From the Archives: Play Ball, Mr. President!
Our national pastime and our Nation’s leaders have shared a unique relationship for some 150 years. Presidents throwing out first pitches or hosting World Series winners at the White House are familiar images from each baseball season.
The connection between Presidents and baseball stretches back as far as Abraham Lincoln. According to research conducted for the 1939 Major League Baseball Centennial Celebration, Lincoln was playing baseball in Springfield, Illinois, when he was informed that the Chicago Republican Convention had nominated him as the Presidential candidate. Lincoln is reported to have responded, “They will have to wait a few minutes until I get my next turn at bat.” A year later when he arrived at the White House in 1861, baseball’s popularity had caught on in Washington, D.C. As President, Lincoln is said to have played baseball on the White House lawn.
Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, was such a fan that he received numerous honorary memberships from many teams on the East Coast. Chester Arthur remarked, “Good ball players make good citizens,” and Grover Cleveland was the first to invite a championship team—the 1886 Chicago White Stockings—to the White House. Benjamin Harrison was the first sitting President to attend a big league game: the Cincinnati Reds pitted against the Washington Senators in 1892.
The sport’s popularity grew in the 20th century. Teddy Roosevelt attended games, but it was William Howard Taft who began the tradition of tossing out the first pitch in 1910—a tradition that carries on today.
Some Presidents, like Harry Truman, studied the game so intently that they were considered experts. This was certainly the case with Richard Nixon, whose love and knowledge of the game resulted in an offer to become head of the Major League Players Union in the 1960s. Rather than accept, he chose to continue on in his political career but he remained an avid follower of the game. As young men, Dwight D. Eisenhower excelled at baseball in his hometown of Abilene, Kansas, and George Bush was the captain of the Yale baseball team during his college years.
Important events from our Nation’s past are also intertwined with the history of baseball. After the Pearl Harbor attack, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis grew concerned about proceeding with the 1942 baseball season. President Roosevelt promptly responded to Landis’ inquiry with the “Green Light Letter,” giving baseball his approval to proceed and acknowledging the value of the game in time of war. Landis’s signed copy of Roosevelt’s Green Light Letter is now at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
Baseball is forever bound to the American presidency. Whether meeting All-Stars in the Oval Office or relaxing in the stands with their fellow citizens, our Presidents have confirmed baseball as our national pastime.
Opening Day for the 2013 baseball season was Sunday March 31, so we’ve put together this gallery of baseball-related photos, documents, and artifacts from the holdings of the 13 Presidential Libraries of the National Archives.
This summary of Presidential baseball history was compiled by James Kratsas, Deputy Director at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum.
For more information visit: http://www.archives.gov/presidential-libraries/