Did the Washington Nationals draft the right commander in chief to add to its four Racing Presidents?
The record is clear. Newcomer William Howard Taft literally (he weighed 330 pounds) was the biggest baseball fan of all of America’s presidents, and he promoted the game more than any other president.
Taft created a frenzy at the April 14, 1910, opening-day game of the Washington Senators when he became the first president to throw out the first ball at a major-league baseball game.
“Scan all the annals of Washington baseball as you will . . . there will be found no day so altogether glorious, no paean of victory chanted by rooters and fanatics half so sweet as that witnessed yesterday in honor of the opening of the season of 1910,” reported The Post, which referred to the team not as the Senators but as the “Nationals.”
As a record 15,000 fans roared, the article went on, Taft threw the ball from his front-row seat. “He did it with his good, trusty right arm, and the virgin sphere scudded across the diamond true as a die to the pitchers box where Walter Johnson, also the possessor of a good, trusty right arm, gathered it in.”
Johnson blanked the Philadelphia Athletics on one hit to win the game. The next day, Taft sent the great pitcher the ceremonial baseball with the presidential signature and this inscription: “For Walter Johnson, with the hope that he may continue to be as formidable as in yesterday’s game.”
Legend has it that during the game when the 6-foot-2-inch Taft stood up in the seventh inning, fans rose to create the first seventh-inning stretch. Legend has it wrong. The seventh-inning stretch had been around for years; The Post’s article made no mention of any such event.
Taft also threw out the first ball at Washington’s opening day in 1911. “Poising himself for a moment, the nation’s executive swung his arm and hurled the ball straight and true to ‘Dolly’ Gray, the Washington pitcher,” The Post reported. Washington beat Boston, 8 to 5.
The president often went to games. In May 1910, he dropped by the ballpark to see Ty Cobb play for the Tigers. In 1912 he rushed over to catch the final seven innings of a loss to the White Sox. Taft missed the first two innings, The Post reported, because he had to “wait for news from the House, which passed the wool bill over his veto.”
“I like [baseball] for two reasons,” said Taft, who played second base for his Cincinnati high school team. “First, because I enjoy it myself and second, because if by the presence of the temporary first magistrate such a healthy amusement can be encouraged, I want to encourage it.”
The First Fan clearly preferred the big-inning style of current Nationals manager Davey Johnson over the bunt-for-a-run strategy of some skippers. “I love the game when there is plenty of slugging,” Taft said.
Taft had to skip the final opening day of his presidency, on April 19, 1912, to deal with fallout from the April 15 sinking of the Titanic. But during his term he established a tradition of the president throwing out the first ball on opening day in Washington, or elsewhere, that has been continued by every president except Jimmy Carter since. When the Nats picked Taft to join the Racing Presidents, they elected the right man.
Ronald G. Shafer is the author of “When the Dodgers Were Bridegrooms.”