SI Vault
Steve Wulf
April 12, 1993
On Opening Day in Baltimore, Bill Clinton threw out the first pitch, continuing a grand American tradition that began with presidents and has gone on to include actors, animals and cartoon characters
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April 12, 1993

Ball One

On Opening Day in Baltimore, Bill Clinton threw out the first pitch, continuing a grand American tradition that began with presidents and has gone on to include actors, animals and cartoon characters

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TRICKS NIXON (TWO): Someone should've gotten an E for Nixon's 1969 lid-lifter. The seal on the front of his box at RFK Stadium read: THE PRESIDNT OF THE UNITED STATES.

WHITEY FORD (ONE): A football player. In his one Opening Day appearance, in Arlington, Texas, he left in the first inning.

PEANUTS CARTER (NONE): A softball player. Brother Billy and mother Lillian often got into the act.

DUTCH REAGAN (TWO): A good arm, but after all, he did play Grover Cleveland Alexander in the 1952 movie The Winning Team. At his first opener as president, in Baltimore in 1984, Reagan apparently lost track of the count. He ordered six hot dogs for his Secret Service agents, then offered the vendor $5.

BULLET GEORGE BUSH (FOUR): The captain of the 1948 Yale baseball team, Bush was and is a tireless hurler. As president he did four openers in three different cities (Baltimore, Toronto, and Arlington, Texas) and numerous other games. Practice did not make perfect, however. Last Opening Day in Baltimore, Bush, who was encumbered by a bullet-proof vest, bounced his pitch in the dirt, then threw his hands over his head in embarrassment. Said Oriole catcher Hoiles, "That was the worst toss I've ever seen in my life." Still, Mr. Bush can't seem to stop. He did one spring training game in Fort Myers, Fla., in March and an exhibition game in Houston Friday night.

While the nature of the presidential first pitch has remained constant, the first catch has undergone something of a transformation. From Taft to Hoover the recipient always seems to have been the Big Train, Walter Johnson. But somewhere along the line, probably when photographers began to demand two first balls, the ceremony became a free-for-all, with players from both teams scrambling to catch the presidential throws. Occasionally a good player like McDougald or Allie Reynolds would catch a ball, but more than likely it was a fringe player like Marty Kutyna or Ken Retzer or Andy Gilbert or Dorrell (Whitey) Herzog. In fact, stories were written about the so-called presidential jinx—players who caught the ball seemed to disappear shortly afterward.

Still, that didn't stop players from elbowing and pushing each other to get to the ball. Fritz Peterson of the New York Yankees showed up for Nixon's inaugural throw carrying a butterfly net. The tradition of fighting for a souvenir ball ended in the Nixon administration, either because the Washington Senators became the Texas Rangers in 1972 or because the players didn't want to risk their rising salaries on a memento. (Imagine the headline: NOLAN RYAN DISLOCATES SHOULDER IN FIRST BALL MELEE.)

Once the ceremony became less of a scramble, the catcher sometimes found himself alone with the president. In 1973 Nixon threw out the first ball on Opening Day at Anaheim Stadium, and his catcher was Jeff Torborg of the California Angels. As Torborg, now the New York Mets' manager, recalls, "We're making small talk, and I said, 'I guess your job is like an umpire's—you can't please everybody.' And he said, 'I didn't think ballplayers thought about anything but their batting averages.' So I said, 'Well, come to think of it, I wasn't too pleased when you canned the Peace Corps.' The conversation didn't go much after that."

On Opening Day in 1986 Reagan threw out the first ball in Baltimore to Oriole catcher Rick Dempsey. The president then sat down next to Dempsey on the bench in the O's dugout. Dempsey turned to him and said, "So, what are you gonna do about Gadaffi?" Reagan, demonstrating that he could talk the talk, told Dempsey, "I think we ought to nail his——to that log over there and push him over."

There have also been vice-presidential first balls of note. LBJ sent HHH—VP Hubert H. Humphrey—in his stead for the '66 Senators' opener, which also happened to be the major league debut of Emmett Ashford, baseball's first black umpire. But the 51-year-old Ashford had a hard time getting in the players' entrance because Humphrey's Secret Service men did not believe there was such a thing as a black umpire.

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