Presidential openers and D.C.

During his long tenure in Washington, Clark Griffith cultivated relationships with every U.S. President from William Howard Taft to Dwight Eisenhower. The Nats’ owner helped keep baseball going during World War I and again in World War II. See my SABR team ownership history (or on this site) of the original Senators for more about how he did it.

Yet the start of what became the tradition of the nation’s Chief Executive throwing out a ceremonial first pitch at the start of the Major League season predates Griffith, who arrived to become manager and part owner of the Senators in the fall of 1911.

On April 14, 1910, President William Howard Taft took a seat in the wooden stands of the ball park that preceded what later became known as Griffith Stadium in Washington’s LeDetroit neighborhood. After a bell rang, Taft stood and threw out the ceremonial pitch at the Senators’ home opener. Then he watched Walter Johnson shut out the Philadelphia Athletics. When Taft felt the need to get up briefly from his seat, the rest of the crowd reportedly followed his lead, and, the story goes, the seventh-inning stretch was born.

President Taft tossing out a ceremonial first pitch (Library of Congress)

Taft already had attended a Senators game during the 1909 season. “I like (baseball) for two reasons,” an article recounted Taft as saying. “First, because I enjoy it myself and second, because if by the presence of the temporary first magistrate such a healthy amusement can be encouraged, I want to encourage it.”

Taft attended the season opener again in 1911, and again threw out a ceremonial pitch. After a fire had burned down the old ballpark a month earlier, a concrete and steal structure had been built quickly to replace it, so Taft helped open the new stadium.

The President didn’t attend the 1912 opener. Five days earlier, the sinking of the Titanic, on which Taft had lost a close friend and adviser, kept him away. In any case, the game wasn’t even held in Washington. The Senators played in Philadelphia, among four American League opening games that day.

Griffith, in his first year as manager in Washington and the team’s largest stockholder, obviously recognized the value of having the President attend Senators’ games. Midway through 1912, Griffith asked Taft if he’d throw out a ceremonial pitch again, which the President, seeking re-election, gladly did. The Senators finished second that season, but Taft finished third in the fall presidential contest.

 Before the start of the 1913 season, Griffith persuaded the new President, Woodrow Wilson, to follow Taft’s example and attend the opener to make the ceremonial pitch. That season, for the first time, the Senators’ game (against the newly named Yankees) was the only one played, several days ahead of the other A.L. teams.

Griffith soon would establish a Presidential box behind the third-base dugout. He began going to the White House with great fanfare before the season to personally present the President with a golden pass.

Starting with Taft, every President while the Senators were in Washington attended at least one opening game there. Yet the idea of the Nats’ first game starting the A.L. season alone was not firmly established. Eight times from 1912 through 1951, including the year after they won the World Series, the Senators played their first games on the road. The last four, however, were the result of rain postponements of the originally scheduled openers at home. Hardly a surprise, neither the President nor a high-level substitute attended these away games. Still, President Harry Truman threw out first pitches in D.C. in 1947 and 1951, the last two re-scheduled Nats’ home openers.

After 1913, the next time Washington’s opener was the only A.L. game played that day was in 1928. Such scheduling happened sporadically thereafter – in 1930, 1932, 1937, 1941, 1943, 1949 and 1955. More often than not during the Clark Griffith era, the Senators played their first game on the same day as the other seven A.L. teams. The final four seasons that the Griffith franchise spent in D.C. – 1957 to 1960 — were the first consecutive years the Senators’ opener was the lone A.L. game on the schedule.

Nonetheless, Wilson’s love of baseball helped cement the idea of President’s attending the Senators’ opening games. Wilson threw out first pitches again in 1915 and 1916. He also attended a 1915 World Series game in Philadelphia in his first public appearance with his then-fiancee Edith.

The tradition was helped by Wilson’s successor, who also was deeply involved with the game. President Warren G. Harding played baseball as a youngster and had been the co-owner of a minor league team. He threw out the first pitches at the Nats’ home openers in 1921, 1922 and 1923, even though in 1923, the Senators had opened on the road.

Harding was a hard-core fan, who as president closely followed the Senators. “I never saw a game without taking sides and never want to see one.” Harding once said. He also was known to bet on games.

On the afternoon of April 24, 1923, in New York, Harding showed up unannounced at the new Yankee Stadium to root for the Washington Senators. His team was shut out, the first whitewash ever at that ballpark.

Harding died in office later that season. His successor, Calvin Coolidge, was no great baseball fan at first, but his wife was, and he seemed to warm to the game. The First Lady usually kept score at the games she attended with her husband, which were many. In addition to throwing out first pitches at openers four times, he attended World Series Games 1 and 7 in 1924 and Game 3 in 1925. He threw out ceremonial first pitches at Griffith Stadium in both series. He invited the 1924 World Championship team to the White House to congratulate them before an estimated 100,000 fans on the Ellipse.

Herbert Hoover threw out the first pitch at Griffith Stadium all four years he had a chance, 1929 through 1932, even though Washington didn’t play in 1929 until the second day of the season.  He was treated civilly by fans in D.C. during his last three opening days, despite the deepening Depression, but was booed mightily when he attended a World Series game in Philadelphia, by prohibition-weary fans chanting “We want beer!”

Hoover had a decent respect for the game: “Next to religion, baseball has furnished a greater impact on American life than any other institution, he famously said. In 1959 and again in 1961, when he was 86, Hoover threw out the first pitch at a Yankees’ Old Timers Game in New York.

