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First Ball

By Paul Dickson, November 2, 2012
This original Bain news service photo shows Major Archie Butt with President Taft on the field just prior to throwing out the First Pitch on Opening Day. Note Clark Griffith, the manager of the Washington Senators, getting ready to greet the president.

When William Howard Taft threw out the first ball of the 1910 season, he established an unbreakable link between the presidency and baseball.

Major Archie Butt, the popular officer who served as the primary military aide to presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, was the man who first got Taft out of the White House and over to the ballpark. “I thought it would be just as necessary to get his mind off business as it was to exercise,” Butt recalled in his memoirs.

What’s more, he had a pass. On April 8, 1909, owner Thomas C. Noyes of the Washington Senators dropped by to give a season pass to Taft and another to Vice President James S. Sherman. The passes were handsome articles in Russian leather card cases with monograms embossed in heavy gold letters on the inside. Noyes encouraged Taft to come on over and see a game.

After much prodding by Butt, Taft agreed that he would enjoy such an outing and the date of April 19, 1909, was set to make him the first president since Benjamin Harrison to attend a Major League game. Butt and Noyes went out early that day to select a box and purchase an extra-large chair for the nearly 300-pound president.

“One loves him at first sight,” was Teddy Roosevelt’s envious assessment of Taft, and his first entrance into the ballpark underscored the point. He came late—in formal tails and a top hat—and the next morning’s Washington Post reported, “The game was interrupted by the cheering, which spread in a great wave from the grandstand to the bleachers as the crowd recognized the president.”

Taft loved it. He stayed to the bitter end and ducked as foul balls shot back to his unscreened box. He shared nickel bags of peanuts with the vice president and expressed concern over the crowds’ disputing of several calls. Butt puckishly reassured him, “They never kill the umpire before the seventh inning.” 

The presidential party watched the Senators get beaten by the Red Sox, 8–4. In 1925, star pitcher Walter Johnson recalled the day in his serialized memoirs for the Washington Times: “I’ll never forget the first time President Taft appeared at our ball park . . . in the season of 1909 and our players got so excited that we ‘booted’ the game away to the Red Sox.” Taft sensed that he might be having an impact on the game, turning to Butt as the Sox took a 6–0 lead and remarking, “I hope I am not a hoodoo.”

That was Taft’s first day at the ballpark as president. His most memorable occurred the following spring, on April 14, 1910. It was Opening Day for the Senators, and the day began badly for Taft. Suffragists were pressing the notion that women be allowed to vote. At 9:30 a.m., the president addressed their convention, and cautioned that “the least desirable persons” might exercise power if women were given the vote.

As reported in the Washington Post, “This did not please the suffragists, and although President Taft was their guest, his speech was interrupted by an outburst of hisses from all over the hall. With the hisses were half-suppressed ‘catcalls.’ It was a trying moment for the president and for the national officers of the suffragist association who surrounded him on the platform. Expressions of alarm spread over the countenances of those on the rostrum and of many in the crowded hall.

“President Taft’s color heightened but he did not lose his poise. Resuming his speech, he said, ‘Now, my dear ladies, you must show yourselves equal to self-government by exercising, by listening to opposing arguments, that degree of restraint without which successful self-government is impossible.’ At the conclusion of his talk he was enthusiastically applauded.”

That afternoon the president made his grand entrance to American League Park at Georgia and Florida avenues NW, now the site of Howard University Hospital. Ban Johnson, president of the American League, had invited Taft to throw out the opening ball, and the president was ready. Mrs. Taft held the ball while the president removed his new kid gloves. He then took the ball and threw it to Johnson, Washington’s Opening Day pitcher. Taft’s toss, like those of most presidents to follow, was not very good, but Johnson managed to reach down and catch it.

Walter Johnson was the starting pitcher in virtually every Opening Game for the Washington Senators from the very first year of the “First Pitch” tradition until his retirement in 1927.

All this took place without advance publicity. That morning the Washington Post had reported that “the opening will not be attended by any ceremony.” Yet it was the first time a president had thrown out the first ball of a baseball season. Photographers were on hand, and the next day’s sports pages were dominated by the large, photogenic president. Johnson kept the ball and asked a friend to take it to the White House the next day for Taft to sign. The president did so with a flourish. “To Walter Johnson,” he wrote, “with the hope that he may continue to be as formidable as in yesterday’s game. William H. Taft.”

The effect of Taft’s throw was indelible. Once and forever, it wrapped the flag and the president around the game while creating an annual ritual of spring. Since Taft began the custom, every president except Jimmy Carter has made at least one such Opening Day appearance.

In his book, The Washington Senators, Morris A. Bealle said, “President Taft, in spite of a big bay window, threw the ball with the finesse and grace of an accomplished ball player. . . . His successors, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt, all used the bean-bag stance of a bloomer girl debutante.”

The 1910 game also was the first opener at which movies were made. The lone cameraman scored a cinematic scoop, enabling many more than the 15,000 at the game to see the historic first toss.

Taft loved to endorse baseball and maybe the most bullish example came on May 4, 1910, in a St. Louis speech. “The game of baseball is a clean straight game, and it summons to its presence everybody who enjoys clean, straight athletics,” he said. “It furnishes amusement to the thousands and thousands. And I like it 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.”

Quite coincidentally, 1910 was also a good year for other baseball traditions. Jack Norworth’s song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” swept the country to become the game’s anthem.

The 1910 opener also turned out to be a hell of a ball game. Johnson, perhaps the greatest pitcher in baseball history, was hurling the first of 13 openers in a row for the Senators. He shut out the Philadelphia Athletics 3–0 on one hit, and a very cheap hit at that. It was customary back then for overflow crowds to stand behind ropes in the outfield, and a fly ball by Frank Baker dropped for a double when right fielder Doc Gessler, backing up to catch the ball, tripped over the feet of an uncooperative fan.

In another time at bat, Baker inadvertently frightened the fans by hitting a foul ball that glanced off the head of Secretary of the Senate Charles G. Bennett. Unhurt, Bennett waved off assistance and reassured the throng.

After that opener, Taft became one of baseball’s most inexhaustible promoters. This is how his role as First Fan was described in the 1911 Spalding’s Official Baseball Guide: “President Taft believes in Base Ball. . . . He tells his friends that it is a pastime worth every man’s while and advises them to banish the blues by going to a ball game and waking up with the enthusiasts of the bleachers who permit no man to be grouchy among them.”

The players and fans loved Taft. Johnson and the portly president seemed to have a mutual admiration society. So did Taft and Ty Cobb, the fierce star of the Detroit Tigers. Taft tried to see Cobb play as often as his schedule permitted and the Washington Post’s J.B. Grillo reported in 1911 that “the Detroit club never comes to Washington that Cobb does not make a visit to the White House.”

Taft had many other great baseball days. On May 4, 1910, he became the only president to see games in each Major League on the same day. This took place in St. Louis, where he sat through the first two innings of a game featuring his hometown Cincinnati team playing the Cardinals at National League Park. With the Cardinals leading 12–0, he decided to leave the game and rush across town to Sportsman’s Park where the great Cy Young was pitching

But Taft’s great baseball accomplishment was the ceremonial first pitch which he repeated on Opening Day in 1911. Taft did not attend in 1912 because he was otherwise occupied with the Titanic disaster and mourning the death of his friend and confidant, Archie Butt. Vice President Sherman attended in his place, becoming the first veep to toss out the first pitch.



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