How MLB's Presidential First-Pitch Tradition Got Started and Evolved to Today

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 31, 2014

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If you ever need to convince a friend that baseball really is the national pastime among America's favorite sports, just ask how many times the President of the United States has done the coin flip at an NFL game, the opening tip at an NBA game or the opening faceoff at an NHL game.

Nope, no traditions there. But the president throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the old ballgame? That's an ancient one even by baseball standards, born over 100 years ago.

All thanks to William H. Taft. Unlike the presidents who came before him, he was the right man at the right time to forever link the national pastime with the presidency.

Though Benjamin Harrison was the first president to attend a major league game in 1892, John Sayle Watterson wrote in his book, The Games Presidents Play, that other presidents stayed away. Largely, it's safe to presume, out of an awareness of baseball's seedy reputation.

The sport's image didn't get better until Ban Johnson introduced some standards in the early 1900s. That was when Theodore Roosevelt was in office, but he was much too active to spend a day at the park.

His successor, on the other hand, was the opposite. Provided the seat was big enough for his 300-pound frame, Taft didn't mind sitting for long periods of time. Evidently, Washington Senators owner Thomas C. Noyes took that as his cue.

William B. Mead and Paul Dickson wrote in Baseball: The Presidents' Game that Noyes presented season passes to Taft and Vice President James S. Sherman not long after Taft took office in 1909. And on April 19, there was Taft at the ballpark for his first time as president.

Apparently, he loved it. Thus the stage was set for what happened on Opening Day a year later.

The first pitch that started it all.
The first pitch that started it all.AP file photo

Via Biography.com, Henry W. Thomas wrote in Walter Johnson: Baseball's Big Train that it was Washington manager Jimmy McAleer's idea to have Taft throw out the first ball on Opening Day in 1910. The invite itself, though, supposedly went out from Johnson himself.

In any event, Taft was at the park on April 14 ahead of Washington's opener. The plan had been for him to throw to Senators catcher Gabby Street after Walter Johnson, Washington's shy ace pitcher, refused the honor. However, Taft caught wind of that and threw the first ball to Johnson anyway.

It proved to be a good omen, as Johnson led the Senators to a 3-0 victory over the Philadelphia Athletics with a one-hit shutout. The future Hall of Famer kept the ball, which Taft autographed for him: "To Walter Johnson, with hope that he may continue to be as formidable as in yesterday's game."

Taft returned to throw the first ball on Opening Day again in 1911. After he missed Opening Day in 1912, Woodrow Wilson rebooted the honors in 1913.

And so a tradition was born.

Presidential First Pitches on Opening Day
William H. Taft1910-1911Washington D.C.
Woodrow Wilson1913, 1915-1916Washington D.C.
Warren G. Harding1921-1923Washington D.C.
Calvin Coolidge1924-1925, 1927-1928Washington D.C.
Herbert Hoover1929-1932Washington D.C.
Franklin D. Roosevelt1933-1938, 1940-1941Washington D.C.
Harry S. Truman1946-1952Washington D.C.
Dwight D. Eisenhower1953-1958, 1960Washington D.C.
John F. Kennedy1961-1963Washington D.C.
Lyndon B. Johnson1964-1965, 1967Washington D.C.
Richard Nixon1969, 1973Washington D.C., Anaheim
Gerald Ford1976Arlington
Ronald Reagan1984, 1986Baltimore
George H.W. Bush1989-1992Baltimore, Toronto, Arlington
Bill Clinton1993-1994, 1996Baltimore, Cleveland
George W. Bush2001, 2004-2006, 2008Milwaukee, St. Louis, Washington D.C., Cincinnati
Barack Obama2010Washington D.C.

To date, the only president to avoid throwing out a first pitch on Opening Day was Jimmy Carter between 1977 and 1980. He saved face by throwing out the first ball at Game 7 of the 1979 World Series.

That wasn't the first World Series to feature a presidential first ball, mind you. It initially happened in 1915, when Wilson did the honors at Game 2 of the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies. Some years later, the tradition experienced another first when Franklin D. Roosevelt threw out the first ball at the 1937 All-Star Game.

In all, presidents have thrown out the first ball at seven World Series (most recently 2001) and four All-Star Games (most recently 2009).

For the most part, however, they've kept the first-ball tradition confined to Opening Day. And as you can see, it remained an Opening Day treat for Washington fans for a long time.

The format of the presidential first ball was also slow to change. At first, the president always threw from the stands. And though Taft started the tradition by aiming his first ball at Walter Johnson, things evolved to where the first ball was thrown into a rabble of players who would scramble to own such a cherished souvenir. 

John Drebinger of The New York Times (subscription required) used the words "battle" and "skirmish" to describe the chase after Roosevelt's first ball at the '37 All-Star Game. That's no overstatement, as Steve Wulf of Sports Illustrated once wrote that players would elbow and shove each other to get at the ball.

As such, it's no surprise that a custom not exactly built to last didn't last.

According to Wulf, the "scrambling era" met its demise during Richard Nixon's administration, just in time to save players from additional injury risk at a time when salaries were due to skyrocket with the arrival of free agency in the mid-1970s.

Decades later, here we are accustomed to one lucky player doing the catching, just as it was meant to be when Taft and Johnson hooked up in 1910.

Richard Nixon throwing out the first pitch in Washington in 1969, flanked on his right by Ted Williams and Bowie Kuhn.
Richard Nixon throwing out the first pitch in Washington in 1969, flanked on his right by Ted Williams and Bowie Kuhn.AP Photo, File

The scrambling aspect of the tradition wasn't the only practice that changed during the Nixon administration. He was also the first president to throw out the first ball on Opening Day somewhere other than Washington D.C., doing the honors in Anaheim in 1973.

