Our National Pastime and Our Politics
Though it’s been a week since winter officially ended, today marks the real start of spring in America: Opening Day of Major League Baseball. As fans get a chance to see their favorite teams play ball for the first time since October (or earlier, for many of us), I thought we’d look back at where America’s pastime intersected with politics.
The ceremonial first pitch has been a longstanding tradition in baseball, wherein a guest of honor throws a ball to mark the beginning of the game. The tradition is remarkably intertwined with politics. The first recorded ceremonial first pitch may date back to 1892, when then-Ohio Governor William McKinley “threw the ball into the diamond,” as a local paper put it, before a game between Toledo and Columbus. Eighteen years later, in 1910, President William Howard Taft became the first sitting American President to throw a first pitch at Griffith Stadium on the Washington Senators’ Opening Day. President Taft’s first pitch began something of a more than century-long tradition: every American President has thrown out at least one ceremonial first pitch while in office, either at an opening day game, an All-Star game, or a World Series game. In fact, for several decades, the Washington Senators’ first game would intentionally be scheduled earlier than every other team specifically to allow the President of the United States to inaugurate the new baseball season.
Interestingly, until President Reagan’s opening day pitch in Baltimore in 1984, every President’s first pitch came from the stands. President Reagan’s pitch from just in front of the pitcher’s mound – his first while in office – began the practice of first pitches being thrown from on the field rather than from off of it. President Trump – who was captain of his high school baseball team and threw out the first pitch before a Spring Training game in 2004 and a regular season Red Sox game at Fenway Park in 2006 – declined invitations from the Washington Nationals to throw out the first pitch on both Opening Day last year and this year; however, with either three or seven more years in office, it’s too early to say for certain whether the streak will be broken.
The connections between the baseball diamond and the political arena extend beyond the ceremonial. Quite a few professional baseball players found second careers as successful politicians. Jim Bunning, who pitched for 17 seasons with the Detroit Tigers and the Philadelphia Phillies – and threw the seventh perfect game in Major League Baseball history in 1964 – was elected six times to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives and served two terms in the Senate representing Kentucky. Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell played for the Cardinals, the Pirates and the Mets from 1949 to 1963. Five years after he retired from baseball, Mizell was elected to represent North Carolina’s Fifth Congressional District in Congress. Presidents Reagan and H.W. Bush later appointed him as Assistant Secretary of Agriculture and a Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs, respectively.
But not all former baseball players find the same luck in politics as they enjoyed on the field. Honus Wagner, the Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Pirate, lost his bid to become Allegheny County Sheriff in 1928 in a lopsided vote. (He was later named Deputy Sheriff as a consolation.) Bill Mazeroski, best known as the hero of the 1960 World Series ran and lost a campaign to become Westmoreland County Commissioner. Former New York Yankee Bobby Richardson tried and failed in 1976 to win a seat in the House of Representatives representing South Carolina. And Curt Schilling, the four-time World Series champion best known for his time with the Red Sox, two years ago said he would run in 2018 against incumbent Senator Elizabeth Warren. He has since indicated a waning interest in the race and has endorsed another challenger to Senator Warren.
Not all former baseball players find themselves in the halls of Congress by choice. In 2005, Congress launched a series of hearings to investigate the use of steroids in baseball. Stars of the game including Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro were coerced into invited to provide sworn testimony to the House Government Reform Committee regarding whether they had ever used performance enhancing drugs. Appearing before Congress led to problems for many of the players. For example: in March 2005, Rafael Palmeiro adamantly denied, while under oath, ever using steroids. Six weeks later he failed a steroid test administered by Major League Baseball and lived in legal purgatory until November, when the House Committee announced it wouldn’t pursue perjury charges. 2005 would be Palmeiro’s last season in professional baseball.
So as you sit down to watch your favorite teams today, remember that America’s pastime is inexorably linked, in many different ways, to our politics. And let’s go Yankees.