Balking at the First Pitch
Bush's Skipping of Opening Day May Perpetuate a Ritual's Slow Decline

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 2, 2007

This is a baseball story, so let's get right to the stats.

Today is Washington's 65th Opening Day since 1910, when William H. Taft gave us a tradition: the ceremonial first pitch by the president. Taft threw the inaugural one for the Senators that year. In the local club's 63 home openers since, a dozen presidents have done the honors 45 times, from front-row seats or from the mound, making them 46 for 64 overall (.719). Pretty reliable.

President Bush kept up the tradition in 2005, celebrating baseball's return to the nation's capital after a 33-season absence. But he missed last year's home opener -- and he'll miss today's, too, when the Nationals host the Florida Marlins at 1:05 p.m. Except for when the world was at war, only two other presidents, Woodrow Wilson and Richard M. Nixon, missed Opening Day ceremonies two years in a row. And Wilson had suffered a stroke.

What gives?

"Oh, yes, he was invited," said Bush spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore. She said the president, an avid baseball fan and former part owner of the Texas Rangers, would love to be there. But "it's not possible with his schedule. He's got various meetings during the day, a meeting earlier in the morning. . . . It just wasn't going to work out."

With Bush's approval ratings stuck below 40 percent in recent polls, Lawrimore was asked whether the president feared he'd get booed. "No," she replied. "Certainly not."

You might have seen this mentioned in the paper recently, that Bush wouldn't be coming to the home opener. It was the last item in a little roundup story from Nats spring training camp. No one thought it was a big deal.

Long ago, though, when baseball held a singular grip on America's imagination, a president's decision to skip Opening Day was cause for headlines. Usually, a personal tragedy or historic crisis or calamity was to blame, though not always. President Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted to skip the 1953 home opener to play golf, and he took a beating for it in the newspapers.

"It's hard to understand today how huge baseball was for so many Americans in those generations," said John Odell, a curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

"And you can't help but admit that it's just not the case anymore."

Last Opening Day, while Vice President Cheney filled in on the RFK mound (and heard some boos), Bush was in the Midwest, talking with senior citizens about Medicare's prescription drug benefit. His meetings today are in the White House. As for Cheney, his office said he'll be in Alabama this afternoon, speaking at a reception for a Republican senator.

Nationals President Stan Kasten said it's not surprising that Bush has turned down first-ball invitations two years in a row, given the weight of his duties.

"It was understood, and we're moving on," Kasten said.

The team said today's first-ball honors will involve a grandson of Senators immortal Walter Johnson; the widow of Negro Leaguer Wilmer Fields, who starred for Washington's Homestead Grays; new Nats Manager Manny Acta; and former Senators players Chuck Hinton and Mickey Vernon.

Still, Kasten said, "there's no question the Nationals would always want the president to throw out the first ball. Every year. Forever. . . . It distinguishes us."

He doubts it will ever again be routine, though, as it was in bygone times. Starting in 1927, for example, presidents showed up for 12 straight home openers. And they attended 13 in a row beginning in 1946. Maybe the world was a little easier to manage then. "I suspect the demands of the office are very different now," Kasten said.

At the Senators' 1910 home opener, the sight of the nation's 335-pound chief executive hurling a baseball toward the mound from his seat in American League Park delighted the spectators. "It was the first time in history," one scribe wrote, "that a President of the United States has opened a game of professional baseball or had attempted to rival the honors of Mathewson, Mordecai Brown, Walter Johnson, et al."

"TAFT TOSSES BALL," announced The Washington Post. "Crowd Cheers President's Fine Delivery of the Sphere."

The tradition born that afternoon sputtered in the early years. Taft threw out the first ball again in 1911, attending the game with his close friend and military aide Archibald Butt, who had sat with the president in 1910, too. Then four days before the 1912 home opener, while he was returning from Europe -- from a vacation he had taken at Taft's urging -- Butt went down with the Titanic.

"Yesterday the president could not be present for obvious reasons," The Post reported after Opening Day.

