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Analysis: Play ball! Why politicians love baseball's Opening Day

As a giant baseball and politics nerd, I’ve always been fascinated by the connection between the two. So I reached out to Frederic J. Frommer, author of “You Gotta Have Heart: Washington Baseball from Walter Johnson to the 2019 World Series Champion Nationals,” and the head of sports PR at the Dewey Square Group, a public affairs firm in Washington, for some answers — and a few history lessons, too!
Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: You argue that President Biden should make it a priority to throw out a first pitch sometime during his first term. Why?
Frommer: Traditions are important in both sports and politics, and the Opening Day first pitch tradition historically cemented the relationship between our political leaders and the national pastime. It was especially important in Washington, which in the 20th Century would usually start the season a day before the rest of the American League, in what was known as the “presidential opener.” Congress would recess for the day so members could watch the president throw out the first ball. Every president from Taft to Nixon threw out at least one first pitch.
After a 33-year lull with no baseball, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama resumed the first pitch, including Obama’s 2010 toss that marked the 100th anniversary of the first presidential Opening Day pitch. But Donald Trump ditched that tradition, as he did with so many other presidential customs, even while picking fights with professional athletes and the NFL to rally his base.
By throwing out the first pitch, (if he were to do it), President Joe Biden would not only revive a significant tradition that goes back more than a century, he’d also signal a return to sports as something that unifies the country, rather than a place that pits people against each other.
Cillizza: Why is baseball — and first pitches in particular — so inextricably linked to presidential politics?
Frommer: A big factor was baseball’s dominance as the most popular sport through most of the 20th Century. Throwing out a first pitch at a baseball game was a sure way to not only get in front of a big crowd, but also to get positive coverage in newspapers across the country (back when newspapers, like baseball, were still king!) It also let presidents associate themselves with a winner — so we saw a president like Calvin Coolidge, who was not a particularly big baseball fan, host the ’24 Washington Senators after they won their first pennant, and throw out the first pitch at the opening game of the World Series.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882 - 1945) throws the ball into play at a baseball game. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882 - 1945) throws the ball into play at a baseball game.
A great example of the connection between baseball and presidents was FDR’s January 1942 Green Light Letter to baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, blessing the sport’s continuation during World War II. As FDR wrote, “There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”
Baseball hasn’t been the most popular American sport for some time (unfortunately, to my mind), but it still holds a pull on the society more than other sports. It’s still the quintessential American sport. Every Opening Day, you hear people talk about how it should be a federal holiday — no one seriously suggests that for other sports. Also, the history of the presidential first pitch has bound presidents and baseball in a way that no other sport can compete with.
Cillizza: Football and basketball have become very political in recent years. Is baseball likely to follow? Or has it already?
Frommer: I think it’s already happening. Baseball has been less political than the NFL and NBA players for a variety of reasons. Its fan base tends to be older and more conservative, and baseball has a higher percentage of white players than basketball and football. But we’ve seen baseball players become more active politically in recent years. Last year, after the police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, several baseball games were canceled after players decided not to play in protest.
Last year also saw the formation of the Players Alliance, a group of more than 150 current and former Black baseball players that aim to increase opportunities for the Black community “in every aspect of our game and beyond,” as the group described their mission. We’ve also seen some baseball players take a leadership role in the fight against climate change.
Cillizza: Which of our past presidents was the best baseball player? And which was the biggest fan?
Frommer: George H.W. Bush was the best player — he was the first baseman and captain on his Yale baseball team, remembered as a great fielder but not a particularly good hitter. There’s a famous 1948 photo of Babe Ruth presenting Bush with the manuscript of Ruth’s autobiography on the baseball diamond, as a donation to the Yale Library. Ruth died just a couple months later.
Richard Nixon was the biggest fan, and a diehard Washington Senators booster — no easy task, as he said at a gala luncheon in 1992, many years after both he and the Senators left town: “You have to have been a real baseball fan to have been a fan of the Senators. It was no easier to have been a fan of the Senators we had back then than of some of the senators we have in Washington today.”
He was especially fond of Ted Williams, the Red Sox Hall-of-Fame slugger who became the Senators manager in 1969, the same year Nixon became president. The feeling was mutual — Williams called Nixon “the greatest president of my lifetime.”
Nixon attended many games and made a point of never leaving early. In 1969, he arrived in the third inning of a Senators game against the Oakland A’s, and stayed until Reggie Jackson won the game for the A’s with a 13th-inning home run. In a letter to Jackson, the president wrote: “Although I always root for the home team, I have nothing but the highest admiration for your performance on the night I saw you.”
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “Opening Day of the baseball season is the most like _______ on the political calendar.” Now, explain.
Frommer: “The Iowa caucuses.”
As every baseball fan knows, it’s a long season, and you can’t get too up or down based on how your team does on Opening Day. The same applies to politics, as we’ve seen in recent elections — we all remember Joe Biden’s fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, but the performance obviously didn’t doom his chances (although many experts thought otherwise at the time).
Also, Americans anticipate both events with the same kind of excitement — after months of off-season trades and free agent signings in baseball, and debates and fundraising in politics, we finally see what our favorites can do on the field. We tune into CNN starting during the day and stay up late to watch the political results come in. Today, we will start watching games in early afternoon and the most hardcore among us will watch West Coast games that will go past midnight.
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