Franklin D. Roosevelt holds the record for most Presidential first pitches. He went eight-for-nine beginning in 1933, his first year in office. He did so, even though the Nats’ home openers in 1934, ’35 and ’36 came after the season had begun. He missed only 1939, when the Senators once again opened on the road. During his term, he also threw out the first pitch at World Series games in 1933 (the last for the Senators) and 1936. Griffith asked him to throw out the ceremonial pitch at the 1937 All-Star Game, held in Washington. FDR clearly understood the public’s appreciation for baseball,

“I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat,” Roosevelt told his fellow Americans in a 1933 radio speech.” What I seek is the highest possible batting average, not only for myself, but for my team.”

Roosevelt’s first-pitching days ended with America’s entry into World War II, even though he encouraged the major leagues to continue playing during the war. By the time the war ended, Roosevelt had died.

The Senators wore black arm patches in honor of FDR at their 1945 opener, which was played in Philadelphia a week after Roosevelt’s death. Soon after Japan’s surrender ended the war, the new President, Harry Truman, attended the September 8, 1945, game at Griffith Stadium. The next season, he was there for opening day and threw out first pitches with both his right and left hands.

After 1945, Truman made it to the Washington opener every season through his term, which ended in January 1953. In all, he attended 16 major league games during his nearly eight years in office.

President Dwight Eisenhower tossed out seven opening day pitches. He had planned to skip the 1953 opener to play golf, but got a reprieve when it was rained out. He attended the make-up game and eventually attended 13 games at Griffith Stadium during his two terms.

 The World War II hero grew up playing baseball and was a solid player. Eisenhower admitted years later that while he was at West Point he had played semi-professional baseball one summer under an assumed name to earn money. Only later did he realize that this violated NCAA rules, so he couldn’t play for the West Point team.

Vice President Richard M. Nixon, who would do it for himself as President in 1969, subbed for Eisenhower in 1959.

The original Senators left for Minnesota, but the presidential openers remained in D.C. While in Washington, the franchise won 32 openers and lost 28.

The expansion team had opening day in the A.L. to itself for 10 of the 11 seasons it remained in Washington, 1965 being the exception. Three other American League games were played the same day.

The new Nats’ opening day record was just two wins and nine losses. D.C. Stadium opened for baseball in 1962 with a Senators’ victory. The Nats also won the final opener in the renamed Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in 1971.     

John F. Kennedy was the last president to throw out a first pitch at Griffith Stadium in 1961, the first to do so for the expansion franchise. He did the same at the first game in the new D.C. Stadium. JFK threw out his third ceremonial first pitch on April 8, 1963, the only opening day game in Washington I ever attended. (I still have my ticket stub.)
Lyndon B. Johnson threw out first pitches in 1964, 1965 and 1967. He missed the 1968 game, which was delayed in deference to the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil disorder that followed. Vice President Hubert Humphrey subbed that season, as he had in 1966.

In addition to throwing out his presidential opener pitch in 1969, Nixon threw ceremonial pitches to both teams to start the 1970 All-Star game in Cincinnati, the first ever played at night.

The rotund Taft wasn’t the first president to attend a major league game, however. James Garfield had attended an opening game on April 18, 1981. Ulysses S. Grant, although no longer in office, was among a crowd of 15,000 in attendance on May 1, 1888, at New York City’s Polo Grounds, likely the largest paid crowd in baseball history at that point. As Ohio governor, William McKinley threw out the first pitch between Ohio minor-league teams opening the season in 1892. There may well have been others before and after they were in office in the 19th Century.

With the expansion Senators having left for Texas, Nixon was left to throw out a first pitch on the Left Coast in April 1973, before an Angels game in Anaheim. The first-pitch practice continued off and on (mostly off) with Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton doing it at least once in various locations. Wikipedia has a chart with names and locations here:

For the 1974 season, the schedule makers juggled to accommodate the prospect of  a National League team – the relocated Padres – starting the season in D.C. Of course, the sale fell through and the Padres remained in San Diego. See When D.C. nearly got the Padres here:

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In a painful coincidence for Washington fans, President Ford opened the 1976 season by throwing out his ceremonial pitch before a game in Arlington, Texas. The two teams were the Rangers and Twins, the franchises that had abandoned D.C.

 When baseball returned to Washington in 2005, so did the Presidential Opener, albeit after the new Nationals first road trip. President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch – from the mound, unlike all the throws at the Senators’ openers at Griffith and RFK stadiums. Bush also did it in 2008 for the first game at brand new Nationals Park.  The Nats won both those games. As a former owner of the Rangers, Bush clearly knew the game. He has thrown out numerous ceremonial first pitch at various ball parks both before and after he was President.

On the 100th anniversary of Taft’s first pitch, Barack Obama did the honors from the field at Nationals Park on opening day in 2010. Although he wore a Nationals warmup jacket, he didn’t hide his true allegiance: He wore a White Sox cap.

Donald Trump did not throw out an opening day first pitch as President, although he had thrown out a first pitch at a Red Sox game in 2006 on the field at Fenway Park. Trump’s one appearance as President at Nationals Park came in Game 5 of the 2019 World Series. Many in the crowd booed when Trump’s image appeared on the video board.

Joe Biden has yet to throw out a first pitch as President, although as vice president he did it on opening day in 2009 at Orioles Park at Camden Yards.

A version of this appeared in the March 25, 2023, Here’s the Pitch, the online daily post of the Internet Baseball Writers Association.

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