- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The fans at Nationals Park rose to their feet and began chanting, “Yes, we can,” the motto of the Obama presidential campaign.

And the ballplayers, all of them congressional Democrats, delivered, ending an eight-game losing streak to their Republican counterparts to capture the 48th Congressional Baseball Game, 15-10.

But Wednesdays victory had more historical significance than the possible advent of an “Age of Obama” era of Democratic hardball dominance. It marked the games 100th birthday, making it one of the oldest rivalries in American sports.

John McArdle is a staff writer with the Hill newspaper Roll Call, the game’s sponsor, who has become game’s unofficial historian.

According to Mr. McArdle, the rivalry goes back to 1909, when Republican Rep. John Tener of Pennsylvania, a former major league pitcher for the Chicago White Stockings and later commissioner of the National League, organized the first game, played at the old American Park at 9th and G streets Northwest.

Given Mr. Tener’s experience in the majors, the Democrats prevailed on him to play infield rather than pitch, a shift that helped produce a decisive 26-16 for the Democrats. (Some cynical observers of the Republicans’ congressional performance since then might contend that the pattern still persists.)

The game was played sporadically in subsequent years, but has been an annual event since Roll Call became the main sponsor in 1962. All told and despite Wednesday shellacking, the Republicans hold an overall series lead since 1909 of 41-32, with one tie, according to Mr. Tener.

There are certain things about the game that both Republicans and Democrats feel strongly about. First, the game is hardball, not softball.

“We do take this game seriously. We play hardball on the floor of the House and we’re sure not going to start playing softball here,” said the Republicans’ manager, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas.

But wouldn’t softball attract more female players?

“We’re not running a dating service for members of Congress,” he replied contemptuously.

At times, the rough stuff got a little too rough.

In the late 1950s, a rash of injuries beset the game, including most notably the 1956 game in which Sen. Eugene McCarthy, Minnesota Democrat, collided with fellow Democrat Rep. Tom Curtis of Missouri, dislocating the congressman’s arm.

Citing safety concerns, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn suspended play in 1958.

In 1962, Roll Call founder Sid Yudain re-ignited the series and it has been played annually ever since. Stars of the game over the years have included former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford; Kentucky Republican and Hall of Fame pitcher Sen. Jim Bunning; and Bob Mathias, a former Olympic decathlete and Republican from California who belted a 412-foot home run that is still talked about.

William Mead, co-author of “The Presidents Game,” notes that almost every president has had some contact with baseball or one of its ancestor games.

George Washington played catch for hours in camp during the American Revolution. Abraham Lincoln was both a fan and a player. William Howard Taft threw out the first pitch to open the season in 1910 and established a tradition that continues to this day, although President Obama missed this year’s Washington Nationals’ opener.

Baseball has a long tradition on Capitol Hill as well.

The city’s first recorded game was played at 8th Street and Maryland Avenue Northwest in 1858 between the Washington Potomacs and the Washington Nationals.

Baseball players and officials have testified before congressional committees frequently over the years - not always willingly - and the name of Washington’s first professional baseball team was the Senators.

“It’s a good-natured rivalry and a real bipartisan event” said former Oklahoma Republican Rep. Ernest Istook, who has played in the game and this year provided color commentary for its broadcast by Radio America and Armed Forces Radio worldwide.

“Both sides play to win,” he said, but when the game is over the teams don’t go their separate ways. “We have a party and we celebrate together.”

The Republicans also has collected 10 coveted Roll Call Trophies to the Democrats two. The trophy is given to the party that wins the best-of-five series over a five-year span. The trophies are proudly displayed by the winning party on the House floor.

*The author is president of Radio America.

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