SB Nation

Steven Goldman | April 7, 2014

The U.S. through presidential first pitches

Presidential first pitches reveal personality of the chief executive and the problems the nation was facing at the given moment. In this installment: 1910-1945.

Ruth_and_bush_medium Future president George H. W. Bush meets Babe Ruth.

Since William Howard Taft in 1910, there has been a tradition of the President of the United States throwing out ceremonial first pitches. This has most often been done on Opening Day in Washington or Baltimore, depending on where on the continuum of the now-you-see-‘em existence of the Washington franchise the particular president landed. It seemed to me that just as you can look for subtext in every kind of art, we might be able to find something indicative of the state of the president or country in these classic images of presidential pitchers in action.

A note of polite caution: This is a light tour, not a political treatise. We all have our altars and our points of view. Some of mine may be detected in the panorama that follows. This is as inevitable as it would be with anything any author might write on any subject -- the writer on sewing brings to a piece a point of view on needlework, the writer on kangaroos a feeling about their worth as living creatures. Nonetheless, it is not my intention to stake out any particular ideological ground, but merely to give a sense of the times as each baseball flew from the chief executive's hand.

It is for this reason that I have opted for now to stop well short of the present day. The political wars of the present, or for that matter the early 2000s or even the Clinton years, are still too raw for us to touch on them in a lighthearted way. Heck, I have some trepidation about approaching Ronald Reagan, who some want to add to Mt. Rushmore and some want to put under it. Thus we present Presidents and Baseball: The Ragtime Era Through the ‘Mad Men' Years -- stopping, in this installment, with World War II -- and go no further.

William Howard Taft, 1910

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If you want to consider how far we’ve travelled in just over 100 years, consider that Taft’s one-term presidency unraveled in part because of a political argument over trees. In what became known (and promptly forgotten) as the "Ballinger-Pinchot Controversy," different elements of Taft’s administration got into a literal turf war over how much land the government could withdraw from development for conservation purposes. Taft fired everyone involved, alienating liberal Republicans, which at that time was not an oxymoronic description. This was one factor in Taft’s old pal and baseball-hater Theodore Roosevelt ("a mollycoddle game," he grumbled) seeking the 1912 nomination, thereby splitting the GOP vote and handing the election to Woodrow Wilson.

Taft was the original president to throw out the ceremonial first pitch of the season, at Washington in 1910. In fact, he was deeply involved in baseball from its earliest years. In the days before his weight ballooned, he played amateur ball in Ohio, and his brother Charles owned the Philadelphia Phillies from 1905-1913 and the Chicago Cubs from 1914-1916, and the ex-president himself was short-listed by the owners when they were looking for a commissioner after the Black Sox scandal. Whatever his conservative tendencies as a politician, as a baseball fan he had a sabermetric bent, deploring the sacrifice bunt. "I believe they should hit it out," he said. "I love the game when there is plenty of slugging."

Note the President's nonchalant manner as he delivers the ball. This is a commander in chief who knows how to conduct himself around ballplayers.

Taft is often credited with originating the seventh-inning stretch at that same 1910 game, which is logical -- he had to circulate the blood to all that bulk -- but untrue. He did, however, have an SUV-sized bathtub installed in the White House, for obvious reasons. To give the largest president ever some credit, he was something of a depression eater, and once he was named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by President Harding -- the job he had really wanted -- he slimmed down considerably.

Woodrow Wilson, 1916

Woodrow_wilson_1916_medium

This is a great photo for many reasons, only some of them having to do with baseball. First, Wilson went to great lengths to avoid being photographed smiling -- he thought it would undermine the dignity of his office -- so we’re looking at a true rarity. (We should hold out the possibility that he is, in fact, not smiling, but is grimacing with the effort of throwing -- the man had the NJ Route 139 of cerebral arteries.)

