Taft Began Tradition 100 Years Ago
It was a beautiful, warm afternoon in our nation’s capital 100 years ago this coming Wednesday, a day just perfect for opening the 1910 Major League Baseball season and for making presidential and baseball history.
President William Howard Taft stood up in his National Park presidential box and took the baseball from his wife, who had been holding it for the proper moment. The heaviest president in our history, who weighed well over 300 pounds at that time, reared back and let fly with a right-handed toss directly at the Washington Nationals’ Walter (Big Train) Johnson, who caught the ball and then pitched a one-hit, 3-0 victory over Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s.
Thus Taft initiated the tradition of presidents throwing out the first baseball each season.
President Barack Obama did the honors last Monday when he walked to the mound at the current Nationals Park and unleashed a very high and outside left-handed slow curve for this year’s official season inaugural. Obama’s wild and bad eephus pitch was caught by North Carolina’s own Ryan Zimmerman, the Washington Nationals’ third baseman.
The New York Times’ account of President Taft’s toss, April 14, 1910, read, “For the first time on record, a president of the United States tossed out the first ball, and what was more he sat through the entire nine innings and seemed greatly to enjoy the contest.”
Why shouldn’t he have enjoyed the game? It was a classic major league game from the old days that was a duel between two future Hall of Fame pitchers, the hard-throwing right-hander Walter Johnson of the Washington Nationals and the left-handed curve baller Eddie Plank of the Philadelphia A’s.
There were two other future Hall of Famers playing in that game — both with the A’s. One of them, Frank (Home Run) Baker, got the A’s lone hit with a bloop ground-rule double to right off Johnson in the seventh inning. Eddie Collins, the A’s second baseman, was the fourth player in the game who was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The hard-throwing “Big Train” Johnson had a no-hitter going into the seventh inning when Baker, the A’s third baseman, lifted an easy fly to right field that should have been caught by Doc Gessler. However, the A’s right fielder collided with a young fan standing in the outfield and the ball dropped for that ground-rule double, breaking up the no-hitter.
A century ago, spectators in the outfield areas were not always confined by fences or walls and often had no seats out there. So they easily roamed about and often spilled onto the field of play.
Johnson’s one-hitter remained the closest thing to an opening-day no-hitter until April 16, 1940, when Bob Feller threw a no-hit, 1-0 victory over the Chicago White Sox that still stands as the lone MLB opening-day no-hitter.
Big Train’s magnificent effort was obviously the main reason President Taft, a well-known baseball fan from Cincinnati, Ohio, remained until the end. But this was also an efficient game, typical of that era. It was over and done with in just one hour and 55 minutes.
Taft was accompanied to the game by a big entourage that included Secretary of State Charles Bennett, who almost became a casualty of the game.
Prior to hitting his soft fly for the double that broke up Johnson’s no-hitter, Frank Baker slammed a very hard line drive straight into the presidential box along the third base line. The ball bounced off a railing and hit Secretary Bennett in the head, knocking him out of his seat. This created a real fuss, and the game was halted for more than five minutes to make sure the cabinet member was alright.
Fortunately, he was not seriously hurt, so the game was resumed. Without that interruption for the benefit of Secretary Bennett, the game would have been completed in less than an hour and 50 minutes.
Compare that with what happened after President Obama threw out the opening day ball last Monday. The current Washington Nationals, who are in the National League, lost 11-1 to the defending NL champions, the Philadelphia Phillies. That opening-day game lasted three hours and four minutes, just about twice as long as the 1910 opening-day game in Washington, D.C.
How wonderful it would be if baseball games lasted less than two-and-a-half hours.
Actually, the first game of the 2010 season was the Boston Red Sox’ 9-7 victory over the New York Yankees last Sunday night in Fenway Park. That game took a much-too-long three hours and 46 minutes to play.
Television (ESPN in this case) was responsible for having a game last Sunday night prior to a presidential opening-day game. TV is also greatly responsible for the length of modern baseball games.
After Obama made his opening-day pitch, he, like President Taft, sat back and watched four future Hall of Famers in action. And Obama may have watched five such superstars in that game last Monday afternoon.
The four who are fairly sure bets for the Baseball Hall of Fame are Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez, the Washington Nationals’ catcher, Roy Halladay, who was the starting and winning pitcher in his first game for Philadelphia, Ryan Howard, the Phillies’ slugging first baseman, and Jimmy Rollins, the superb shortstop and leadoff hitter for the Phillies.
Chase Utley, the Phils’ second baseman, may also have a shot at the Hall of Fame.
Almost a year after Taft threw out the opening-day baseball a century ago, that old National Park, a wooden structure built in 1891, was destroyed by a fire in March of 1911. It was replaced by a steel and concrete arena that was also named National Park. But in 1920, that ballpark’s name was changed to Griffith Stadium to honor the longtime manager/owner of the Washington Nationals, Clark Griffith.
The Nationals, who were often referred to as the Senators, officially changed their name to the Washington Senators in 1956. The team kept that name until 1961 when it moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul, where it became the Minnesota Twins.
Another Washington Senators team was created in a 1961 MLB expansion and played in Washington until 1972, when it moved to Texas and became the Rangers. Thus, there was no MLB team in our nation’s capital from 1972 until 2005, when the Montreal Expos were sold and moved to Washington as the current Nationals of the National League.
But during those 33 seasons when no major league team existed in Washington, D.C., presidents carried on their rights of spring by tossing out a baseball for opening day in New York or Boston or Cincinnati or Arlington, Texas, or wherever it was convenient for them to carry on William Howard Taft’s tradition.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is email@example.com
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