Not that Nixon had much of a choice, of course. The first Senators franchise moved to Minnesota and became the Twins in 1961. The next Senators franchise moved to Texas and became the Rangers in 1972. It wasn't until the Montreal Expos moved to Washington and became the Nationals in 2005 that the nation's capital had its own major league club again.

Once Nixon's opening pitch left his hand in Anaheim in '73, just one more longstanding aspect of the presidential first-ball tradition would become a thing of the past.

Starting with Taft in 1910, it had been customary for the presidential first ball to come from the front row of the stands. It afforded presidents a chance to share the occasion with their cronies, which made for some candid moments for photographers.

For one photographer, this proved to be an occupational hazard. As The Times told the story, it was in 1940 that Roosevelt, perhaps due to an ill-timed nudge from Postmaster General James A. Farley, threw a ball that damaged the camera of one of the press photographers at the scene.

Roosevelt throwing out the first ball in Washington in 1940.
Roosevelt throwing out the first ball in Washington in 1940.AP photo

Umpires weren't safe, either. As the story goes, according to a Times article, in 1953, Dwight Eisenhower yielded to pleas from photographers for a second pitch and uncorked a throw that hit an umpire in the leg.

Indeed, accuracy would have been a problem with throws from the stands. It's also probably why they were called "first balls" rather than "first pitches," as a proper "pitch" is thrown from a mound to a catcher.

Which is where Ronald Reagan enters the tale.

After Reagan threw out the first pitch at this Sept. 30, 1988, game at Wrigley Field, he went up to the broadcast booth and called the action for an inning and a half.
After Reagan threw out the first pitch at this Sept. 30, 1988, game at Wrigley Field, he went up to the broadcast booth and called the action for an inning and a half.CHARLES TASNADI

Though Bill Clinton is often credited with being the first president to throw a first ball from the mound, the picture you see here is of Reagan throwing from the mound at Wrigley Field in 1988.

Which wasn't even the first time Reagan had done so. He threw from the mound when he was governor of California, too, notably when he welcomed the Athletics to Oakland on April 17, 1968, with what Bill Becker of The Times said was an "apparent slider, high and inside."

What Clinton did do, though, was take the budding mound tradition to the next level.

When Clinton threw out the first ball in Baltimore shortly after taking office in 1993—former Orioles announcer Jon Miller introduced Clinton as "a rookie who just moved into the area from Arkansas," according to Michael Kelly of The Timeshe became the first president to throw a first pitch from the mound that made it to the catcher on the fly.

Though Clinton set a precedent, George W. Bush followed Clinton with some first-pitch firsts of his own. In throwing out first pitches in Milwaukee, St. Louis, Washington, D.C. and Cincinnati, Bush became the first president to open seasons in four different cities. When he opened for the Nationals in 2008, he became the first president to christen a new D.C. stadium since John F. Kennedy in 1962.

An event at least as big, however, occurred two years later.

On April 5, 2010, Barack Obama took the mound to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day in Washington. Though more than a little high and a little wide, Obama's pitch marked the 100-year anniversary of Taft's first ball in 1910.

In the more than 100-year lifespan of presidential first pitches, above all else, they've been about everyone having a good time. Presidential first pitches are a chance for presidents to honor the national pastime, for baseball to truly feel like the national pastime and for the fans to soak it all in.

Nevertheless, there have been two instances when a presidential first pitch was something a bit more profound.

Though baseball's ranks were weakened when it lost stars such as Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio to military duty during World War II, Arthur Daley of The Times remarked that the sport still held a special place in the hearts of Americans during the war.

"Dreams of baseball were dreams of sanity," wrote Daley. "To the dreamers the game was a symbol of the things-that-were, of the things-yet-to-be."

The stars came back for the 1946 season. So did the tradition of the presidential first ball, as Harry Truman officially ended a four-year hiatus when he tossed out the first ball on April 16 at Washington's Griffith Park.

This is Truman winding up to throw a first ball in 1949.
This is Truman winding up to throw a first ball in 1949.AP Photo/William J. Smith

The footnote that Truman was the first southpaw president to throw out the first ball is worth acknowledging, but the circumstances surrounding his first pitch are why Paul Dickson of the Society of American Baseball Research argued it's the most important presidential first pitch ever.

"It was a huge symbol that the country was back and moving forward," said Dickson, via Tyler Kepner of The Times.

Of course, you can just as easily take this sentiment and apply it to what happened in 2001.

When Bush took the mound at Yankee Stadium to throw out the first pitch ahead of Game 3 of the World Series, he was standing front and center in a city that had witnessed the tragedy of the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11 less than two months earlier.

Bush went straight to the rubber and took a moment to flash a thumbs-up to the crowd before unleashing a perfect strike.

Said then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer to Hal Bodley of MLB.com in 2011: "To see the commander in chief say, 'I'm not vulnerable. I'll stand right here on the mound at Yankee Stadium and nobody can bring harm to our country.' That's what that appearance represented. It had tremendous impact."

A decade later, Bush himself could still feel the gravity of the moment.

"The crowd was chanting 'U-S-A, U-S-A,' and it was very emotional, a very alive experience. It's something I'll never forget. Thinking about it still brings goose bumps. That was a very memorable night."

It's been 13 years since that pitch and just about four years to the day since Obama's Opening Day pitch in 2010. When the next presidential first pitch will happen is anyone's guess.

But we do know that the next one is out there somewhere. And when it does happen, it will be the continuation of a more-than-century-old tradition marked by strange little odds and ends and at least a couple of moments of cultural and historical significance.

Just the sort of tradition you can only find in the national pastime.

Note: Baseball-Almanac.com's list of presidential baseball firsts and attendance logs for the individual presidents was a huge help in making this article possible. Check it out.

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