170569945-bw_mediumBefore the "Work or fight" order, baseball participated in the farce of pregame preparedness drills, like this one in 1917 at Griffith Stadium in Washington. That's a pre-polio Franklin Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, leading the parade. After the order, you had this:
Ruth_and_pershing_medium Babe Ruth, soldier in the artillery, saluting the commanding general of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing.

If it is indeed a smile, it is one of the last of Wilson’s life. Before the beginning of the next season, Wilson would be well along the path of his own destruction. In January 1917, Wilson asked the belligerent powers of the World War to accept "peace without victory." This was just a bit naïve given how many had been killed since 1914 -- the British had plowed under 60,000 of their own men on July 1, 1916, the infamous first day of the Battle of the Somme, alone, so it was unthinkable that their leadership could go back to their constituents and say, "Yes, every male between the age of 18 and 30 is dead, but we’ve agreed to call the thing a tie. Um, sorry." Later that year, the Germans resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, fired off the Zimmermann Telegram inviting Mexico to invade the southwestern U.S., and Wilson was off into a war he didn’t want, claiming it would irrevocably change American society for the worse.

The war truncated baseball’s 1918 season when General Enoch Crowder, who ran the draft, issued baseball players a "work or fight" order, meaning they had to either get a job in a war-essential industry or join the armed forces. The season ended abruptly in early September with teams having played around 125 games of the 154-game season, and the World Series began on September 5. Owners didn’t plan on having a 1919 season -- you know, the one that caused all the trouble -- at all. Teams played only 140 games that year due to the war’s abrupt end in November of 1918 taking official baseball by surprise.

Maybe Wilson did want into the war in the end, since he had increasingly grandiose and inflexible ideas about the peace that may or may not have been attributable to an ongoing series of small strokes, a giant stroke he suffered while stumping for the League of Nations in 1919, the man’s inherent obstinacy, or all of the above. After that 1919 attack, Wilson spent the rest of his presidency as an invalid, his wife as unofficial acting president. Cut adrift from reality, he dreamed of a third term. When he and Warren Harding rode to the latter’s inauguration together -- and Harding’s election and the accompanying Republican sweep of the Congress (they took a 59-37 lead in the Senate and dominated the House 301-131) represented a repudiation of everything Wilson stood for -- Harding was shocked to see tears streaming down Wilson’s face.

See how stiff Wilson’s left arm is in that photo? It symbolizes the whole man.

Warren Harding, 1922

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Four unlikely things about this photo: (1) Harding is not smoking a cigar. (2) Harding is not holding a golf club. (3) Harding's pocket is not being picked by his own cabinet members. (4) Harding is upright, not a posture he could maintain for long because his arteries were stuffed with Teddy bear prototypes and coagulated ambergris. A few months after this picture was taken, Emanuel Libman, a famously perceptive doctor, met Harding and correctly predicted that he would be dead within six months.

Harding_medium "Harding had no qualification for being president," wrote historian William Leuchtenberg, "except that he looked like one -- which is, given the mythological role of the President in American culture, not an unimportant consideration."

Note that Harding looks a little unsure about just where and when he's going to throw the ball. This was not an uncommon posture. Example: With a World War just concluded and a massive number of veterans needing medical care, the government needed to establish and rapidly expand what ultimately became the Department of Veterans Affairs. Harding appointed a fellow named Charles Forbes to head up this important operation mainly because ... well, Harding had met Forbes on vacation in Hawaii one time and kind of liked him. Forbes promptly set up one of the great sustained thefts of taxpayer money in history -- at a time when crippled veterans were shivering for lack of blankets, dying for lack of medicine, and bleeding for want of bandages, Forbes was taking delivery of these items at the front door of VA hospitals and selling them out the back door for pennies on the dollar. Forbes might have defrauded the government of as much as $200 million in 1920s dollars.

Harding was supposedly unaware of this activity, one of just several examples of corruption in his administration (the most famous is remembered as the Teapot Dome oil-leasing scandal) that he seems to have missed, at least initially. When he learned of Forbes' malfeasance, a reporter came upon him in the White House with his hands around Forbes' throat, shaking him and shouting, "You yellow rat! You double-crossing bastard!"

