Editor’s Note: This piece was first published on April 3, 2017.
Last week, the White House announced that Donald Trump wouldn’t throw out the ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day, citing a “scheduling conflict.” Immediately, speculation started flying: Was he afraid of being booed by the Washington Nationals’ fans? Was he concerned that he’d look even stupider than he did when he’s thrown out first pitches in the past? Whatever the reason, it brought attention to the century-old tradition of American presidents flinging the first pitch of the baseball season, which began in 1910 when William Howard Taft did the honor at the start of the Washington Senators’ (now known as the Texas Rangers’) season.
To celebrate the start of a new baseball season, we’ve ranked the 18 presidents, including Taft, who have thrown ceremonial first pitches. Not all of these presidents have film footage of their toss, so it required a certain amount of educated guessing. One other caveat: For decades, the first pitch was delivered from the stands, the president hurling the ball at a group of players on the field, which made it look like the commander-in-chief was tossing a bouquet at a wedding. That made it even tougher for us to evaluate—but still, our results are final, and there’s no video review.
18) Richard Nixon
Tricky Dick was known for his enemies list, but it wasn’t the only ranking he put together. Twice in his life, Nixon compiled a presidential All-Star team, honoring his all-time favorite players. He divided the first list, from 1972, into pre-war and post-war players; the second list, compiled in 1992, was separated into three eras. The man had an encyclopedic knowledge of the game — “I don’t know a lot about politics, but I know a lot about baseball,” he once quipped — but God, what a terrible arm he had:
17) Calvin Coolidge
In 1924, the hometown Washington Senators won the World Series. It didn’t mean much to Coolidge, but it did to First Lady Grace Coolidge, who was a big baseball fan. According to Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich, “[S]he knew a lot more about baseball than he did, but so did everybody else.” And in A History of the Baseball Fan, writer Fred Stein notes that while the First Lady would stay through the end of the game, her husband would take off early because he was bored. Who cares if he threw a good opening pitch or not? (From photographic evidence, we’d say he didn’t.)
16) Harry S. Truman
Truman doesn’t have the greatest delivery — there’s no follow-through.
But that shouldn’t be surprising since he was never much of an athlete. Our 33rd president once said, “I couldn’t see well enough to play when I was a boy, so they gave me a special job — they made me an umpire.” But as The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball points out, Truman was ambidextrous, managing to throw ceremonial first pitches from both hands. And some who grew up with Truman questioned the myth that he wasn’t athletic. In Harry S. Truman: His Life and Times, author Brian Burnes quotes from a childhood friend who says he saw Truman once play baseball: “He took his place at first base and it wasn’t but a few minutes before we found out that he could holler louder, throw the ball harder and play just as rough as any kid on the lot.”
15) Barack Obama
“We do a lot of tough stuff as president,” Obama said in 2016. “And by definition you don’t end up being president if you don’t handle stress well. [But] nothing is more stressful than throwing a first pitch.” We could tell: One of our coolest presidents never looked more rattled than when he took the mound. Not only did these appearances help cement his dad-jeans reputation, but he always threw terribly, pushing the ball to the catcher instead of hurling it.
14) Gerald Ford
Not to be outdone by Truman, Ford also threw first pitches from both hands — at the same game, the 1976 All-Star Game. Still, just like everything else he did as president, Ford’s ceremonial tosses are well-meaning and totally forgettable.
That said, he adored the sport, once saying, “I had a lifelong ambition to be a professional baseball player, but nobody would sign me.”
13) Franklin D. Roosevelt
In prep school, FDR didn’t have a lot of athletic success — in fact, he was selected to be his baseball team’s equipment manager. But as a four-term president, he threw more ceremonial Opening Day first pitches than any other commander-in-chief. And he loved the game enough to recognize its cultural value: When others recommended shutting down the sport during World War II, he lobbied hard for its continuation, saying, “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.” But sadly, thanks to the lasting effects of polio, Roosevelt’s delivery leaves a lot to be desired:
12) Lyndon B. Johnson
Many politicians pretend to like sports to court voters, but LBJ might have been the first to get into baseball to court a fellow politician. In the third installment of his epic Johnson biography, Master of the Senate, journalist Robert Caro explains that the tactical Texas senator, who didn’t much care for sports, discovered that influential Georgia Sen. Richard Russell adored baseball. “I doubt that Lyndon Johnson had been to a baseball game in his life until he heard that Dick Russell enjoyed the sport,” an LBJ aide told Caro.
