Although the ceremonies surrounding baseball’s Opening Day have been around since at least 1890, it took 20 years for the commander in chief to become part of the tradition.
The first sitting president to throw a pitch was William Howard Taft. The corpulent commander in chief might be famous for being the heaviest president in U.S. history, but he should also get the nod for starting this revered tradition on April 14, 1910.
President Taft wasn’t even scheduled to attend the game that day, and only did so to cheer himself up after a tough morning in the Oval Office. He’d met with the 42nd annual Suffragist convention earlier in the day, and it had not gone well at all. During that meeting, Taft infamously exclaimed that, if women were allowed to vote, “power might be exercised by the least desirable person.” The hostilities he understandably faced soured his day, so he headed to Washington, D.C.’s National Park for a pick-me-up.
It was a beautiful spring day, and the home town Senators were set to play the Philadelphia Athletics in front of a sold-out crowd. Before the game, Senators manager Jimmy McAleer got the bright idea for Taft to toss out the first ball. While McAleer wanted star pitcher Walter Johnson to catch the throw, the shy, reserved Johnson declined the offer. Instead, catcher Gabby Street was chosen to receive the lob.
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The 300-lb POTUS stood up from his seat, grabbed the ball and got ready to hurl it towards the waiting Street. At the last minute, however, he surprised everyone when he suddenly turned and threw it at the unsuspecting Johnson. The big right-hander recovered in time to make the catch, and the crowd went wild. Taft came back and did it again in 1911, too, and a tradition was born.
In the decades following Taft, presidents tossed the ball from the stands onto the field, where players would scramble and fight for it. That tradition lasted until Richard Nixon’s administration, when years of mounting injuries sustained by the participants finally became too much. Ronald Reagan ushered in the era of the true first “pitch” at Wrigley Field in 1988, when he became the first president to toe the rubber for his ceremonial Opening Day delivery.
In the more than 100 years since, 17 sitting presidents have thrown out the first pitch on Opening Day. Thanks to his unprecedented length of time in office, Franklin D. Roosevelt holds the record, with eight appearances under his belt. Only one sitting president has left office without throwing a first pitch: Jimmy Carter. But Carter eventually crossed this off his list when he did so at Petco Park in 2004.
But perhaps the most famous presidential first pitch wasn’t on Opening Day at all. Before an emotionally-charged Game 3 of the 2001 World Series between the New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks, George W. Bush threw a perfect strike in the Bronx, just six weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.