Good news, Washington baseball fans: the Washington Nationals come home today, closing out their pre-season schedule against the New York Yankees.
Today will also mark the inaugural Presidents Race at the ballpark for the 2013 season, and the first appearance of a fifth presidential runner, President William Howard Taft. Those who have not had the opportunity to enjoy a baseball game in Washington may not be familiar with the presidential races, which up until this season have featured four of our most iconic leaders rendered in mascot form – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt – running via video from points around the Nation’s Capital, entering the stadium, and racing around the perimeter of the field to a big finish.
The addition of President Taft to this season’s running presidents line-up no doubt got many Washingtonians wondering, Why Taft? Since I have the great privilege of working at a knowledge center that houses the papers of our first 23 presidents, including Taft, I decided to dig deeper.
Turns out, although baseball dates back to the 18th century, President Taft was the first American president to embrace and support the sport in a very public way.
President Taft threw out the opening day pitch two seasons in a row in Washington – April 14, 1910, and again April 12, 1911, according to his diaries – the first President to do so, according to the Library of Congress’ book Baseball Americana.
The 1910 game resulted in a 3-0 win for the Washington Senators over the Philadelphia Athletics. The lead of the Washington Herald’s front-page coverage of the victory, says “With the President of the United States, Vice President Sherman, and all the big men of the country looking on, the Nationals opened the American League baseball season of 1910 here yesterday by splashing a can of whitewash over the Philadelphia Athletics, 3 to 0.”
In Taft’s papers is correspondence to the day’s star, pitcher Walter Johnson, who pitched a no-hitter. After the game’s conclusion, Johnson wrote Taft that very day asking for the ball from the opening pitch with Taft’s autograph. Taft obliged and sent the ball to Johnson the next day. The accompanying letter includes a copy of the inscription on the ball:
“For Walter Johnson with the hope that he may continue to be as formidable as in yesterday’s game. W.H. Taft, April 15, 1910.”
Taft’s personal assistant, Major Archibald Butt, typed entries for the official diaries and recorded the 1911 game in a somewhat perfunctory manner:
With the President was Senator Crane, his Secretary, Mr. Hilles, General Clarence R. Edwards, and His Personal Aid, Major Butt. The President was handed the ball which was to open the game and he tossed it into the diamond.
The game was concluded at 6 o’clock, the score being 8 to 5 in favor of Washington.
An accompanying article from the Washington Herald pasted into the book is a little more colorful, with a headline and three subheads:
THOUSANDS SEE OPENING GAME AND VICTORY
Demonstrations Unequaled in History of Fandom in Capital City
PRESIDENT TAFT TOSSES FIRST BALL
Grand Principle of the Equality of Men Demonstrated in the Mixture of Statesmen, Millionaires, and Social Favorites with the Humble Citizen and Ne’er-do-well
The President did not confine his fandom to the Nation’s Capital. In May, 1910, his calendar resembles that of someone setting out to see a game in every ballpark in a single season.
He attended a game in Pittsburgh – the defending World Series champions – May 2, then traveled to St. Louis May 4, where he first watched the Cardinals played the Reds of Cincinnati (Taft’s hometown) followed by a trip across town to watch the St. Louis Browns play Cleveland.
The President was back in Washington May 24 when, his diary notes, he received the newly appointed Minister of Spain in the Blue Room, and later the Minister from Honduras. Then at 4 he left the White House to attend a game versus Detroit, which was described as “an interesting one.” At the conclusion of the 3-2 Washington win – called after six innings due to rain – the President, “at the request of management,” greeted members of both teams before heading to dinner. Among the Tigers playing that day: the legend Ty Cobb.
Welcome back to Washington baseball, President Taft. Here’s to many more memories.
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