The White House Bullpen: Ceremonial First Pitches by U.S. Presidents

We’re barely a month away from the 2021 World Series! Set your smart TVs for Tuesday, October 26th as two yet to-to-be-determined teams face off for the chance at a prestigious title. For baseball fans, this is a period of intense euphoria if your team dominated their league and face their rival league counterparts. New York Yankee fans look forward to stomping all over their opponents (especially if they’re the Red Sox Nation). Sportswriters and athletes have called baseball the ‘national pastime’ and a person can see why when they enter the stadium. The Stars and Stripes fly from stadium rafters, choristers and musical guests belt out the national anthem (Roseanne Barr being a notable exception with her spitting and crotch-scratching performance), and patriotic performances showcasing dedication to the U.S. Armed Forces. The game retains a long history of traditions, curses, follies, epic achievements, and statistics that judges every modern athlete against their predecessors. Pitchers are measured against Cy Young and Christ Mathewson as are batters against Ted Williams, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. One famous traditions is the ceremonial first pitch officially opening the new season or game. Typically these first pitches are thrown by notable celebrities or dignitaries, but there is one person that can eclipse many: the President of the United States.

Like with many stories surrounding baseball traditions, there is no definitive starting point, but rather a gradual compilation from a variety of sources. Most sportswriters and historians have attributed the notion of a ceremonial first pitch to William McKinley in 1892 during his time as Governor of Ohio. On the day of the first season game between cross-state rivals Toledo and Columbus, McKinley threw the ball into the diamond from the bleachers. Journalists later described this as McKinley who ‘started it.’ Does this credit him with the starting a new baseball tradition? Probably not, but it’s a great example of Americana in sports history. The inaugural ceremonial first pitch thrown by a U.S. President was William Howard Taft. On April 14, 1910 he threw the first pitch on Opening Day between the Washington Senators and the Philadelphia Athletics. According to some White House sources, Taft had no intentions of attending a baseball game that day, but after an arduous meeting with women’s suffrage leaders, aides said he decided to whisk away from the White House to get some fresh air. While out walking he heard the sounds of nearby Griffith Stadium and decided to watch the season opener. Washington Senators and fans were jubilant that the President attended and what Taft began was the tradition of sitting Presidents throwing first pitches at Washington games.

President Taft threw two ceremonial first pitches while in the White House. He was scheduled to throw out the 1912 season opening pitch, but the sinking of the RMS Titanic forced him to cancel (Image courtesy of William Howard Taft National Historic Site)

Entering the 20th century, the popularity of baseball increased exponentially and more Presidents took part in the national pastime. Attendance grew, games were held more frequently, and baseball fanatics, known as ‘fans’, were following their teams doggedly. The commercial availability of the radio made it possible to bring baseball game action into American homes. Radio commentators gave the play-by-play and turned many living rooms into mini-stadiums. The development of industrial lighting gave way to the first night games in the 1930s and baseball could now go late into the night long after sunset. As the national pastime grew in popularity, so did the number of presidents who frequented games. With the beginning of Taft’s ceremonial pitching, every president since then has thrown at least one pitch at an opening day game or World Series game. Here are some of these presidential pitches:

Baseball has always existed at this special crossroads between American identity and its pastoral background. Its humble origins have rocketed skywards and on that trajectory, garnered attention from all walks of life. Everyone from the blue-collar worker to the financial and political power brokers can be impacted by this phenomenal sport. Maybe the ceremonial first pitch isn’t just about starting a new baseball season, but about transition by keeping alive the traditions that were birthed in the roots of our nation. U.S. Presidents send out that first pitch with the prospects of new hopes and dreams. But maybe also the hope of being scouted by a MLB team and landing a three year, multi-million dollar contract that pays way more than their current salary (we’re looking at you Babe Ruth).

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