In a city often known for its ugly politics, the Congressional Baseball Game was that rare bird: an event that brought lawmakers from both sides of the aisle together for a day of genuinely good-natured competition.
The baseball game’s official website bills it as “the only annual partisan showdown beloved by all and enjoyed by thousands.” It’s seen as a win-win: Proceeds go to charity, and lawmakers engage their competitive spirit while demonstrating their hometown pride before a crowd that regularly hits about 10,000.
When gunfire erupted Wednesday morning at a Virginia baseball field where the Republican team was holding their practice, it shocked the nation — and also tore at the purity of a decades-old pastime.
“It’s really a great bipartisan tradition,” said Nathaniel Rakich, who has written extensively about the history of the Congressional Baseball Game. “Events like that have been rarer and rarer. Today, this really is the only event that brings both Democrats and Republicans together for social purposes.”
The tradition dates back to 1909, when Rep. John Tener of Pennsylvania organized a friendly baseball game between Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Tener had a bit of a competitive advantage; he had been a professional baseball player before his election to the House of Representatives.
— U.S. House History (@USHouseHistory) April 3, 2017
But Tener soon discovered that many other members of Congress were baseball fans as well, in a time when the sport truly was the national pastime, Rakich said.
Back then, a debate over raising tariffs on goods entering the United States was also deeply dividing the Republican Party, he said.
“I think Tener also wanted to bring those two wings of the party together by forcing them to band together and make a baseball team,” Rakich said.
The game’s website cites a Boston Daily Globe report that captured the anticipation for the first meeting of the two teams: “The game was brewing for weeks and the Members of the House were keyed up a high pitch of enthusiasm. Deep, dark rumors were in circulation that ‘ringers’ would be introduced, but when they lined up at 4 o’clock the nine republicans were stalwart, grand old party men, while the democrats were of the pure Jeffersonian strain.”
And so the Congressional Baseball Game was born.
Democrats won the game for the first six years, according to the website. Despite getting canceled some years — due to the Great Depression and World War II, for example — the game persisted through the decades.
According to archives of the House of Representatives, some early contests were intense — perhaps too much so. After a rainout in 1914, representatives returned to the House to debate an appropriations bill but made no progress “because members remained preoccupied with their unfinished work on the baseball diamond.”
In 1958, House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Tex.) discontinued the game, saying it had become too physical.
Rayburn’s successor as speaker, Rep. John McCormack (D-Mass.) revived the game in 1962, and it has remained a symbol of bipartisanship, rather than a source of conflict.
Thursday night’s scheduled baseball game at Nationals Park was slated to be the 80th meeting of the GOP and Democratic teams.
One of those shot, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), has been an avid player since getting elected to Congress in 2008. Rakich said lawmakers and their staff usually take practices very seriously, starting in April to prepare for the game, which is usually held in June.
One of the Republican team’s two coaches, Rep. Roger Williams (R-Tex.), had been known to take practices so earnestly that he often arrived at 6:15 a.m. to do grounds-keeping at the field before they began, Rakich said. One of those shot Wednesday was a staffer for Williams.
“There’s certainly no place for violence in it,” Rakich said of the game, which raises money for local charities — more than $500,000 last year was split among the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, Washington Literacy Center and the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation.
“Obviously it’s a very sad day, especially because this is the first time that the Congressional Baseball Game instead of being in the background of news events … it’s become a story in itself,” Rakich added.
While the game is a highly secure environment — fans must pass through magnometers to get into the stadium — the practices are not considered a secure event.
The only reason Capitol Police were on hand Wednesday to take down the shooter was because Scalise is the third-ranking member of House Republican leadership, a post that comes with a security detail that pretty much follows him everywhere.
— Bridget Bowman (@bridgetbhc) June 14, 2017
As of Wednesday afternoon, this year’s Congressional Baseball Game was reportedly still scheduled to take place at Nationals Park on Thursday.
“In the recent past and even further back, they have always been very adamant about the game going on,” Rakich said. “I really hope it continues.
Callum Borchers contributed to this report.
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