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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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"The Mackmen," piped up Secretary of State Philander Knox, polishing off the home fries.

"District Commissioner Rudolph will be chucking out the first ball," added Mrs. Taft.

"Hmmm," said the President, finishing his Western omelet. "That gives me an idea. Let's pack a picnic and pop over."

And thus, as the Post reported, did there come about "the auspicious union of official Washington and baseballistic Washington."

On the diamond the Big Train was mowing 'em down. All told, he was to start a dozen presidential openers, winning nine, with six shutouts, but he would never again pitch as well as he did in his first. He would have had the first Opening Day no-hitter ( Bob Feller finally got one 30 years later) but for the overflow multitude that settled in the outfield grass. With two gone in the seventh, Baker lifted an easy fly to the rightfielder, Doc Gessler. The swarm of fans seated along the perimeter of the outfield was supposed to dutifully scatter under these circumstances, but one boy was not nimble enough. Gessler tripped over the tyke, and the ball fell for a double, the A's only hit of the game.

But no sense crying over spilt milk. Taft and Johnson put on such a show of arms that even should diamond scholars "go back to the very inception of the national game—there will be found no day so altogether glorious, no paean of victory chanted by rooters and fanatics half so sweet as that witnessed yesterday." Perhaps proudest of all were the two managers, the storied Cornelius McGillicuddy (a/k/a Connie Mack) of the Athletics (a/k/a Mackmen) and James McAleer of the Nationals. They went to Taft's box to meet him, and while he greeted both courteously, the President disclosed his allegiance for the home nine by saving "a subtle wink and a double-action smile" for McAleer.

Despite his girth, Taft was no slouch when it came time to deliver the mail. Let the Post correspondent recapture that moment for us: "A mighty cheer swept across the crowd as President Taft showed such faultless delivery.... He did it with his good, trusty right arm, and the virgin sphere scudded across the diamond, true as a die to the pitcher's box, where Walter Johnson gathered it in...."

In a sense, the presidential tradition started that day by Taft has outlasted the Senators, because the consecutive-President streak goes on. Jimmy Carter served up the opening pitch twice in Atlanta (1972 and 73), and Gerald Ford is one of only three politicians in the last decade to have first-balled two clubs, working Cincinnati as Vice-President in '74 and Texas as President in '76. (Senator Henry Jackson pitched the first ball for both Seattle franchises, Pilots and Mariners, and Ronald Reagan did the honors for the A's and the Angels.)

But then, politicians are not as fashionable as they used to be, especially in the National League, which is ahead of the American even in this department. The most somber openers occur in Milwaukee, which always has the county executive throw out the first ball, and in Detroit, where gaiety is manifest when the fire department trots out its traditional floral horseshoe with its clever message GOOD LUCK TIGERS! and presents it to the manager.

On the other hand, San Diego once had a fellow dressed up like a chicken throw out the virgin sphere, and Philadelphia, which always confuses good humor with tackiness, employs the likes of Kite Man, Cannon Man, Sky Cycle Man and Parachute Man to deliver the ball into the park. A number of clubs have taken to using old ballplayers instead of politicians. Poster children are also somewhat in vogue, and two clubs have called upon local centenarians. The Dodgers used an umpire once, Jocko Conlan, and the Angels went with Mickey Mouse.

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