Today being President’s Day, I thought I’d write a different type of column. I have two passions in life: sports and history. So today I’m combining them in a fun and non-partisan manner. The Baltimore Orioles have a long-standing tradition intertwined with US Presidents over the years. Much of this has to do with theceremonial first pitch at games, as the O’s have been a frequent host of 1600 Pennslyvannia Avenue’s residents over the years.
First off a bit of history; President William Howard Taft began what we now know as a tradition of US Presidents throwing out the first pitch to open the baseball season in 1910. He traveled to Griffith Stadium in Washington DC and threw out the first ball for the Washington Senators’ home opener. Over the years it seemed that the President would generally do the honors in Washington or someplace else, however a few were notable: in 1940 FDR’s pitch hit a camera, in 1950 Truman threw out two first balls (one right and one left-handed), in 1962 JFK opened DC Stadium with the first pitch (later renamed RFK for his slain brother), and in 1973 Nixon threw the first ceremonial first pitch on the west coast.
Speaking of President Nixon, he did the honors on opening day in 1959 in Washington, when the O’s opened on the road against the Senators. (Nixon, a lifelong sports fan and baseball enthusiast, was Vice-President at the time.) After the Senators left the area, Baltimore was the next closest team to 1600 Pennslyvannia Avenue. However it wasn’t until President Jimmy Carter visited in 1979 that Baltimore saw a Presidential first pitch – and incidentally that was in the World Series.
Opening Day 1984 was the first time that a President opened the season at Memorial Stadium, when President Ronald Reagan made an unannounced visit. (He had previously been scheduled to come, however it had initially been scrapped due to security concerns.) However that day was notable in the history of first pitches, as the Gipper threw the pitch to home plate on the field. Previous to that, the President would generally throw from the first row of the grandstand, so this was a first.
Baltimore got a return engagement in 1989 when President George H.W. Bush, a former Yale first baseman, opened the season by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was Bush’s guest that day, however he did not partake in the ceremonies. While President Bush would actually open the 1991 season in Texas, he would return to Memorial Stadium with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in May of that year to take in a game. (Leading up to their visit, the big question as I recall seemed to be whether or not her highness would partake in the great American tradition of a hot dog at a baseball game while wearing her white gloves.)
Courtesy of Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
President Bush would open the 1992 season in Baltimore as well, which of course was noteworthy given the fact that it was the first game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The President’s pitch bounced in the dirt and didn’t quite make it to home plate, prompting him to say later that he simply threw a low slider. The following year, President Bill Clinton once again made Baltimore the site of some history. He became the first President to successfully throw the first pitch from the top of the mound to the catcher crouching behind home plate. At the time, Clinton was the youngest President we had elected in some time, so in a way it made sense.
President Clinton was the last sitting US President to throw out the first pitch in Baltimore (1996). While he didn’t throw out a ceremonial first pitch, he did attend Cal Ripken Jr.’s record-breaking 2131 game a year earlier in 1995. And I recall him saying at the time that he was there not so much as President (although he felt that the President should be there for such an event), but as a fan and an admirer of what Ripken had accomplished. President Clinton would return to Camden Yards to celebrate Ripken’s career in October of 2001 on the day he retired, however this was of course after he left office. The Orioles also hosted Vice-President Joe Biden in April of 2009 when he did the honors on Opening Day.
President George W. Bush re-introduced the tradition to Washington in 2005 when the Nationals came into existance. He would also do the honors in the inaugural game at Nationals Park in 2008. President Obama opened the 2009 season by throwing a ceremonial first pitch at Nationals Park on Opening Day, adding his own personal twist – after arriving at the mound, the President put on a black ChiSox hat to sport along with his Nationals jacket. Some fans were taken back by that, however so far as I’m concerned his team’s in the other league and they aren’t rivals by any means. President Obama’s favorite sport of course is basketball – so no harm, no foul…right?! A year later he would also commemorate the 100th anniversary of President Taft beginning the tradition by throwing out the first ball in Cincinnatti.
In recent years we haven’t seen the President open the season as often, and that’s a tradition I think that needs to come back. In a post-9/11 world, there’s no doubt security concerns play a role. It was always a thrill to see Carter, Reagan, Bush, or Clinton throw out the first ball in Baltimore. However with the Nationals now bringing baseball back to our nation’s capital, I would submit that the President should throw out the first pitch in Washington DC every year. Baseball is the only sport that has such a special relationship with the White House, and there’s nothing that’s more truly American than the President of the United States standing on the mound in our nation’s capital opening the season for America’s pasttime.