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Spring Has Sprung
Frank Deford
April 10, 1978
It's Opening Day, so buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, remember to hold the label up and tell me Who's on First?
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April 10, 1978

Spring Has Sprung

It's Opening Day, so buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, remember to hold the label up and tell me Who's on First?

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But it has been the presence of Presidents that has made Opening Day very special. No other private enterprise has ever been accorded such cachet. Indeed, except for sporadic appearances at the Army-Navy football game, incumbent Presidents have rarely gone to stadiums for sporting events and never to arenas. But Opening Days have been treated by all Presidents with an annual deference given only two other non-governmental functions, posing with the March of Dimes poster child and lighting the White House Christmas tree.

From Taft in 1910 through 1971 (when the Senators left for Texas), the 11 Presidents went 45 for 62 on Opening Days. Given wars, death, depression, Communists and what-have-you, this is an incredible record. When the Chief Executives could not make it, they invariably called in their top relievers, the Vice-Presidents. Only in the Senators' final two seasons did somebody other than a government official fire the first pitch. David Eisenhower did the honors in 1970, and in 1971 a released POW, Master Sgt. Daniel I. Pitzen, became the last man to throw out the first ball in the capital.

Most Presidents quite enjoyed the task. Only Wilson (3 for 8) batted less than .500, but he attended other Senator games during the season, parking his limousine in deep right, where a substitute catcher was stationed by a fender to snare incoming line drives. Harding, Truman (7 for 7) and Kennedy never missed an Opening Day; Roosevelt made eight. Coolidge hated baseball. He had to be reminded every damn time why it was that everybody stood up in the seventh inning—something he remedied late in his term by leaving in the second inning. Still, Cal made four of his five Opening Days, and the missus was nuts about baseball. Grace Coolidge would not only pop up at Senator games during the season, but it is also on record that she kept score and stayed through rain delays.

Harding bet on the games to make them more interesting. Truman practiced surreptitiously on the White House lawn before his second opener in 1947 and then startled the photographers and everybody else by chucking the old apple southpaw. Ike was a good baseball fan, but shortly before his first Opening Day (1953) he announced that he would have to pass it up for a golfing vacation. All hell broke loose. The country club over the national pastime! Mercifully, old Jupiter Pluvius saved Ike; Opening Day was rained out, and he made it back from the links in time for the rain date. After that, Ike didn't mess around, boy; he made all Openers until 1959. Next question.

How did Taft come to start this great tradition?

Sorry, the folds of history have hidden that earth-shaking story. When the Griffiths were running the Senators, the fable—in the best tradition of Parson Weems writing about Geo. Washington and the cherry tree—had it that old Clark Griffith dropped by to see Taft, presented him with a gold pass and invited him to throw out the first ball. Because Taft had been a pitcher in his svelter salad days, he leapt at this opportunity. This is a great story except that Taft first threw out the first ball in 1910. Griffith did not become an owner of the Senators until 1912.

In fact, there was no advance warning of Taft's appearance; "The opening will not be attended by any ceremony," reported The Washington Post that morning. It is quite possible that Taft just up and went to the game on the spur of the moment. He did very little as President except eat and fret that he could not be Chief Justice, so what follows would be consistent with history. One can visualize Taft, as he sat in the breakfast nook that morning, looking out of the window and saying, "Besides lunch, what are we gonna do today?"

It was a sweetheart of a day, "sun-kissed" according to eyewitnesses.

"Well," said a chum, General Clarence Edwards, spreading some marmalade, "it's Opening Day at the ball yard."

"Yeah, who are the Nationals playing?" asked the President, reaching for another apricot Danish.

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