The arrival of spring brings the start of another baseball season, and with it an American tradition as occasionally awkward as a slow dance at a junior prom: the ceremonial first pitch of the season thrown by the president.
While every commander-in-chief has taken part in the ceremony except for Jimmy Carter (who did it after he was out of office), it can be a source of embarrassment for our normally fearless leaders. Ronald Reagan once heaved a ball over his catcher’s head. Bush the Elder went the other route and bounced a ball to his target. Even Barack Obama, despite his relative youth, has delivered some cringe-worthy throws.
So how did this goofy but enduring tradition begin? Naturally, it started with one of our most unathletic presidents, the 300-plus-pound William Howard Taft, at the opener between the Washington Senators and the Philadelphia Athletics on April 14, 1910.
Taft initially had more pressing matters to deal with that day, including a visit with the 42nd annual Suffragist convention. However, that meeting unsurprisingly turned sour when Taft remarked in a speech that “Power might be exercised by the least desirable persons” should women be allowed to vote. Reeling from the hostile response, Taft supposedly suggested to his staff members that they could lift their sprits by heading to the ballpark.
By all accounts it was an ideal spring day for such spirit-lifting; National Park was well past capacity with an announced crowd of 12,226, forcing some fans to camp in roped-off sections of the outfield. Despite the conditions, the Senators staff had no problem setting up a box for the presidential party, which included Mrs. Taft, Vice President James S. Sherman and his wife, and several cabinet members.
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According to Henry W. Thomas’ Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train, a biography of the famed Senators pitcher, Washington manager Jimmy McAleer came up with the idea for Taft to throw out the first pitch. The concept of a ceremonial first pitch was not new; that had been performed at various levels of baseball for a long time, but the idea of a president doing the deed was novel. McAleer asked Johnson to catch the throw from Taft but the star pitcher demurred, and catcher Gabby Street instead agreed to be the recipient.
Umpire Billy Evans brought a baseball over to the president’s box. As Thomas recounted in his biography of Johnson, “[Evans] asked him to pitch the ball to a Washington player and the President agreed, immediately removing his gloves. In the meantime, Evans passed the ball to Mrs. Taft, who examined it carefully and expressed surprise at its weight.”
When the ceremony was ready to commence, Street planted himself at home plate, with Johnson hovering nearby. Word was relayed to Taft that Johnson was a “shy fellow” who had politely declined the opportunity, which apparently amused the president. A bell rang, Taft turned slightly and flung the ball at the surprised pitcher, who recovered in plenty of time to make the catch.
The Washington Post offered a glowing account of the action: “He did it with his good, trusty right arm, and the virgin sphere scudded across the diamond, true as a die to the pitcher’s box, where Walter Johnson gathered it in.”
The fans seemed to enjoy the proceedings and offered a rousing ovation, but it was an event that nearly ended in disaster: At one point during the game, Athletics slugger Frank “Home Run” Baker fouled a ball back that narrowly missed the president and glanced off the head of Secretary of State Charles Bennett. After a few tense seconds, Bennett waved to the crowd to indicate he was all right.
The fans almost witnessed more history when Johnson carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning, but that ended when Baker lifted a fly ball down the right field line that landed among the chaos of the crowd overflow. No matter, the Senators won, 3-0, capping a beautiful day for baseball and a triumphant start to the season for the home team. Taft had such an enjoyable time that he returned to repeat the task at the following year’s opener, setting a standard for future presidents to uphold and undoubtedly wish they could find a way to bypass.