- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 14, 2005

Opening Day is always special for baseball teams and fans, and Opening Day in Washington is very special. Capacity crowds cheer, bands play, bunting drapes the stands and customarily the president of the United States throws out the first ball.

‘Nothing matches a Washington opener for symbolism and pageantry,’ said Clark Griffith, grandson and namesake of the man who owned the original Senators from 1920 to 1955. ‘Besides, the nation’s capital is beautiful this time of year.’

Last night President Bush became the 12th chief executive to limber up his arm at a Washington opener and the first since 1969 when the new Nationals played the Arizona Diamondbacks at RFK Stadium. His toss came 95 years to the day after William Howard Taft unofficially started the tradition.

Usually, the president receives a warm welcome from fans. A notable exception came in 1951, when Harry Truman showed up at Griffith Stadium a few days after firing popular Gen. Douglas MacArthur as commander of Allied forces in Korea.

The crowd booed lustily. Truman grinned broadly and lobbed his pitch into a massed assemblage of Washington Senators and New York Yankees, who scrambled madly for the ball and the resulting honor of getting the president’s signature. Now that players are multimillionaires, a different procedure is followed to avoid potential injuries; the president merely tosses his pitch to the home team’s catcher.

Not all players catching the presidential pitch have been politically correct, so to speak. When John Kennedy signed the ball for Jim Rivera in the last opening game at Griffith Stadium in 1961, the uninhibited Chicago White Sox outfielder scowled at JFK’s scrawl.

‘What kind of garbage college is Harvard where they don’t even teach you to write?’ Rivera told Kennedy. ‘Do you think I can go into any bar in Chicago and say the president of the United States signed this for me? Take this thing back and give me something besides your garbage autograph.’

Kennedy laughed loudly, took the ball back and laboriously wrote a readable signature.

‘You know, you’re all right,’ Rivera said.

In recent years, with no baseball in Washington, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton made their pitches at Baltimore’s Camden Yards. But it just isn’t the same, as any die-hard Washington fan would have told you.

Franklin Roosevelt made the most Opening Day ‘starts’ in Washington, eight, but didn’t go to the ballpark for security reasons after the country entered World War II in December 1941. Other world-shaking events have kept presidents in the White House. Taft skipped the 1912 opener, which came four days after the sinking of the Titanic.

Woodrow Wilson passed up the game in 1917, shortly after the United States entered World War I. His place in the opening ceremonies was taken by his assistant secretary of the Navy — Roosevelt — who helped Griffith, then the Senators’ manager, raise the American flag in center field rather than throwing out the first ball.

In 1968, the opening game was postponed following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the resulting riots in Washington and elsewhere. When it was played, Vice President Hubert Humphrey sat in for President Lyndon Johnson.

Taft, who made the first presidential pitch, was a 300-pounder who required an extra-large seat near the Senators dugout. Taft, a former college player, did so in 1910 and 1911 on an unofficial basis. When Griffith became the Senators’ manager in 1912, he asked the president to make it an annual occasion. After missing that spring’s opener in tribute to the 1,595 victims of the Titanic disaster, he came to the ballpark for a belated toss on June18. When Wilson became president in 1913, he continued the developing Opening Day tradition.

Most presidents have been baseball fans, either by inclination or for political reasons. When Warren Harding spotted the son of Senators pitching immortal Walter Johnson playing in front of the dugout before the 1922 game, he invited the lad to sit on his lap. Walter Jr. did so for the first inning.

Calvin Coolidge’s wife, Grace, was a bigger fan than her taciturn husband. When Griffith, by then the Senators’ owner, asked how she learned to keep a perfect scorecard, the first lady replied, ?Oh, I was the official scorer for my college team.?

Polio victim Roosevelt needed to have a special ramp constructed so he could reach the presidential box and once told Griffith, ‘You know, Griff, I’d come out more often, but I’m such a nuisance.’

Truman, a natural right-hander, was ambidextrous and once rose to make the ceremonial pitch holding up two gloves while onlookers laid bets on which arm he would use. Either way, he was more accurate than Henry Wallace. Subbing for FDR in 1944, the vice president hurled his toss far over the heads of waiting players all the way to second base.

Dwight Eisenhower caused a furor in 1953, when the White House announced he would skip the opener to play golf in Georgia on vacation. Luckily for Ike’s political future, the game was rained out, and he made the rescheduled opener.

Eisenhower made amends with Senators fans the following year. First he presented Mickey Vernon with a silver bat for winning the American League batting championship in 1953, then summoned Vernon to the presidential box to shake his hand again after the popular first baseman hit a home run in the 10th inning to beat the New York Yankees.

Kennedy was the first president to make his pitch at D.C. Stadium when the facility, later named for his brother, opened for baseball in 1962. The following year, the expansion Senators won the opener, and JFK warned club president Elwood ‘Pete’ Quesada, ‘I’m leaving you in first place.’ The team finished last.

In 1969, Richard Nixon found a misspelled word in the presidential seal in front of his box: ‘Presidnt of the United States.’ Then he committed an error of his own, dropping the ball while preparing to throw it.

Presidents come and go, but Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson pitched 14 openers for the Senators, hurling seven shutouts and posting a 9-5 record. Two were particularly memorable. In 1910, he threw a one-hitter against the Philadelphia Athletics, winning 3-0. Sixteen years later, he bested the A’s Eddie Rommel 1-0 in 15 innings — a game the great pitcher always insisted was his best.

Perhaps the strangest incident came in 1956, when Eisenhower became the only president to rebuke a public-address announcer wordlessly on Opening Day. As his victim, Charlie Brotman, recalls it, ‘I had started to announce that Truman Clevenger was coming in to pitch for the Senators when somebody tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, ‘It’s not him.’ So I stopped after his first name, and the word seemed to linger in the air: ‘Now pitching for Washington, Truman …’ ‘

Eisenhower and Truman were political adversaries. Ike stood with hands on hips glaring at the PA booth, ‘as much as if to say, ‘What is this, a joke?’ ‘ Brotman said.

From that day forward, he referred to Clevenger as ‘Tex’ rather than ‘Truman.’

Last night, nearly 50 years later, Brotman again was at the PA microphone — a pleasing touch of continuity in a city that has waited 34 years for another Opening Day.

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