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The real missed opportunity behind Obama’s first pitch ditch

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It was just another Monday in Washington D.C as politicians made their crawl up the Capitol steps and lobbyists grabbed their morning coffee before hopping on the metro. Tourists strolled the National Mall, suburban parents commuted and a few lucky kids got to play hooky. It was the home opener on a beautiful day in Washington and the city’s baseball fans appreciated it.

Like every other day in the District a decision by a politician was made, but there was little partisanship on the banks of Anacostia that afternoon. President Barack Obama, busy running a nation, was forced to decline his invitation to throw out the first pitch in front of the packed home crowd.

The decision was made with some, but for the most part little controversy. It has long been a grand tradition to have the president throw out the first pitch for Washington’s home opener since William Taft first inaugurated the act in 1910 for the Senators. In fact many believe this may have been the first – first pitch in baseball history. As lore has it the idea for the pitch came from Washington’s own Clark Griffith who believed if he could get the president to throw out the first pitch, baseball would officially have the presidential seal of approval, thus making it without question the nation’s pastime.

Since then the acting president has continued the proud Clark Griffith tradition 45 times in the last 63 Washington opening days. The form has changed; sometimes the president would throw it from the front row, and other times he would take his wind-up on the mound, but at an extremely high rate (72%) the commander-in-chief has been there to show his support for the city as well as the nation’s pastime. It has long been considered baseballs most important tradition, as it is the affirmation that baseball is our country’s game.

To the city and to the team’s fans Obama’s absence was noted, and many were let down that Clark Griffith’s grand tradition, and perhaps in it Washington baseball’s best claim to fame was put off yet again by a President.  There was moderate debate amongst the blogs and the papers that this let down was just one in a long string of disappointments which Nationals’ fans have faced since the teams return to Washington in 2005.

But lost with the question on whether or not Obama dissed the Nationals by not throwing out the first pitch, is whether or not given the history of Washington baseball patriarch, Clark Griffith, would he have allowed a black man to throw out the first pitch were he here today.

It was in this history that Calvin Griffith, nephew and heir of legendary baseball figure Clark Griffith moved the Washington Senators, to Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1961. Griffith didn’t admit it at the time but was later quoted in the Minneapolis Tribune as saying, “I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota. It was when we found out you only had 15,000 blacks here. Black people don’t go to ballgames, but they’ll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it’ll scare you to death. We came here because you’ve got good, hardworking white people here.”

His comments had their own fallout as Griffith was ripped by the local media as well as by his players. In fact it even led to the eventual parting of the Twins with their then best player, Rod Carew, who refused to be another African American on Griffiths, “plantation.”

It was Minnesota where the Griffith’s relationship with race and baseball ended, but it was Washington where it took full bloom. The antagonism the Griffith’s felt from their shared space and close relationship with the Homestead Grays, as well as a southern upbringing is most likely what caused the Uncle- Nephew tandem to develop their beliefs. Griffith stadium was filled with segregated stands when the hometown Senators were in town, but the stadium truly came alive when the club was out of town and filled with almost entirely African American fans to cheer on the great Homestead Grays who would play in their stead.

44-15278-fThe Grays were based in Pittsburgh but considered Washington their home away from home as they played many games in Griffith Stadium in the 1930’s and 1940’s.  Negro League Icons strolled the playing field of the Senators stadium. Names like Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Cum Posey. The team was considered the Yankees of the Negro Leagues, the Grays won eight out of nine Negro League National League Championships in the 30’s and 40’s and ten overall.

The Washington Senators success at this time was quite minimal. It was often said that Washington was, “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” This may have been too kind. Things were bad for the Senators’ yet owner Clark Griffith, even years after Jackie Robinson first put in a uniform for Los Angeles refused to sign any players from the exceptional Grays who played in his very own stadium. Griffith was so stubborn that in the 1940’s he signed a one legged pitcher, Bert Shepard, and a sanitation worker, Ed Boland, over greats like Josh Gibson.

Clark was quoted saying, “I will not sign a Negro for the Washington club merely to satisfy subversive persons. I would welcome a Negro on the Senators if he rated the distinction, if he belonged among major league players.“

Well then what about an African American throwing out the first pitch, an African American who is the President of the United States, no less.

Obama may have missed a great opportunity in throwing out the first pitch that ordinary Monday afternoon. The following Tuesday would have seen the same politicians walk up the Capitol steps, and hopefully those same kids returning to school. But quietly a lot would have changed.

Symbolism screams throughout baseball regardless of if we can quantify it with the statistics we love so much. The sport represents opportunity, triumph, and the overcoming of obstacles. Maybe this is why we love our statistics so much, because it gives us a way to understand and hopefully predict what we can not control, the game of baseball.

Unquantifiable, however, would be the impact that an African American man, representing world power, would have throwing out that first pitch. Echoing the action of so many presidents before him he would affirm baseball as our nations pastime and in doing so muzzle the slurs of the Clark and Calvin Griffith while laying to rest the ghosts of the Homestead Grays. 

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