Warren Harding and Babe Ruth, 1923

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This picture was taken on April 24, 1923 at the brand-new Yankee Stadium. According to the caption, Ruth had just hit a home run and stopped off to accept the President’s congratulations on the way back to the dugout, a gesture Washington Senators pitcher Allen Russell, who allowed the shot, must have really appreciated (a search of Russell’s further appearances against the Yankees that season does not, however, reveal any Ruth HBPs). Note how badly Harding had deteriorated since the year before; he had only a little more than three months before his heart -- with the aid of his wife’s homeopath, who misdiagnosed him as suffering from "acute indigestion" -- finally quit in a San Francisco hotel room.

Debs_white_house_medium Socialist and union leader Eugene V. Debs at the White House immediately after his release from prison (having been convicted of wartime sedition). (Wikimedia Commons)

Say this for Harding, baseball-wise: He really was pals with Ruth, and Harding’s good-dude-to-hang-with reputation is substantiated here -- as we will see with Herbert Hoover, the Babe with not above dissing a president he didn’t like. The two had an odd commonality, an unfortunate bit of early-20th century racism chasing them: both were accused at times of having African American heritage.

Harding also had the honor of having a bit of doggerel composed in his honor by FPA, newspaper columnist/diarist Franklin Pierce Adams, the man who added "Baseball’s Sad Lexicon" (that is, "These are the saddest of possible words: ‘Tinker to Evers to Chance,’ etc) to the lore of the game, on the occasion of his run for president against Democrat James Cox:

Harding or Cox?
Harding or Cox?
You tell us, populi
You've got the vox.

Adams needn't have asked; it was Harding by a massive landslide.

As for Harding’s actual policies, he definitely had some. He signed a severely restrictive, racist immigration law, sponsored by a proto-Nazi Congressman, which served as a precedent for an even worse immigration plan which would help a lot of refugees get killed in the 1930s by denying them sanctuary. Conversely, he pardoned the socialist Eugene Debs, who Wilson had thrown in jail and had him brought directly to the White House, saying, "Well, I have heard so damned much about you, Mr. Debs, that I am now very glad to meet you personally." In between, he liked baseball a lot. He liked poker better, but he liked baseball.

Calvin Coolidge, 1924

Coolidge-bucky_harris_1924_medium

"Silent Cal" was famous for his reticence -- the most famous thing he ever said was, "You lose" --  but  in actuality he gave frequent press conferences. Unfortunately -- for him, really -- there were strict rules, one of which was that he could not be quoted directly. Therefore, a lot of what we have of his minimalistic opinions of his minimalistic administration (Coolidge, wrote the novelist Irving Stone, "believed that the least government was the best government; he aspired to become the least President the country had ever had; he attained his desire.") are paraphrases. "Stocks were turned over in huge volume on the New York Stock Exchange yesterday," the Times reported on January 8, 1928, "largely as the result of ...President Coolidge's statement that he saw no reason for alarm in the large expansion of brokers' loans... in which he saw nothing unfavorable." Not, he hastened to explain, that he was an expert or anything.

That's not exactly the same as, "The President said, ‘Buy! Buy! Buy!'" (though the effect was similar) and leaves us with something of a mystery: Did he cheerlead the stock-market bubble that would eventually pop, precipitating the Great Depression, or did he stay out of it, believing that the president had no business messing with the economy? The only thing we know he didn't do was try to tamp it down -- that wasn't his thing. This is a president who served for a little less than six years and yet vetoed 50 bills, still in the all-time top 10. That almost makes him an activist president, albeit an activist for inactivity. The mind reels.

Rizzuto_and_mrs_coolidge_mediumThe real fan in the Coolidge family was the first lady, Mrs. Grace Coolidge, who not only pushed her husband to games and kept going long after he went to his reward (while lathering up for his morning shave in 1933), but kept score. Here she is picking up an autograph from Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto during the 1950 World Series. When Coolidge opted not to run again in 1928, he didn't bother to inform her of his decision.

