The Nationals announced today that Barack Obama will throw out the first pitch at Nats Park this season. This comes one year after Obama made news for publicly ditching the Nationals last season despite the open invitation to the president in his first year of office.
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 (100 years ago) 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.
Obama’s first pitch at Nationals stadium will not only mark the 100th anniversary of this tradition but will be a great historical step as he will be the first African American president take part in the act. The pitch will surly be a symbolic act in a Washington baseball history that has been scarred with losing baseball, a move, and unsettling race relations in the past.
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.
The 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.”
It’s with this history that Obama has a chance to help make right a baseball wrong that occurred in decades past. Just as William Taft’s first pitch 100 years ago solidified baseball as the nation’s pastime, Obama has the chance to solidify it as the all-american game, and perhaps finally bring baseball back to Washington on the right foot.
Politics aside, it will be a historic moment when Obama tosses that first pitch, and hopefully he’ll be wearing the Curly W on his cap.