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Midway through his recent tour of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, Barack Obama was handed the ball that William Howard Taft threw out on opening day 1910, which started a ceremonial first-pitch presidential tradition that has continued unabated. Obama examined the signed spheroid, then held it aloft in his left hand and pretended he was going to fire it at the gaggle of reporters gathered around him. The gesture, which gave new meaning to the term “political hardball,” caused some to flinch and others to chuckle.
The fan-in-chief clearly was enjoying himself as he gripped a bat used by Babe Ruth, held a glove worn by Joe DiMaggio and slid onto his pinkie finger a World Series ring from 2005, the year his favorite team, the Chicago White Sox, won it all. But of all the artifacts he was shown by Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson, two resonated most powerfully with Obama. One was the famous “green light” letter from Franklin D. Roosevelt, telling baseball’s commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, to continue playing games during World War II because it would help the morale of U.S. citizens and troops. The other was a jersey worn by Jackie Robinson in 1947, the year he broke baseball’s color barrier. “That’s great,” President No. 44 said as he admired Brooklyn Dodger No. 42. “Gotta have everybody on the field.”
I was surprised to learn that Obama was the first sitting president to visit the Hall of Fame, given the passionate attachment many of his predecessors had to the game. Both Bushes visited after their presidencies, as did Bill Clinton. But rabid fans of the national pastime, such as Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, never set foot in the repository of the sport’s history and soul, which opened its doors in 1939, during FDR’s second term.
Martin Van Buren was the first sitting president to visit Cooperstown, but President No. 8 came through this bucolic village in the foothills of the Adirondack and Catskill mountains in 1838, nearly 100 years before the Hall opened.
The connection between the presidency and baseball goes back at least as far as Abraham Lincoln. There are stories of Honest Abe playing an early version of baseball, known as town ball, on the White House lawn. His successor, Andrew Johnson, is the first president to refer to the game as our national pastime. Grover Cleveland was the first commander-in-chief to invite a championship team—the 1886 Chicago White Stockings—to D.C., and Benjamin Harrison was the first sitting president to attend a major league game, in 1892.
As mentioned, Taft began the tradition of presidents throwing out ceremonial first pitches. It should be noted that he and a number of his successors did their tossing from their box seats. It wasn’t until George H.W. Bush, the first baseman and captain of Yale’s College World Series teams in the late 1940s, that a chief executive had the guts to attempt it from the mound to home plate. It’s not as easy as it looks, especially when you’re wearing a bulletproof vest.
One of my favorite slices of presidential baseball lore concerns Babe Ruth’s response to a reporter’s query in 1930 after the Babe had just signed a contract for $80,000, roughly $5,000 more than President Herbert Hoover earned. “I know,” Ruth quipped, “but I had a better year than Hoover.” Indeed, he had. The Babe was coming off a spectacular season in which he smacked 46 home runs, drove in 154 runs and batted a robust .345. Hoover, meanwhile, was coming off a year in which the stock market crash had plunged the country into the Great Depression, so he was batting point-zero-zero-zero in the eyes of most Americans.
I’m happy to say I’ve now witnessed two historic firsts regarding presidents and baseball. On Oct. 30, 2001—just six weeks after the devastation of 9/11—my son and I attended Game 3 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. That night, George W. Bush became the first president to throw out the ceremonial first pitch in the Fall Classic.
After warming up with Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter in the runway beneath the stands, the president delivered a strike. The teary-eyed crowd, still reeling from the tragedy of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, broke out into thunderous chants of “USA! USA!” A message had been sent by the president that life would go on, that acts of terrorism wouldn’t stop us. It remains the most emotional night I’ve ever spent at a sporting event. And it underscored not only the resilience of people, but also the power of sports—in this case, baseball—to galvanize and inspire during times of tragedy.
During his visit to Cooperstown, Obama was reminded of this when he was shown a promotional baseball that had been recovered by a New York City firefighter from the rubble of the World Trade Center. “The ball’s nicked up, but it’s intact, it came through,” Vin Mavaro said after donating the artifact to the Hall. “I feel the same way about New York City, the Fire Department and the United States. We’re banged up, we took a hit, but we came through.”
That ball, FDR’s letter and, of course, Robinson’s jersey show why museums are so important. They connect us to our history. Obama was in Cooperstown to promote tourism as an international industry, and he couldn’t have picked a better place to deliver his message than the Baseball Hall of Fame. Not only is it a world-class museum in one of the most picturesque villages in the world, but it’s also a place that tells the story of more than 150 years of baseball and American history. You really can’t tell the story of one without the other.
It was evident the president truly enjoyed his short but sweet visit and speech. Besides showering praise upon the Hall and the village, he left behind a piece of presidential memorabilia—the puffy Chicago White Sox jacket he wore when he delivered a ceremonial first pitch in his hometown, the Windy City. It soon will be displayed in the museum, along with numerous other artifacts that remind us of the strong attachment between presidents and the game that has long defined America.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak was one of the co-authors of “The Hall: A Celebration of Baseball Greats.” The book was published to coincide with this year’s 75th anniversary of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown and is available at the Hall of Fame or online at BaseballHallofFame.org and amazon.com.
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