Reporting David Elfin
One hundred and two years ago Saturday, William Howard Taft rose from his seat in Washington’s wooden ballpark and began a tradition of Presidents opening the baseball season by throwing out the first pitch before Walter Johnson’s one-hit victory over the eventual World Series champion Philadelphia Athletics.
Barack Obama would be wise to continue that tradition when the Nats open their home schedule this afternoon against Cincinnati. Presidents running for re-election who have thrown out the first pitch in Washington in April are 7-1 that November with the only defeat suffered by Herbert Hoover during the height of the Great Depression. The two chief executives aiming for another term who passed on the chance to do the honors split their re-election bids.
Taft returned in 1911 even though a new steel and concrete ballpark was not fully completed to replace the wooden one that had burned in March at Georgia Avenue and W Street N.W., but in 1912, he stayed home, distraught over the death of his close aide, Archibald Butt, aboard the Titanic. Instead, Vice President James Sherman opened the season at National Park, later re-named Griffith Stadium.
Taft’s successor, Woodrow Wilson, threw out his initial first pitch the next April as Johnson beat the New York Yankees 2-1. The charter Hall of Famer would finish his remarkable career with a 9-5 Opening Day with seven of the victories coming by shutouts for the usual low-scoring Senators.
After Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt (eight times despite being unable to stand un-aided), Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon all followed suit over the next 56 years as the original Senators were replaced by the expansion version in 1961 when they moved to D.C. Stadium at 22nd and East Capitol Streets S.E.
Hoover and Kennedy had perfect Opening Day attendance. Truman, who became President 67 years ago today upon FDR’s death, was on hand for all but his first Opening Day as the nation was still mourning his predecessor. In 1950, Truman outdid himself by throwing a pitch right handed and another left handed.
Johnson passed on his final Opening Day in 1968 as Washington was still smoldering from the torching of part of the city’s core in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. six days earlier.
Nixon skipped his last two possible openers in Washington. Making matters worse, Nixon threw out a first pitch in Anaheim in 1973, 18 months after the Senators had left for Arlington, Tex. No wonder he’s the only President to ever resign in disgrace. His successor, Gerald Ford, didn’t endear himself to Washingtonians by throwing out the first pitch at Texas in 1976.
That final Senators opener that Nixon missed was memorable as Washington crushed Oakland and Vida Blue 8-0. Blue would overcome that ugly start to become one of just eight pitchers to win both the MVP and the Cy Young awards in the same season. However, manager Ted Williams’ Senators would win just 62 more games, forfeiting the finale when fans, furious with owner Bob Short’s treachery, stormed the field in the ninth inning.
Over the next 33 years of heartache and ruined flirtations with the San Diego Padres and Houston Astros for Washington baseball fans, Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (Jimmy Carter never bothered) threw out first pitches in Chicago, Baltimore, Toronto, Cleveland, San Francisco, New York and St. Louis, but they just didn’t have the same significance as the same ritual had in Washington.
The nation’s pastime finally returned to the nation’s capital seven years ago this Saturday as the younger Bush threw out the first pitch and manager Frank Robinson’s Nats beat Arizona 5-3 behind eight dominant innings from Livan Hernandez. All three Diamondbacks runs scored on a homer by current Nat Chad Tracy.
Three years later, the Nats celebrated an Opening Day that was almost as special. Bush threw out his final first pitch to open Nationals Park and Ryan Zimmerman capped the glorious night with a walkoff homer in the ninth.
Obama did throw out the first pitch at Nats Park two years ago after missing his first shot at the honor in 2009. He skipped the ritual again last year. If he knows what’s good for him, he’ll be at Nats Park today. With his mitt.
David Elfin began covering sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March.