From the divisive days of the Civil War to the distressing moments following Sept. 11, 2001, presidents have used baseball to transcend red and blue partisanship, at least for an afternoon. Even with threats of protests and boos by Washington baseball fans, by eschewing the ritual of throwing out the first pitch today, Trump has missed a chance to join a presidential tradition. Ultimately, he has made a political calculation to dismiss a ritual that won’t promote his political interests or cater to his base. He is not avoiding baseball fans — he is avoiding the opposition. In Washington he carries a 6 percent approval rating, lower than any state in the country. He knows that the Nationals’ fan base is not his fan base.
Since almost its organized beginnings, baseball’s tendrils have stretched to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In the summer of 1862, Republican President Abraham Lincoln abandoned the White House for an afternoon and took his youngest son, Tad, to a baseball game. According to legend, Lincoln sat along the first-base line, Tad positioned between his long legs, and for a few hours forgot about the Civil War and enjoyed watching the game in the warm sun.
Already the mythology of the “national game” was taking shape: its rural imagery, suspension of time and innocent appeal. That summer, men and boys were playing some variety of baseball in Union and Confederate camps. Even in prisoner camps, Yanks and Rebs still met on friendly terms on a baseball diamond.
Nearly 50 years later, William Howard Taft, another Republican president, stamped a formal presidential imprimatur on the game by throwing out the first ball at the Washington Senators’ opener in 1910. The president enjoyed the event so much that he tossed out the first pitch again the following year. A former player himself, Taft liked the action. He stomped his feet to keep warm and tossed peanuts in the air, exhibiting every homespun characteristic of the common fan. As much as anything during his presidential years, baseball fused the Yale-educated lawyer to a broad democratic base.
What began as a promotional stunt for the Washington baseball team ultimately helped to democratize the presidency. Woodrow Wilson, a genuine baseball enthusiast, frequently attended contests and encouraged the owners to play regular schedules during the Great War. Though he preferred golf and poker, Warren Harding used baseball to demonstrate his democratic inclinations. Even dour Calvin Coolidge, while seldom ever showing emotions at the ballpark, attended three Senators games, including a scorching hot June doubleheader during the 1924 season.
Indeed, throughout history presidents from both parties have campaigned from baseball stadiums, one of the most visible stages in American sports.
Like his fireside chats, Franklin D. Roosevelt used the Opening Day ceremony to connect directly with the American people. Before him, the ritual of throwing out the first ball from the president’s box seat was a dignified exchange between the chief executive and the Senators’ starting pitcher. The process was entirely too formal for Roosevelt. So rather than lobbing the ball to the pitcher, he tossed it willy-nilly to a mob of players who scrambled wildly for the souvenir. The president rewarded the winner with a smile, handshake and autograph.
Baseball, Roosevelt thought, served a political purpose; it was an escape from tumultuous times. Having fun during the Great Depression became a way to tackle “fear itself.” And in the baseball stadium, Roosevelt even laughed at himself. On Opening Day in 1937, during his squabble with the Supreme Court, a plane flew over the stadium pulling the banner, “Play the game, don’t pack the court.” Roosevelt beamed as brightly as anyone in the ballpark.
During the dark days after Pearl Harbor, he decided that no matter what happened, professional baseball would not be a war casualty. In response to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s inquiry about the status of professional baseball, Roosevelt gave an unequivocal green light. “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” he wrote. To him, the sport was an essential “recreational asset.”
As such, baseball appearances became a presidential ritual. When Dwight Eisenhower took a pass on his Opening Day duties to play a few rounds of golf at Bobby Jones’s Augusta National Golf Club, ordinary Americans howled. Fortunately, Opening Day was a rainout, and he scurried back to the capital to attend the rescheduled contest. He had learned his lesson and finished his two terms by making seven openers out of eight.
In the second half of the 20th century, in the age of television, the Opening Day ceremony became a more noteworthy event, one that millions of Americans could watch from their living rooms. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson enjoyed the fanfare of appearing at the ballpark, but no one relished the attention more than Richard Nixon, who considered himself America’s number one sports fan. Although he detested the media, he courted sportswriters who would embellish his reputation as an authority on sports.
At the same time that he was forging a new southern-and-western-based Republican Party, he trafficked in sports to appeal to Middle America. He took a real interest in the sad-sack Senators, cheered for manager Ted Williams’s squad and spoke about the game to the White House press corps. It all made him seem like a regular guy, the sort who could quote batting averages and lineups at the local watering hole.
His successors continued the tradition, but it was George W. Bush — the former Texas Rangers’ owner — who elevated its national importance. After the horrors of 9/11, Bush traveled to Yankee Stadium to throw out the first ball of Game Three of the World Series. When he appeared on the field wearing a bulky FDNY jacket covering a bulletproof vest, the stands erupted with a spontaneous, heartfelt chant of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” Throwing a strike from the mound, he united Republicans and Democrats behind their country, their president and their game.
President Trump has not ignored sports, but he has used them to play to his base, not to bridge partisan divides. He scorned black NFL players who knelt during the national anthem for what he interpreted as a lack of patriotism. Shortly afterward, however, during the National College Football Championship game in Atlanta between two Southern teams, he appeared on the field for the national anthem.
He also extolled NASCAR’s more overt displays of patriotism as an exemplar of what sporting events ought to look like. He tweeted, “So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans. They won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag — they said it loud and clear.”
Why, then, has Trump refused to appear at the Washington Nationals opener, even afterthe World Champion Houston Astros to the White House last month? The answer is clear: Throwing out the first pitch does not fit into his political agenda. It does not offer him any tangible benefits. The president has shown that unless an event benefits him personally, he has little interest in it.
The Opening Day ceremony, by contrast, symbolizes national unity, which Trump has avoided since the beginning of his campaign. In Trump’s America, sports reflect the debates on Fox News and CNN, a fractured country polarized by the president’s Twitter account. Outside golf, where the president privately socializes with friends and corporate elites, the president’s main interest in spectator sports is promoting a form of “stadium-based patriotism” where Americans must demonstrate their loyalty to country by saluting the troops and singing “God Bless America.” Of course, if he attended a Nationals game, he would find that these rituals are promoted at the ballpark, too.
FDR could smile at a barb aimed at him during an Opening Day game, but not even America’s favorite pastime can unify the nation today. Instead of harmony, an appearance by Trump at a baseball game would likely ignite even more acrimony.