RBI in a doubleheader sweep of the Boston Braves at the Friendly Confines.

* On Aug. 30, Wilson capped a monster 53-RBI month with two homers and six knocked in against St. Louis at Wrigley.

* On Sept. 20, he drove in his 176th run in a 3-2 loss at Boston to break Lou Gehrig’s three-year-old major league record.

Can Wilson’s record be broken?

Bill James thinks it’s possible, but concedes in The New Bill James Historical Abstract (The Free Press, 2001):

“In 1930, most teams had one or two power hitters, surrounded by players who slapped at the ball and tried to get on base. That meant lots of RBI opportunities for the one or two power hitters.

“In modern baseball, everybody tries to hit home runs, spreading the offense top to bottom, but creating no ‘clusters’ of RBI opportunities.”

Wilson’s “clusters” were mostly created by Woody English and Cuyler.

Wilson batted cleanup in all 155 of his games in 1930. English, who batted second 118 times and first on 38 occasions, had a .430 on-base percentage and scored 152 runs. Cuyler, who hit third 133 times, had a .428 OBP and scored 155 runs.

And despite Wilson’s heroics, the Cubs failed to defend their NL title, finishing in second, two games behind the pennant-winning Cardinals.

One more Wilson story.

McCarthy was concerned about his slugger’s drinking habits and summoned him over to a table in the Cubs clubhouse. He placed a glass of water next to a glass of whiskey and dropped a worm into each beverage. The worm in the water bounced around the glass while the worm submerged in whiskey went limp and floated to the top.

“What does this demonstrate, Wilson?” the manager asked.

“That if I drink whiskey, I won’t get worms,” Hack responded.