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Lynn Hummel: The presidents are pitchers

On April 15, 1910, 320 pound William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States, a genuine baseball fan, made history. He did something that no president had ever done before — not Washington, not Jefferson, not Lincoln and not Teddy Roosevelt — the famous four who were later to be chiseled in stone on Mount Rushmore.  Taft threw out the first pitch at the season’s baseball opener at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C.

That momentous pitch started two traditions. The first is that every president since then has thrown out a first pitch at the opening of the season or the World Series, sometimes both. The second tradition is that the pitching form of every president is subject to ruthless analysis and criticism. Taft’s pitch was criticized as having no follow through because his glove hand was in his pocket. Photos of the event show baseball fans wearing black derby hats and Mrs. Taft wearing a fancy party hat. There is more than one way to study American history and fashion.

Franklin Roosevelt threw out the first pitch more than any other president — nine times. Four of the presidents were left handers — Harry Truman, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. But Truman was unique — he was ambidextrous.  In 1950 he made one pitch left handed and one right handed. Truman’s form was faulted for leaning too far back in his windup. George H. W. Bush, who was actually the captain of his Yale baseball team in college, was noted to pitch from an upright posture and it was further noted that he insisted on wearing an “ancient” baseball glove. It looked like his college first baseman’s mit. It was observed that Bill Clinton’s form would probably lead to an elbow injury, and he was looking up into the sky during his delivery. But he was the first president to deliver the pitch from the mound. The final left hander, Obama, was said to have “a good baseball body” and that he keeps himself in shape. But, if he insists on wearing a flak jacket, he’ll have to play in the outfield rather than pitch.

But the right handers were criticized too of course. Harding’s body language suggested he wasn’t taking his pitch seriously. Hoover looked at the ball, not the target. When Hoover was president, his salary was $75,000 and Babe Ruth was being paid $85,000. When Ruth was asked about making more than the president he said, “I’m having a better year than he is.” Roosevelt, for all his practice, was observed holding the rail with one hand. Also, he had no leg kick at all. As a result, his pitch flew only 30 feet. Eisenhower had “terrible mechanics — probably not fixable.” Lyndon Johnson was noted to be the first president to come fully prepared — he was wearing a baseball glove.

Richard Nixon was observed with a poor windup. Critics later noted that his delivery was deceptive, but his performance could not be fully evaluated because of gaps in the tape. Gerald Ford, a former college football player, was complemented for “good trunk rotation,” while Jimmy Carter had a natural three-quarter delivery, but his body posture was too rigid. Ronald Reagan had a sidearm delivery with good velocity.

None of the critics ever suggested that a president was “throwing like a girl,” even though President Harding’s form showed that his sister could have been making the same pitch. But the reporters at that time observed a certain “political correctness” that has since disappeared.

There seems to be a general consensus that George W. Bush had the smoothest delivery of the entire bunch. Not by accident though. Bush was part owner of the Texas Rangers for some years and spent many afternoons at Ranger Stadium in Arlington, Texas watching the real pros. Beyond that, “W” took the first pitch seriously. He was known to take many practice pitches before he came to the ballpark. He knew the rule for starting pitchers: practice, practice, practice. The World Series in 2001 was played shortly after the attack on 9/11. President Bush was the first president to throw out the first World Series pitch in Yankee Stadium. He was wearing a bullet proof vest and a Secret Service agent was on the field dressed as an umpire. It was probably the most dramatic first pitch in history. You can see it on YouTube.

When the Washington Nationals open their season in Washington, D.C. on April 4, President Obama will get another opportunity to improve his performance on the mound. But, even if he were to fire a 95mph fastball across the middle of the plate, we all know the “Obamapitch” would meet with serious criticism. That’s part of our first pitch tradition. Besides, every player from the greenest rookie in the majors makes more money than the president, whose salary is $400,000. The minimum major league paycheck is $480,000, but the average is $3.3 million. Why should a major league ballplayer make more than the president? We don’t know yet how their year will go, but they’re probably going to have a better year than the president is having.