We do know that one of his main economic policies, as carried out by his Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, was to cut taxes on the rich as much as possible, a plan they successfully carried out (coincidentally, Mellon was fantastically wealthy) with the result of increasing inequality, and that he continued Harding's policy of high trade barriers, which kneecapped the war-damaged world economy. ("We should adopt a protective tariff of such a character," Harding once said, "as will help the struggling of industries of Europe to get on their feet." This makes roughly as much sense as saying, "I shall punch you in the face until you feel better," but Harding was famous for his anti-eloquence, possibly because his brain was getting so little oxygen.)

"The chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world," Coolidge said, although he himself barely held a job outside of public office. He had a law practice, but in truth he was a professional politician who climbed to the White House rung by local rung, rose to the state level, became Vice-President, and had the boss die on him.

Coolidge was apparently not much for baseball -- it was more something his wife followed. That he went to any games at all is therefore something of a shock, because he didn't pay very much attention to his wife, living apart from her for long periods of time (they somehow managed two children; the death of one from an infected blister developed while playing tennis at the White House cast an understandable pall on Coolidge's presidency, above and beyond his own ambivalence about his role). Note how thrilled he seems with his attendance at the Senators' opener, above. Senators player-manager, future Hall of Famer Bucky Harris, is at right. The Senators had a good team that year, the eventual World Series winner. Coolidge probably didn't know.

Coolidge_walter_johnson_1925_medium

He does seem to be a bit happier to be pictured here with future Hall of Famer Walter Johnson in 1925, although the sly look on his face reminds one that a contemporary observer remarked that "his slightly rigid body" gave him "a rather prissy gate." After he left the White House -- following a typically vague statement about not choosing to run again -- Coolidge wrote his memoirs and took up a newspaper column in which he issued deep thoughts such as, "When a great many people are unable to find work, unemployment results," and, "The country is not in good condition."

Herbert Hoover, 1930

Herbert_hoover_1930_medium

As president, Hoover had a game of his own design, and an invitation to play on the White House lawn was coveted by Congressmen and cabinet members. Hooverball, which is apparently still played, is volleyball as played with a medicine ball. The basic mechanics are that the team on service hits or throws the ball, which can weigh as much as 25 pounds, over the net. The receiving team then waits for the ball to come falling out of the sky and crush them, individual members often screaming helplessly as they realize the path of its descent has made them the target. Small children are especially valued as participants for their typically voluble response to pain. Play stops when everyone is dead and the president's team is declared the winner.

Ruth_and_a_kid_mediumBabe Ruth was willing to have his photo taken with pretty much anyone at any time, and if you asked him to put on a funny hat, a Native American headdress, or play the bagpipes while doing it, that was usually alright (oddly, he had this in common with Calvin Coolidge). However, when he was asked to pose with Herbert Hoover during the 1932 campaign he refused. Hoover's 1928 campaign had been notable for its anti-Catholic rhetoric against his opponent, New York governor Al Smith, and the Babe, a Catholic himself, did not forgive.

Hoover was and is a controversial figure in American history, a man who went from being known as "The Great Humanitarian" who helped feed starving postwar Europe to suffering a historic drubbing in the 1932 election, vilified for being completely insensitive to the plight of individual Americans suffering through the effects of the Great Depression. "No one has starved," Hoover said at one point, blithely ignoring the fact that there are many stations of suffering along the way to actual, fatal starvation and perhaps that as far as acceptable baselines for a citizenry go, "Not dead with your ribs sticking out" was setting too low a baseline.