The two senators started attending games together, which became a way for Johnson to bend his colleague’s ear on legislative matters. A friendship formed in time, and years later, when the usually aloof Russell was asked why he became so close with Johnson, he responded, “We both like baseball.” Of course, it wasn’t true. Case in point: Johnson’s first pitch — a heave that reflects a guy who doesn’t much care how he looks doing it:
11) Warren G. Harding
In the photos we have of Harding’s first pitches, his form leaves a lot to be desired, which is surprising considering that few presidents took the game as seriously as Harding. A Cincinnati Reds fan, he gambled on games and owned a minor league team, the Marion Diggers. He also used his love of the sport to his political advantage. According to 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents, our 29th president was an avid golfer, but his operatives feared that golf’s elitist trappings would turn off everyday Americans. So when Harding ran for president, he arranged for the Chicago Cubs to play an exhibition game in his hometown, with Harding throwing a few pitches for the Cubs’ opponent, a semipro team called the Kerrigan Tailors.
Additionally, Harding’s handlers worked out a deal to get Babe Ruth to do a photo-op with the presidential hopeful, sparking a friendship between the two. When Harding died in office in 1923, Ruth wrote Harding’s widow a handwritten condolence note: “President Harding’s interest in baseball and his many kind acts toward individual players was deeply appreciated by all of us.”
10) Herbert Hoover
The man nicknamed “the great humanitarian” had baseball in his blood from an early age. “I grew up on sandlot baseball, swimming holes and fishing with worms,” he once said. Hoover played at Stanford, but he could tell he wasn’t meant for the majors. “I was for a short time on the baseball team as shortstop, where I was not so good,” he recalled in his memoirs. “In time, my colleagues decided that I would make a better manager than shortstop.” And while every president feels a certain amount of pressure not to botch the first pitch, Hoover was under even closer scrutiny. When he threw out the opening pitch during the 1931 World Series, the country was at the height of the Great Depression. Hoover’s pitch got nowhere close to the catcher, and when the president left the park, he was roundly booed — probably more because of the Depression than his pitch.
No wonder Babe Ruth famously responded to questions about his salary being higher than Hoover’s by saying, “Why not? I had a better year than he did.”
9) John F. Kennedy
The first president of the TV era, JFK understood that appearance was as important as message. Not surprisingly, his first pitch to kick off the 1961 season is a perfect replica of what a first pitch is supposed to be like — even if it doesn’t look all that confident. (By the way, check out the players battling it out to be the lucky recipient of his casual toss.)
Kennedy agonized over making sure that his ceremonial throw wouldn’t be terrible: In preparation, he was caught practicing with a softball in the Rose Garden. “Obviously he hadn’t intended anyone seeing him out there,” a press aide later said about the awkward encounter, “and so he felt sheepish about it all and ducked his head and said hello.”
8) Ronald Reagan
You know you’re a popular president when you can ask for a do-over on your first pitch. In 1988, Ronald Reagan threw out the ceremonial first pitch before a Cubs-Pirates game at Wrigley Field. His first throw is way outside — so he requested another chance, doing much better on his second attempt:
Regan, who played football and track as a kid as well as being captain of the swim team, didn’t have much luck with baseball because of vision problems. Later, he became a sports announcer, calling football and baseball games — a job he absolutely loved. “If I had stopped there,” he said in his memoir, “I believe I would have been happy the rest of my life.”
7) George H.W. Bush
The elder Bush was a bit of a jock growing up, playing baseball and soccer in high school. He was Yale’s first baseman, helping lead the team to the College World Series twice. (They lost both times.) But it was his defense, not his hitting, where he made his impact. “I can’t say I contributed much on offense,” he once said, “but it was a heck of a ride nonetheless.” When Bush became president, he brought his college glove to the Oval Office, putting it in a drawer. He’s got a fluid motion, even if his location isn’t perfect:
6) William Howard Taft
Our 31st president was one of baseball’s biggest champions. While in office, he declared, “The game of baseball is a clean, straight game, and it summons to its presence everybody who enjoys clean, straight athletics. It furnishes amusement to the thousands and thousands.” According to Baseball: The Presidents’ Game, the 1911 edition of Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide noted that Taft “tells his friends that it is a pastime worth every man’s while and advises them to banish the blues by going to a ball game and waking up with the enthusiasts of the bleachers who permit no man to be grouchy among them.”
