America's presidents and its pastime are forever intertwined

America's presidents and its pastime are forever intertwined

CINCINNATI -- Presidents' Day occurs the same week that pitchers and catchers report to their respective Spring Training camps in Florida and Arizona. That's fitting, since the presidency has played an integral role in our national pastime's history, dating to the Civil War.

Sitting in an oversized seat designed especially for him, the 27th president, 300-pound William Howard Taft, tossed the ceremonial first pitch prior to the Washington Senators' home opener on April 14, 1910.

"From that moment, baseball and the presidency were forever intertwined," said historian Mel Marmer.

Marmer entertained and enlightened baseball fans on Saturday afternoon at the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame & Museum, adjacent to Great American Ball Park with his lecture "Baseball and the Presidency".

Saturday's lecture marked Marmer's sixth appearance at the Reds Hall of Fame. He also has lectured at five presidential libraries, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the Smithsonian.

"It's a combination of being a baseball fan and a fan of history," said Marmer, a Cincinnati resident. "I like baseball trivia, presidential trivia and American history trivia."

Marmer spent more than an hour on Saturday chronicling baseball's role in the presidency.

Today, it's commonplace for championship teams in many sports to be honored by the sitting president at the White House.

According to Marmer, the first time this occurred in baseball was in 1869 when President Ulysses S. Grant hosted the Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball's first professional team, after they went 65-0 that year.

Passion for the game wasn't shared by all commanders in chief.

In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt was presented with a 14-carat gold season pass, earning him admittance to any game of his choice.

"Not being much of a baseball fan, he was less than enthusiastic," said Marmer of Roosevelt.

Despite his general indifference to the game, Roosevelt offered up this quote on baseball on Aug. 5, 1936:

"Baseball has been called the national pastime and rightly so because it stands for the fair play, clean living and good sportsmanship which are our national heritage. That is why it has such a warm place in our hearts".

One of the more coincidental presidential connections to baseball involves the legendary Willie Mays.

In 1911, a year after Taft's historic first pitch, a family named its son William Howard Mays in honor of the 27th president. The man would later name his son William Howard Mays Jr., who would later become the "Say Hey Kid," one of the greatest players in baseball history.

Unlike Roosevelt, President Woodrow Wilson was a huge fan of the game and a baseball player himself in college.

"Baseball was an important part of his life," Marmer said of Wilson, who became the first president to attend a World Series game when he was on hand for Game 2 of the 1915 World Series between the Phillies and Red Sox.

Not surprisingly, Babe Ruth factored in a couple of baseball's most infamous presidential anecdotes.

When Republicans asked Ruth to endorse their candidate because Ty Cobb had backed the Democrats' choice, Ruth replied: "Hell, no, I'm a Democrat." The enterprising Sultan of Swat then asked, "Wait, how much are you offering?" Ruth received $4,000.

In 1930, a reporter pointed out that Ruth made more than President Herbert Hoover -- actually $70,000 more. "I know," Ruth responded. "I had a better year than Hoover."

If nothing else, Hoover was consistent. He attended every Senators Opening Day game during his term from 1929-33.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tossed a record eight ceremonial first pitches at Opening Day games in D.C.

"A true baseball fan, Roosevelt once said he enjoyed being at a baseball game as much as a kid on Christmas morning," said Marmer.

On May 24, 1935, FDR flipped a switch at the White House to illuminate Crosley Field for the first Major League night game.

President Harry Truman was a huge fan as well, attending 16 games at Griffith Stadium, including seven Opening Day games.

Marmer, wearing a "Baseball is Life" sweatshirt and cap adorned with the presidential seal on Saturday, pointed out a framed photograph of Abraham Lincoln, purposely positioned above Branch Rickey's desk when Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier by signing a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945.

"Rickey was a great admirer of Lincoln," said Marmer.

Of course, there also were connections between Presidents and baseball in times of tragedy.

Franklin Roosevelt's "Green Light" letter in 1942 declared that baseball must continue during time of war.

"Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half, and which can be got for very little cost," he wrote.

The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to forgo his first pitch on Opening Day to deal with the national crisis.

President George W. Bush's first pitch at Yankee Stadium in 2001 following the September 11 terrorist attacks is among the most emotional moments in baseball history.

President Ronald Reagan, a former baseball broadcaster who starred as Grover Cleveland Alexander in the movie "The Winning Team," became the only president to watch a game from the dugout at a Baltimore Orioles' game in 1984 and the first to do play-by-play while in office, which he did at Wrigley Field in 1988.

Marmer said President Richard M. Nixon was "one of the most knowledgeable baseball fans" to reside in the White House.

In 1962, after Nixon lost his bid to become governor of California, he was approached by Major League owners to see if he was interested in becoming commissioner. Nixon declined the offer, unbeknownst to his wife, Pat.

"Don't tell her," Nixon said to the owners. "She'll kill me for turning you down."

Lincoln's birthday is Feb. 12 and commemorated as part of the Presidents' Day holiday. Lincoln is thought to be one of the first presidential baseball fans and players. When told that he'd been nominated to be a presidential candidate in 1860, Lincoln reportedly paused during a ballgame and said, "Tell the gentlemen they will have to wait a few minutes until I get my next turn at bat".

Jeff Wallner is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.