On another occasion he observed that many people had voluntarily left their jobs "for the more profitable one of selling apples" on street corners. If this was intended as humor, it was very, very dry. In his second inaugural address, Franklin Roosevelt said, "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." Hoover saw them too, but he had a very limited conception of the federal government that required him to stay the hell out of it, do little and say less. Some of the attempted fixes to the Depression pursued by the Roosevelt administration actually began with Hoover, but they were focused on aid to state and local governments, banks, railroads, and other big businesses. Aid to individuals was dismissively called a dole, and it was argued -- just as it is argued today -- that such help would sap the will to work. This may be true to some extent when there are jobs to be had, but in 1932 there were not, and so Hoover looked like an inflexible, insensitive slave to his own bootstrapping life history, a man who had rushed to the aid of the Soviet Union when it endured a famine in 1921 but wasn't equally motivated to help his fellow citizens. "Few men have more systematically and honorably sacrificed actuality to doctrines," wrote New Deal historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., "than Herbert Hoover."

And yet, there was that insensitivity. Talking with former president Coolidge once, Hoover complained that he was not getting enough credit for his efforts to fight the Depression. "You can't expect to see calves running in the field the day after you put the bull to the cows," Coolidge observed. "No," replied Hoover, "but I do expect to see contented cows."

South-lawn-hoover-ball-c1928_mediumHooverball being played on the White House lawn. (Wikimedia Commons)

Whether this is a fair depiction or not is more complicated an issue that we can successfully untangle here. In the decades since he left office Hoover's reputation has been reassessed and reassessed again. Hoover lived to be 90, and like any post-political figure he experienced something of a recovery of his reputation as people began to regard him sentimentally. His own take: "I outlived the bastards." Suffice it for us to say that baseball was not unaffected by the Depression. Rosters were cut to 23 to save a couple of salaries, paycuts were instituted, and the proliferation of player-managers at this time was largely at least in part a way of  reducing payroll.

Hoover was a baseball fan, rooting for the New York Yankees (he took up residence in New York after leaving the White House). The love was not always returned: Another cross not of his own invention borne by Hoover was Prohibition. He was a dry. The country was wet. It had always been wet, really, but by a strange process of passivity they had allowed abstinence to become the law of the land. By the 1930s the majority was done with it, and many states were no longer enforcing the law. When Hoover attended the 1931 World Series at Philadelphia, he was loudly and embarrassingly booed. Some of that was due to his handling of the economic situation, but the main chant heard out of the crowd was, "We want beer!" In 1940, Hoover addressed the annual BBWAA dinner in New York. Reflecting on that moment, he said, "You know, there were a number of thirsty people present with no patience for the constitutional process."

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933

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Given that he governed from 1933 to 1945, dealt with impossibly messy issues like a dead-in-the-water world economy and World War II, and that his approach to most problems was not ideological but basically improvisational, and often distracted and disorganized (with a weather-eye always on the political implications), summing up this charmingly glib but emotionally insular president is very difficult. Even his wife Eleanor said of herself, "I was one of those who served his purposes," as if he were not a person but a distant, inscrutable deity. And perhaps in some ways he was. Roosevelt had ability to confound his listeners, to make them hear yes when he was really saying no, to hear a promise of immediate action when he was actually putting them off. It was only later, once they were out of his presence, away from the martinis that he loved to mix, that they realized they hadn't gotten what they wanted.

Occasionally -- often -- this could lead to incoherence. Given two drafts of a speech, each proposing a policy position that conflicted with the other, he might order a third speechwriter to do his best to blend the two. If you look at the '32 campaign, Roosevelt simultaneously called for an expansion of federal spending to relieve the Depression and castigated Hoover for overspending. Fearing the powerful strain of isolationism that had set in after the First World War, he led from behind on entry to the second. On May 27, 1941, in response to the war in Europe, he declared an unlimited state of national emergency. "Some people seem to think that we are not attacked until bombs actually drop on the streets of New York or San Francisco or New Orleans or Chicago. But they are simply shutting their eyes to the lesson that we must learn from the fate of every nation that the Nazis have conquered ...When your enemy comes at you in a tank or a bombing plane, if you hold your fire until you see the whites of his eyes you will never know what hit you. Our Bunker Hill of tomorrow may be several thousand miles from Boston."

