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When Politics Is Really Hardball — Baseball's Opening Day

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio throws the ceremonial first pitch Tuesday. Even though he was flanked by children, the Mets home crowd booed de Blasio — an unabashed Red Sox fan.
John Minchillo
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio throws the ceremonial first pitch Tuesday. Even though he was flanked by children, the Mets home crowd booed de Blasio — an unabashed Red Sox fan.

Opening day of the 2014 Major League Baseball season started without the world's most famous southpaw, President Obama, throwing out the first pitch at Washington Nationals Park.

The Nationals were in New York City, where they began their season against the New York Mets with a 9-7 win.

But political, if not pitching, firepower was still represented on the mound. The 6-foot 5-inch Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York threw out the first pitch. He threw a strike but was booed nonetheless, partly because he's mayor, probably more because he's an unabashed Red Sox fan in a city that detests them. And he got the Bronx cheer, despite having small children in the photo op with him, which might have kept people elsewhere from booing him. But not in New York.

As the national pastime for more than a century, baseball has long gone hand in glove with politics. The steroid scandals of recent years seem to have done nothing to change that. There aren't many other photo ops a politician can take part in that scream out patriotism and tradition, possibility and fun, than throwing the first pitch.

Presidential involvement in the ceremony dates back to William Howard Taft in April 1910. Back then, presidents did the toss from the stands. For some reason, presidents kept up this practice of pitching from the stands for decades, even though there was an obviously better approach.

It was Ronald Reagan who became the first president to throw the first pitch from the mound. Reagan, actor that he was, knew how to use a stage, and there are few better stages in sport than a pitcher's mound.

But throwing the pitch from the mound brought new risks — the potential embarrassment of an errant pitch that could make a politician the butt of jokes.

Like when in 1986 Vice President George H.W. Bush, a collegiate baseball star at Yale University, pitched one into the dirt well before the catcher, a scene wonderfully captured in What It Takes: The Way to the White House by the late Richard Ben Cramer.

Bush's son, President George W. Bush, perhaps one of the best athletes to inhabit the White House, on the other hand, could just about always be counted on to hit the strike zone. President Obama? Not so much.

Throwing out the first pitch on opening day, or during a championship series for that matter, is one of those unenumerated powers of the presidency. Alas, declaring the official start of Major League Baseball a national holiday isn't.

As White House spokesman Josh Earnest explained to the more than 102,000 people who signed a White House petition asking for the president to declare the day a holiday:

"While we are sympathetic to your pitch to make Opening Day a national holiday, it's a little outside our strike zone: creating permanent federal holidays is traditionally the purview of Congress. So, it's up to the men and women on Capitol Hill to decide whether to swing at this pitch.

"To celebrate Opening Day, we'll be honoring the 2013 World Series champions, the Boston Red Sox, here at the White House on Tuesday."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.