Monday, April 3, 2006

“The game of base ball is a clean, straight game, and it summons to its presence everybody who enjoys clean, straight athletics.”

President William Howard Taft, 1910

Everybody knew the nation’s 27th president loved the national pastime. He played it as a much slimmer youth in Cincinnati and thoroughly enjoyed his first unofficial appearance at a Washington Senators game the previous season. So it was no surprise when William Howard Taft decided to attend the team’s opening game on the afternoon of April 14, 1910.

Probably the game came as a welcome respite. The genial, 300-pound Taft did not have the charisma or enjoy the popularity of his dynamic predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt. A year into Taft’s presidency, progressive Republicans were calling for Teddy to ignore the two-term tradition and run again in 1912. (He did so as an independent after Taft was nominated again by the GOP, and the resulting split vote put Woodrow Wilson in the White House.)

That morning Taft had been booed and hissed by suffragettes seeking the vote for women. The Washington Post reported that the president’s face turned red, but he told the group, “Now my dear ladies, you must show yourself equal to self-government by [practicing] that degree of restraint without which self-government is impossible.”

Then the president and his retinue proceeded to American League Park (later Griffith Stadium) at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW, where he was greeted by American League president Ban Johnson, who had privately invited him to throw out the first ball.

Though the Post had reported that “the opening will not be attended by any ceremony,” a throng of photographers were on hand to record Taft’s opening pitch. In addition, this was the first opener at which movies were made, enabling fans at theaters across the country to watch Taft inaugurate one of baseball’s great traditions.

Arising from an extra-large seat imported to contain his bulk, the president tossed the horsehide to Walter Johnson, the Senators’ starting pitcher. It was a poor throw, but Johnson bent down and caught it. Then he hurled a one-hitter to defeat the Philadelphia Athletics 3-0, the first of many Opening Day victories in a 21-year career that produced 417 victories for arguably the greatest pitcher in baseball history.

In fact, Johnson almost had a no-hitter 10 years before he actually did pitch the first of two in his career. Many in the overflow crowd of 15,000 were standing behind ropes in the outfield, and a routine fly ball by Frank “Home Run” Baker of the A’s dropped for a double when the outfielder tripped over a fan’s feet.

Baker, a Marylander who earned his nickname the following year when he belted two game-winning home runs in the World Series, figured in another significant moment of the 1910 opener when he fouled a ball off the head of Secretary of State Charles Bennett. Bennett, a trooper, waved off assistance and assured nearby spectators he was OK.

In future years, players from both teams would gather on the field and scramble to catch the presidential first pitch — until it dawned on owners and managers that somebody could be hurt in the process. The lucky recipient would hand the ball back to the chief executive and receive both a signature and a smile. But apparently, the notion of such an instantaneous reward occurred to neither Taft nor Johnson.

The next day, Johnson asked a friend to take the ball to the White House and obtain the president’s signature, for things were done more simply then at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Taft signed it with a flourish and somehow found room to write, “To Walter Johnson, with the hope that he may continue to be as formidable as in yesterday’s game.”

Johnson, then 22 and in his third full season with the Senators, certainly followed orders. He won 25 games, struck out 313 batters in 370 innings and posted a 1.36 ERA for a team that finished seventh.

Taft also showed up for the 1911 opener but used Vice President James Sherman as a pinch hitter at the 1912 inaugural, which was four days after the sinking of the Titanic. But Clark Griffith, the Senators’ first-year manager and subsequent owner, announced a second “Opening Day” for June 18 and urged Taft to make the first-pitch ceremony an annual affair.

As it turned out, the belated opener was a rousing success. The Senators, who had been doormats since the American League’s founding in 1901, defeated the World Series champion A’s 5-4 for their 17th consecutive victory in a incredible turnabout season that saw them finish second behind the Boston Red Sox.

When Wilson succeeded Taft in 1913, he had no choice but to turn up at the ballyard on Opening Day. Every other president followed suit, with varying results. Franklin Roosevelt, who could not walk because of polio, usually delivered a strong toss. Harry Truman, who could throw the ball with either hand, once stood up with gloves on both and let fans guess which arm he would use. And so it went.

Taft, who went on to become Chief Justice after leaving the White House, was not a particularly happy or notable president — he once called the White House “the loneliest place in the world” — but probably he would have had no trouble picking what he liked best about the job.

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