Strangely enough then, the president who started the ritual of presidential first pitches did so by accident. While Taft was attending a home game for the Senators on April 14, 1910, umpire Billy Evans handed him the ball. The Chicago Tribune reported, “The president took the ball in his gloved hand as if he were at a loss what to do with it until Evans told him he was expected to throw it over the plate when he gave the signal. [The catcher] stood at the home plate ready to receive the ball, but the president knew the pitcher was the man who usually began business operations with it, so he threw it straight to pitcher Walter Johnson. The throw was a little low, but the pitcher stuck out his long arm and grabbed the ball before it hit the ground, while the insurgents in the bleachers cheered wildly.”
Not bad for a guy creating a tradition.
5) Dwight D. Eisenhower
“When I was a small boy in Kansas,” Eisenhower once said, “a friend of mine and I went fishing and as we sat there in the warmth of the summer afternoon on a river bank, we talked about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I told him that I wanted to be a real major league baseball player. … My friend said that he’d like to be president of the United States. Neither of us got our wish.”
That quote, which referenced in several books but whose origin appears unknown, underlines the fact that Ike actually had some skill in the sport. He’s got a good arm in his opening pitch, and he doesn’t seem scared about what to do in the moment:
In fact, there’s a great conspiracy theory that Eisenhower secretly played baseball professionally for a minor league team under an alias so he could maintain his college eligibility.
4) Woodrow Wilson
Urban legend maintains that Wilson was a flamethrower, once described by a scout as someone who “threw smoke.” Not true, says Baseball: The Presidents’ Game: Authors William B. Mead and Paul Dickson point out that the former governor of New Jersey never pitched; he did, for a time, play centerfield at Davidson before transferring to Princeton. The origin of the legend probably stems from a joke included in a 1971 Newark Star-Ledger piece that said that Wilson “threw pure smoke as the scouts say.” True or not, Wilson was the first president to throw out the first pitch at a World Series game. And baseball was his favorite sport: His first public appearance after proposing to future wife Edith Galt was at a baseball game. So maybe he didn’t throw smoke, but Wilson biographer John Milton Cooper does note, “Sportswriters often commented on how well pitched his tosses were.”
3) Jimmy Carter
Carter is the only president who didn’t throw a first pitch in office since Taft began the tradition. But in terms of great first pitches, Carter’s post-presidential toss at Game 6 of the 1995 World Series is an all-timer. At 71, Carter threw a perfect strike — and made it seem like it was no big deal at all:
Don’t be fooled: The former president was a big softball fan, taking part in games between his staff and the press corps during his administration. And those games were competitive. Boston Globe reporter Curtis Wilkie commented, “He was his team’s self-appointed captain, and he took it all very seriously. He’s a pretty damned good player; he always knew immediately which base to throw to to make a force play.” And when Wilkie was on Carter’s team one time and didn’t come down with a pop fly, the president let him hear about it. “When I got back to third base, he was standing there staring at me, and he said, ‘You should have had that one, Curtis.’ I never knew for sure whether he was serious or not.”
2) Bill Clinton
Like JFK, Clinton agonized over his first pitch. “I practiced for a week before then,” he admitted later. “I went out, and I paced out the distance in the backyard of the White House because I didn’t want to ground the ball. I wanted to at least get it to the catcher.” Clinton was never much of an athlete. (“I was in a church league,” he once said. “I wasn’t very good, I was too heavy. But I would run pretty well in short distances.”) Still, his first pitch is actually really good — is that even a breaking ball he’s throwing?
1) George W. Bush
When Bush stepped on the mound at Yankee Stadium to deliver the first pitch of Game 3 of the World Series, the country was still in mourning over 9/11, which had occurred only a few weeks before. And while a first pitch is usually just a ceremonial thing, Bush knew this one mattered. “I can’t remember thinking, If you don’t bounce it, that’ll lift their spirits,” Bush later said. “But I probably knew, instinctively, that a bounce would kind of reduce the defiance — the act of defiance toward the enemy.”
It helped that the pitch was thrown by someone who had loved baseball since he was a kid — he played Little League, and later, he was a partner in the Texas Rangers. It’s been long rumored that, all things being equal, Bush would’ve been perfectly happy to be commissioner of Major League Baseball rather than president. But on that mound in 2001, Bush did more for the game — and the country — than any other president ever had. He didn’t bounce the ball — his pitch was a perfect, confident strike.
The whole act of presidential first pitches may be symbolic, but for once, the symbol actually helped people — well, baseball fans, at least — feel like they got a little normalcy back in their lives.