Lyle Spencer

Baseball, Presidents go back a long way

Baseball, Presidents go back a long way

Baseball and the United States presidency have gone together like Ruth and Gehrig, a smashing relationship since the game's -- and the nation's -- earliest days.

The origins are traced to George Washington playing a form of the English game rounders during the American Revolutionary War.

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Found in an unidentified soldier's diary at the Valley Forge, Pa., camp was a reference to the game of "base" along with this: "He [Washington] sometimes throws and catches a ball for hours with his aide-de-camp."

Who knew? Maybe the Founding Father dreamed of being an early version of Andrelton Simmons.

President Washington's successors took the ball and ran with it.

According to historians, John Adams, the second U.S. president, played "bat and ball." Andrew Jackson, the seventh White House occupant, played a game called "one old cat," said to be similar to baseball. Abraham Lincoln's well known love of the game was featured in a political cartoon in 1860 showing him facing opponents on a baseball field.

Historical highlights and anecdotes are rich, from Washington's pitch-and-catch to President Barack Obama's unabashed devotion to the White Sox.

President William H. Taft launched the tradition of ceremonial first pitches in 1910 with his delivery to Washington Senators starting pitcher Walter Johnson. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose to keep the game going "for the country" going during World War II. President George W. Bush delivered a memorable first pitch to open the 2001 World Series following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

President Bush's first pitch

Legendary Dodgers play-by-play poet Vin Scully competed in a college baseball game in 1947 against a man who would go on to become the 41st president of the United States: George Herbert Walker Bush.

"I was an outfielder, a center fielder," said Scully, who wore No. 17 at Fordham University. "I could run, throw and catch, but I wasn't much of a hitter.

"One of my most memorable games was when we played Yale in 1947. I'd never been to Yale, and it was a thrilling day, a great game. It gave me a taste of what the big leagues were like, with the grandstand, public address system, scorecards, enthusiastic crowd.

"It was 1-1 in the bottom of the eighth when their shortstop [Art Moher] hit a home run with a man aboard, and we lost, 3-1. Their first baseman was George Herbert Walker Bush. Wonderful, lovely man."

Scully receives Bush Award

Scully -- who liked to playfully remind President Bush that they were both hitless in the game -- was honored by the National College Baseball Hall of Fame in November with the George H.W. Bush Distinguished Alumnus Award.

On Jan. 20, 2001, Bush's son -- George W. Bush -- became the first former owner of a Major League team to assume the presidency. He had played Little League Baseball growing up in Texas, dreaming of following in the flying footsteps of Willie Mays. Before serving as governor of Texas, Bush was a managing partner of the Texas Rangers.

George H.W. Bush's first pitch

As a child, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th U.S. president, declared his ambition "to be a real Major League ballplayer, a real professional like Honus Wagner." Many years later, on the occasion of Wagner's 80th birthday, Ike wrote to him: "You are truly one of baseball's immortal heroes."

Eisenhower, who took enduring pride in his hitting ability, played center field in high school while earning an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy. When he wasn't selected to the varsity baseball team, he called it "one of the greatest disappointments of my life." He played varsity football instead, injuring a knee badly enough to end his athletic career.

The tradition of baseball teams visiting the White House -- or Presidential Mansion in the early days -- springs from a "delegation of the National Baseball Club" on Aug. 30, 1865. The invitation was made by President Andrew Johnson, successor to Lincoln.

The Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first professional team to visit the White House four years later. President Ulysses S. Grant greeted them.

Chester A. Arthur and William F. McKinley also brought baseball teams -- the Cleveland Forest Citys of the National League and the Washington Senators, respectively -- to the Oval Office before the turn of the century.

Grant was president when the National League was formed in 1876, but Benjamin Harrison became the first president to attend a Major League game when he saw Cincinnati beat Washington, 7-4, on June 6, 1892.

President John F. Kennedy, successor to Eisenhower, threw out the ceremonial first pitch at three Senators Opening Day games and at the 1962 All-Star Game in D.C. Stadium. A Red Sox fan, Kennedy did not attend a game at Fenway Park as president.

Richard M. Nixon, the 37th U.S. president, called the Angels his "hometown team." He was in their clubhouse celebration when they clinched their first postseason appearance in 1979 for owner Gene Autry.

Long before becoming the 40th U.S. president, Ronald Reagan was a popular actor. One of his big breaks came courtesy of baseball.

A high school football player who was unable to play baseball because he was nearsighted, Reagan found a connection via the microphone for WHO radio in Des Moines, Iowa.

He re-created from telegraph reports more than 600 big league baseball games, becoming, in effect, the WHO voice of the Chicago Cubs. He re-created Babe Ruth's famous "called shot" in the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field, retaining a strong attachment to the Cubs throughout his eventful life.

In 1937, Reagan used vacation time to join the Cubs at their Spring Training site on Catalina Island off the Los Angeles coastline. He also got a Hollywood screen test -- and a career leading to the White House was born.

Lyle Spencer is a columnist for Follow him on Twitter @LyleMSpencer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.