It was the start of
another baseball season. Players practiced in the warm spring weather. A new ballpark was constructed in Chicago more modern than the last and the third in a string of new stradiums. Fans wondered if Ty Cobb would win the triple crown again. And soon every fan would know Jack Norworth’s “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” the game’s unofficial anthem. By 1910, despite baseball’s title as the “national pastime,” the lure of the diamond seemed on the decline, especially in Washington, D.C. where the Senators often finished in last place. To lure fans back into his ballpark and renew enthusiasm for the game, Washington’s owner Clark Griffith turned to the most influential man in America. Griffith reasoned that if the President of the United States not only endorsed the game by his presence in the stands, but took time away from the pressing needs of the nation to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, then certainly the average Joe had time to take in nine innings this summer.
Convincing the man in the Oval Office to take a break from the affairs of state had proven futile with recent administrations. When President Grover Cleveland was invited to a game, he replied, “What do you imagine the American people would think of me if I wasted my time going to the ball game?” 1 President William McKinley was asked to throw out the first pitch at the opener between Washington and Brooklyn. The Presidential box was erected. Members of Congress filled the stands. McKinley never showed. And although a gold season pass was issued to Teddy Roosevelt during his presidency by the National Association of Professional Base Ball Leagues, he never even considered using it.
As owner of the Washington Senators, Clark Griffith had the opportunity to socialize with the upper echelons of Capital society including members of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the current administration. In President William Howard Taft he found a genuine sports fan and willing, if unaware, participant in an ingenious public relations move. By convincing Taft to throw out the ceremonial first pitch of the season, Griffith hoped to permanently fix the presidential seal of approval on baseball as the national pastime once and for all, as well as, establish a tradition that spotlighted the Senators as the home team of the most powerful man in the world.
President Taft genuinely loved baseball. Although often caught playing golf, Taft understood that the national game took place on a diamond, not a fairway. He and Vice-President James Sherman had enjoyed the April 19, 1909 game between the Red Sox and the Nationals 2. Taft and Sherman each kept score while relishing the excitement of the game. This marked the first time since 1892 that a Chief Executive had attended a baseball game in the Capital 3. Although Taft and Sherman arrived late, they stayed for the whole game. By 1910, Taft needed any respite from his beleaguered presidency even if only for nine innings.
Griffith invited Taft to the April 14th season opener of the Washington Senators. A perfect spring day filled the skies and a record 12,226 fans filled the ballpark 4. New manager Jimmy McAleer pulled the Senator’s starting pitcher, Walter Johnson, aside and asked him to catch the President’s ceremonial pitch but the shy future Hall of Famer refused. Instead, McAleer designated catcher Gabby Street for the important task.
The President and Mrs. Taft along with the presidential party including Vice-President Sherman and Secretary of the Senate Charles Bennett arrived at the
ballpark on schedule. Taft had just come from giving a speech to a large contingency of Suffragists at their annual convention; and after being booed by them, was no doubt thankful to be at the ballpark among friends. At the given time, Street took his place opposite and some distance from President Taft. Mrs. Taft held the baseball while the President removed his new gloves. The crowd (and Clark Griffith) waited in eager anticipation.
Finally, the moment that would live on in baseball legend and lore had arrived. With all eyes on him, the 300-pound right-hander turned slightly and threw the ball to Walter Johnson. Although the throw certainly lacked style or grace, Johnson managed to catch it, thus saving the President any embarrassment. The crowd roared. It was no accident or errant pitch that sent the ball to Johnson. A Presidential aide overheard the earlier conversation between McAleer and Johnson and informed the President. Taft refused to let the shy pitcher back out of history. A grateful Johnson would never make that mistake again.
The Presidential party stayed for the whole game even after a line drive foul ball, off the bat of A’s Frank “Home Run” Baker, shot into the
Presidential Box and bounced off the Secretary of State’s head. Silence filled the park. Secretary Bennett waved to the crowd and the game continued. Johnson struck out nine batters and had a no-hitter going into the seventh inning when Senator’s right fielder Doc Gessler running back for an easy fly ball collided with a young fan 5. The ball fell for a ground-rule double. In the end, the Senators won 3 to 0 and Johnson was satisfied with a one-hitter.
The next day, President Taft’s season opener first pitch dominated the sports pages across the country. One newspaper account stated, “He did it with his good, trusty right arm, and the virgin sphere scudded across the diamond, true as a die to the pitcher’s box, where Walter Johnson gathered it in.” 6 The Associated Press reported that “Mr. Taft was as interested as all the rest. He knows Base Ball thoroughly and is up on all the finer points of the game.” 7 Americans adored their President for enjoying the true pleasures of life: a bag of peanuts and a ball game. Griffith's public relations move was a success. Players and baseball fans considered Taft one of their own; and the Washington Senators held the interest of the nation and the Oval Office.
That opening day presidential pitch had a profound influence on the men who held the spotlight that afternoon: Walter Johnson and William Howard Taft. The following day at the White House, Taft received the baseball he had thrown in the ceremony with a humble request from Johnson for his autograph. Taft must have chuckled at the thought of himself signing a baseball like a ballplayer, and the little boy inside of him, who played with youthful passion was certainly delighted. He wrote across the meat of the ball, “To Walter Johnson with hope that he may continue to be as formidable as in yesterday’s game. William H. Taft.” 8 Thus was the first baseball in what would someday become Johnson’s large collection of ceremonial first pitch baseballs autographed by U.S. Presidents.
After the season opener Taft became baseball’s most enthusiastic fan and advocate. In a speech a month later, Taft declared, “I like it [baseball] for two reasons – first, because I enjoy it myself and second, because if by the presence of the temporary chief magistrate such a healthy amusement can be encouraged, I want to encourage it.” 9 And Taft did. He attended another baseball game a few days after the opener and shared a five cent bag of peanuts with the Vice-President while they watched the Boston Americans beat their beloved Senators.
Despite the chilling afternoon, Taft threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Washington season opener in 1911. And he stayed for the game. The President had plans to do the same in 1912 but the Titanic disaster a few days earlier made it impossible. Determined to keep his presidential tradition going, Griffith rescheduled the ceremony for a June home game. Not to be outdone, Congress adjourned early that day and many of them watched President Taft toss the ball to Walter Johnson in front of a packed house in Washington.
By continuing the opening day tradition through Taft’s presidency, even in the wake of disaster, Clark Griffith forever bonded baseball and the American Presidency. The national pastime was now not only sanctioned by the Chief of State, he became its biggest fan among the millions of average Americans who
filled ball parks every season across the country. While the opening day ritual became engraved on the list of presidential duties, back in 1910, Taft did more than establish a custom, he set the standard. Taft added peanut eating, score keeping, and appropriate robust cheering to the list of duties, thus compelling his successors to become ordinary fans if only for nine innings.
President Taft made baseball history that day and his act of ceremony and gamesmanship gave him a place in Baseball's most revered inner sanctum. In the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York, next to a collage of photographs honoring past U.S. Presidents throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, there is an inscription which includes the lines, “In 1910 William Howard Taft was induced to attend the season opener of the Washington Senators and make the honorary first pitch. Thus was launched a remarkable tradition...” 10 Nearby under glass lays a faded baseball signed by a president to a shy ballplayer.