For a president who threw himself into sports like a base runner taking out a middle infielder, there was one throw that Donald Trump never made in his four years in office: an Opening Day first pitch.
When the Nats kick off their season Thursday, President Joe Biden should take the pitcher’s mound for the ceremonial toss – not only to resume a century-old Washington tradition, but also to signify a return to sports as a unifying space in society, after Trump constantly used it as a wedge issue.
From William Howard Taft in 1910 to Barack Obama in 2010, every president threw out at least one Opening Day toss here, when the District had a team. (The city suffered through 33 years with no Nationals and no Senators.) But as with so many other presidential customs, Trump didn’t partake in this one, even as he gleefully used sports to push hot-button political culture wars that rallied his base.
The Nats didn’t waste any time looking to revive the ritual, tweeting after The Washington Post and other media organizations called the race for Biden on Nov. 7: “We look forward to hosting President-Elect Biden on Opening Day of the 2021 season.” It would be a fitting gesture for Biden, who has credited sports with giving him the confidence to help overcome a childhood stutter, to accept the invitation.
(The White House hasn’t made an announcement yet, but if the coronavirus pandemic prevents Biden from doing it this year, he should make it a priority to throw out the pitch at a packed Nationals Park next season.)
Trump’s sole appearance at Nationals Park came during the team’s 2019 World Series, where his image on the video screen in Game 5 famously prompted boos and chants of “Lock him up!” from the heavily Democratic crowd. That wasn’t the only time a World Series crowd had booed a president; in 1931, Philadelphia fans gave the treatment to President Herbert Hoover, along with a Prohibition-era chant: “We want beer.”
By the time he went to the World Series, Trump had already brought his polarizing love-him-or-hate-him political image into sports stadiums and arenas nationwide. As a candidate in 2016, he taunted then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality, and he continued the attacks as president. That soon spread to a two-sport war with NBA players. The NBA champion Golden State Warriors wound up skipping a White House visit. Other players across sports would boycott the visits during Trump’s presidency, sometimes splitting championship teams. He did pardon boxing legend Jack Johnson, reversing a racially motivated, unjust conviction from 1913, but mostly, Trump seemed to relish jumping into political fights with the sports world.
Biden’s appearances at Nationals Park, and team trips to the White House, are likely to return to their pre-Trump state over the next four years. LeBron James has already signaled that his Los Angeles Lakers, winners of last season’s NBA championship, would like to meet with Biden, saying in January that “it would be great.”
We’ve had polarizing presidents before, of course. But even someone such as Richard M. Nixon tended to use sports in ways that weren’t overtly political and never prompted players to boycott the White House. For example, Nixon capitalized on the 1969 All-Star Game, and accompanying 100th MLB anniversary in Washington, to host a reception with 400 baseball VIPs, including hall-of-famers, all-stars, umpires and sportswriters. Nixon shared Trump’s hatred of the media. But he made this startling comment at the baseball reception: “I just want you to know that I like the job I have, but if I had to live my life over again, I would have liked to have ended up as a sportswriter.”
Nixon was also the last in a line of White House occupants to participate in the “presidential opener,” a 20th-century tradition when the Washington Senators would usually start the season a day before the rest of the American League. Instead of throwing the ball from the vicinity of the pitcher’s mound, as we’ve seen in recent decades, the president would throw the ball from his box, over a scrum of photographers and into a crowd of players from both teams who would jockey for it. The president would then autograph the ball for whichever player emerged with it.
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Historically, when presidents waded into sports, they often did so to use their bully pulpit to push for reform or unify the nation. In 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt summoned coaches and athletic directors from Harvard, Yale and Princeton and told them to clean up the then-deadly sport of football, which led to rules changes that made the game safer.
A month after the United States entered World War II, in what became known as the Green Light Letter, his cousin President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the go-ahead for Major League Baseball to continue during World War II. “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” FDR wrote to baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who had offered to suspend play during wartime. “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.”
FDR renewed that sentiment before the ’45 season, as the war raged, and even told reporters he might resume the Opening Day first pitch tradition, which had been suspended during the war. But he died a few days before the season started, and the Senators instead played their home opener wearing black armbands in his honor. House Speaker Sam Rayburn threw out the first pitch, flanked by House members including 36-year-old Lyndon B. Johnson.
After the United States won World War II that summer, President Harry S. Truman threw out the first pitch at a Senators-St. Louis Browns game in Washington, his smiling presence in a suit and panama hat signaling to Americans that the country was back to normal after nearly four hard years of military conflict.
A generation later, when the second incarnation of the Senators announced they were moving to Texas following the 1971 season, leaving the nation’s capital without a baseball team for the first time in the 20th century, Nixon would try to help replace them. In a secretly recorded conversation I discovered, Nixon met with D.C. Mayor Walter E. Washington to strategize about luring other teams, mentioning the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians as potential replacements. He also predicted that baseball would return to the nation’s capital by the 1976 bicentennial. (Alas, he was off by about 30 years.)
More recently, President Bill Clinton tried to mediate a settlement to a long baseball strike in the mid-1990s. His successor, former Texas Rangers managing partner George W. Bush, rallied the nation with a first pitch strike at the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium weeks after the 9/11 attacks.
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Like many presidents, Trump and Biden both enjoyed sports in their high school days. Trump played baseball and Biden wasa standout wide receiver. But their attitudes toward baseball at an even younger age perfectly illustrate their different take on sports.
In a 2016 San Diego Union-Tribune opinion piece, then-Vice President Biden called baseball “a national pastime that’s bonded generations of families through a sport that reaches to every corner of the world.” He described the day of his first Little League game, when he was 8: “I remember getting up that morning with a stiff neck because I slept with my glove and my ball under my pillow. That didn’t stop me. By mid-morning I was already on North Washington Avenue in my uniform, for a game that wasn’t until the afternoon.”
A few weeks earlier, The Washington Post had published a revealing story on Trump’s adolescence that included this detail: After making an out, young Trump smashed his neighbor’s bat on the pavement and cracked it – and didn’t apologize.
In 2019, Trump tried to identify with the World Series champion Nats during their White House visit, quoting their slogan, “Stay in the Fight.”
“That’s true about life. ‘Stay in the Fight,’ ” said Trump, who would be impeached for the first time the following month. “You never know what’s going to happen. Stay in there.”
But it was Biden who last year seemed to channel the 2019 Nats, both of whom were written off by experts after early stumbles. Biden’s fourth- and fifth-place finishes in the first two 2020 Democratic state contests (the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, respectively) mirrored the first two months of the Nationals’ championship season, which they spent mostly in fourth place. And they shared something else, too: Biden is the oldest candidate to win the presidency, and the Nats were the oldest team in baseball when they won the World Series.
Of course, “old” is relative. Just ask Biden about how many push-ups he can do.
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Frederic J. Frommer is the author of “You Gotta Have Heart,” a history of Washington baseball, which he is updating to include the 2019 season. He’s also leader of the sports business practice at the Dewey Square Group, a public affairs firm in Washington.