Joe_inducted_mediumJoe DiMaggio goes to war, January 1943.

The next day, Roosevelt held a press conference. "Were you trying to prepare the American people for the possibility of war?" the reporters asked tentatively. "Oh, no, no, no," Roosevelt said (I am paraphrasing, but this was the gist of his remarks). His advisors, who had carefully helped craft the policy articulated in the speech, wept.

To vastly oversimplify, there were three phases of the Roosevelt presidency:

Fdr_1933_g3_ws_mediumRoosevelt went to eight season openers as president. You'll note that in the picture above he's readying for a rather genteel toss, but by the time Game 3 of the 1933 World Series (with another pennant-winning Senators team, the last) rolled around, you can see he had relaxed into the role.

1.  Dr. New Deal: The frantic attempt to fix the economy. "The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation," Roosevelt said in 1932. "It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." This partially accounts for the aforementioned incoherency: At a time when the study of macroeconomics was still in its infancy (John Maynard Keynes was sending Roosevelt letters saying, "Well, what if you tried this?"), Roosevelt and his aides were twisting knobs and pulling levers without a complete understanding of what was happening. This accounts for the second depression within the Depression when, in the mid-30s, they eased off the economic gas thinking it was more important to slash federal spending. The New Deal did not fix the Depression, but after the inertia of Hoover, the impression of activity and optimistic attitude were invaluable. Roosevelt continued the subsidies to banks and businesses, but he also launched direct aid to agriculture and jobs programs such as the Public Works Administration. Many of the latter's construction projects are still in use today.

2. Dr. Win the War: This was what Roosevelt said had replaced Dr. New Deal. Dr. Win the War did cure the Depression. World War II was essentially the biggest public works program the government had ever undertaken. We call it a war because that's what it was, but it was also that.

Fdr_edwin_pa_watson_1941_medium

3. Dr. I Need a Doctor: In his last term, FDR was a dying man. We don't know why, exactly. We know he had a very bad heart, hypertension, and he was a heavy smoker. He may also have had cancer. There is a mole on his brow in most photos that mysteriously disappears in the last year of his life, and there is some thought that he might have developed metastatic melanoma -- he also liked to spend a lot of time in the sun. His doctor destroyed his notes, so we'll never know. What we do know is that he had a fatal stroke on April 12, 1945 and that his condition was apparent to almost everyone who encountered him during those last months, including Vice-President Harry Truman in what was their sole meeting, pictured at right. In fact, everybody was leaving or dying: General Edwin "Pa" Watson, on whom Roosevelt is leaning on in the 1941 picture above, had a fatal stroke himself on the voyage back from the Yalta conference.

Truman_and_roosevelt_medium

Roosevelt's great service to baseball was the famous "Green Light Letter" of January 1942 which gave permission for major league baseball to continue despite the onset of the war. "I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going," Roosevelt wrote the commissioner. "There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means they ought to have  a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before."

If you want to take things a step further -- though Roosevelt deserves no particular credit for this -- great players like Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, and Warren Spahn went into the service. Many of them simply played baseball for the entertainment of their fellow soldiers, but some saw combat and acquitted themselves with great bravery -- but none of the stars were killed.

Next time: Harry S Truman, ambidextrous pitcher.

All pictures via Getty Images except where otherwise noted. Sources include The "Aspirin Age" (Isabel Leighton, ed); "The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball (Jonathan Fraser Light); "The Perils of Prosperity" (William Leuchtenberg); "Truman" (David McCullough); "Only Yesterday" (Frederick Lewis Allen); "An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover" (Richard Norton Smith) and a bunch more books that you probably don't care to hear about.

About the Author

Steve_goldman

Steven Goldman is the MLB Editor for SBNation.com, and founder of SB Nation's Yankees site Pinstriped Bible. Steve is also the author of Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel; and editor and co-author of Mind Game, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, and Extra Innings.

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