This story was first published on April 10, 2012. – BT
The throwing out of the ceremonial first pitch is a tradition that started in 1910 with President William Howard Taft. And it’s all because of a Youngstown native and former Cleveland baseball player and manager named Jimmy McAleer.
McAleer knocked around the minor leagues in the 1880s before breaking into the National League with the Cleveland Spiders in 1889. He was regarded as speedy on the basepaths and in center field. His batting was a little less solid. The Robisons, owners of the Spiders, also bought the St. Louis Browns of the National League (later the Cardinals) and essentially cherry-picked all the talent from Cleveland to St. Louis. McAleer opted to stay in Northern Ohio. The Spiders folded after the 1899 season, but McAleer latched on as player/manager for the Lake Shores, a team in the American League in 1900.
In 1901, the Lake Shores became the Blues, taking the name of an older team. The Blues, of course, would go on to become the Indians. McAleer was their manager, and participated in what is now regarded as the first American League game as part of the major leagues, an 8-2 loss to the Chicago White Sox.
McAleer helped recruit players from the National League to the new American League. After the 1901 season, he went to the AL St. Louis Browns, and spent seven years as manager there before being fired. He then became manager of the Washington Senators, then known as the Nationals.
On April 14, 1910, Taft (himself an Ohio native, from Cincinnati) was at National Park for the season opener. McAleer asked Taft if he would throw a ceremonial pitch from his box at the stadium. Taft complied, and a tradition was born. According to legend, Taft also started another tradition in that same game. He was the largest president in American history, and became uncomfortable in his seat. In the middle of the seventh inning, Taft got up to stretch. Fans, thinking the president was leaving, also got up. When Taft sat back down, the crowd did the same. And thus, the seventh inning stretch came to be, in what might be an apocryphal tale.
Taft repeated the act in 1911, but sent vice president James Sherman in his stead in 1912. Taft was in mourning for his friend Maj. Archibald Butt, who died in the sinking of the Titanic – and who had accompanied Taft to the stadium for opening day in each of the previous two years.
By that time, McAleer had resigned as Senators manager and bought into the Red Sox, which won the World Series in 1912. He sold his share in 1913 and returned to Youngstown, where he lived out his life in relative obscurity until his death in 1931.
At McAleer’s death, the tradition of the president throwing out the first pitch had been solidified. It usually took place on Opening Day in Washington (where the perpetual lousiness of the Senators led to the phrase, “First in war, first in peace and last in the American League”), but Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover had thrown the first pitch at World Series openers in Philadelphia, Wilson at the Baker Bowl in 1915 and Hoover at Shibe Park in 1929 and 1930. President Dwight D. Eisenhower also threw out a first pitch at the World Series in Brooklyn in 1955.
The last first pitch thrown by a president in Washington D.C. was by Richard Nixon in 1969. By then, the original Senators had moved to Minnesota and Griffith Stadium was no more. The new team, also called the Senators, played in a stadium that had recently been renamed for Robert Kennedy. Nixon would throw out the first pitch for Opening Day outside of Washington D.C. for the first time in 1973, in Anaheim, not far from his birthplace of Yorba Linda.
The first presidential first pitch in Ohio history was also thrown by Nixon, at the All-Star Game in 1970. The tradition didn’t come to Cleveland until 1994, when Bill Clinton threw out the first pitch at the first opening day at Jacobs Field. Accounts of the day held that Clinton was in one of the workout rooms under the stadium, practicing his pitch so as not to bounce it to catcher Sandy Alomar.
With the move of the second incarnation of the Senators to Texas, the tradition of the presidential first pitch shifted to Baltimore. But there were also other stops, including the Vet in Philadelphia, Wrigley Field in Chicago and Skydome in Toronto. Ronald Reagan even threw out a ceremonial first pitch at the Tokyo Dome in 1989 for the Japan Series.
In 2005, baseball returned to Washington D.C., when the Montreal Expos relocated there and became the Nationals, and George W. Bush was on hand to throw out the first pitch at RFK Stadium. Three years later, he also threw out the first pitch at the new ballpark in Washington, called Nationals Park, bringing the tradition nearly full circle.