Of Presidents, Pictures & Opening Day Pitches

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works
Wednesday, August 24, 2005; 4:52 PM

On a sunny Spring day back in 1971, then-President Richard Nixon threw out the Opening Day first pitch at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC.

The home team was the reincarnated Washington Senators. The original Senators had moved to Minnesota in 1961; the newbies, also called the Senators, were an expansion team.

Nixon fancied himself a knowledgeable sports fan (he once suggested a play to then-Washington Redskins coach George Allen -- a fellow Republican). On that opening day in '71 the president didn't have to traipse to the pitcher's mound to perform his ceremonial duty. Nixon pegged his throw (reasonably well, as it happened) from the ground-level presidential box to the waiting Senators catcher. The picture made the papers the next day, and the shot of Nixon throwing the ball, taken from the field and looking into the stands, ultimately was blown up to mural size and made its way to an exhibition on presidential first pitches at the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, NY.

Which is as close as I ever will come to being in the Hall of Fame, since I was the New York Daily News reporter covering Nixon's appearance that day from just a few rows back. In the Cooperstown photo I could be seen over the President's shoulder along with a handful of other Washington reporters who, like me, had talked their bosses into letting them cover this oh-so-important story on a beautiful--and otherwise very slow--news day.

What Nixon didn't know then was that he would be the last president for 34 years to throw out a first pitch at RFK. The hapless Senators ("First in War, First in Peace, last in the American League"), left town for Arlington, Texas after the 1971 season, starting a more than three-decade dry spell for the Nation's Capital, bereft of a major league ballclub.

But now of, of course, that has changed.

For those living on Mars, or perhaps Boston or New York, I am pleased and proud to inform that Washington has its own major league baseball team again: the Washington Nationals. Having a real baseball team in DC would be pleasure enough. When the season began last April no one really expected much from the franchise, which had come down from Montreal and a woeful period as the prodigiously losing Montreal Expos.

But, damn, this team rocks!

We have tasted first place. We are pitching. We are hitting. We are kicking baseball butt.

Maybe it's our leaded water. In any event, we are very, very happy.

At the Nats' historic home opener April 14, President Bush, a huge baseball fan himself, took to the mound and threw out the first pitch. But Bush had thrown out first pitches before. To aficionados of the game, the real history was to be made when the game began, after the first real pitch of the first home game of the first Washington baseball team in 34 years.

Lots of photographers, professional and amateur, were there to make photographs that evening at RFK, but I think my friend and colleague David Pellegrini, whose day job is as a clinical psychologist, made one of the best, most atmospheric, images of the entire night.

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