Mexico's dictator, President Victoriano Huerta, kept Wilson from throwing out the Opening Day first ball in 1914. So riled was Wilson in a dispute with Huerta's government that he ordered U.S. troops to seize the Mexican port city of Veracruz. About 20 Marines and sailors were killed and dozens wounded in three days of fighting that ended April 23, as the Senators took the field for their home opener.

Wilson also missed Opening Day on April 20, 1917, two weeks after Congress declared war on Germany at his request, plunging the United States into a world conflagration that was still raging when the Senators opened at home in 1918, without the president. He was indisposed again in 1919, busy at the Paris Peace Conference.

The public was kept in the dark about the debilitating stroke Wilson suffered in October 1919, and the newspapers didn't dwell on his absence from the Senators home opener six months later.

After that, the first-ball tradition took deep root. Through the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, to the eve of World War II, four presidents missed only two openers at Griffith Stadium in two decades -- 19 for 21 (.905). Only the death of Calvin Coolidge's father in 1926 and Franklin D. Roosevelt's insistence on attending a family gathering in 1939 kept the White House from batting 1.000.

"Baseball and politicians loved to wrap themselves in each other's cloaks," Odell said.

As baseball basked in the presidential glow, "the ballpark in those days was one place where the president could go out, and you weren't a Democrat or a Republican," Odell said. "You were just a good old baseball fan like everyone else. It was a tie to the common man. It was a tie to the common culture. It was where the focus of America was -- on baseball."

FDR, who steered clear of first-ball festivities during the war, died a week before Washington's April 20, 1945, home opener. The new president, Harry S. Truman, an avid fan, stayed away from that wartime Opening Day, although he did throw out first balls at Washington openers in 1951 and '52, during the Korean War.

So did Eisenhower, on April 16, 1953, as the fighting continued overseas. But Ike's attention wasn't focused on baseball that spring. His mind was on golf.

Before rain in Washington forced a postponement, Opening Day had been set for April 13. Ike was in Georgia that week, teeing off at Augusta National Golf Club, where one of his playing partners, Ben Hogan, had just won the Masters tournament. The president's choice of golf over the national pastime had "aroused considerable criticism in some sports circles," the United Press reported, meaning columnists were ripping him.

"I would like to see his first love be baseball," said Warren C. Giles, president of the National League. "But I think he's entitled to do what he wants these days."

Eisenhower finally "yielded to terrific sports pressure," as the papers put it, and announced he would throw out the first ball. Senators President Clark C. Griffith was "tickled to death," saying his players were fired up to "go out and lick the Yankees."

"They're used to playing to the president," Griffith said.

They lost that afternoon but won in 1959, when Ike again chose to play Augusta on Washington's Opening Day. He heard little if any criticism. Maybe baseball was beginning to lose its hold on the nation. When President Lyndon B. Johnson missed the Senators' home opener in 1966, not wanting to interrupt his Easter vacation in Texas, the press hardly noticed.

And then the decade came unhinged, and nothing was the same. Mired in Vietnam, the president heard the chants rising. Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today? The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. fell April 4, 1968, cut down in Memphis four days before the Senators' scheduled home opener. The Washington riot fires weren't all out when the game was finally played on the 10th. Johnson stayed home, safe in the White House, troops from the 3rd Infantry patrolling the perimeter.

He'd already announced he wasn't running again.

And in the end, there was Nixon: He missed the Senators' Opening Day festivities in 1970, arriving at the ballpark in the fifth inning, after sweating out a key congressional vote. And he missed all of the final home opener, April 5, 1971, before the team played out its season and moved away. Like Bush today, Nixon had meetings that afternoon.

He was in trouble.

Polls showed his approval ratings had dropped to a new low. A majority of Americans felt he wasn't being truthful about an unpopular war.

A massacre of civilians by U.S. troops had inflamed opposition to the conflict. The president called the atrocity an aberration, lauding U.S. soldiers for their courage and sacrifice and urging the country to support them.

Democrats wanted a complete military withdrawal, but the president refused to set a timetable. To do so, he said, would embolden the enemy and undermine U.S. commanders in the field.

Anyway, he was busy.

So they played the game without him: WAS 8, OAK 0

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