Spring and opening day for major league baseball.
Always a time of rebirth and hope. Every team is tied for first place, and every lifetime .239 hitter thinks this is the year he will win the batting title, and lead his team to the pennant and the World Series.
But not this year. We sit and wait, many of us “sheltered in place”, taking life one day at a time as the coronavirus dominates our thoughts, and puts our lives on hold.
The other day I received a call from an old teammate. We hadn’t talked in almost 50 years, but the memories came back easily. We talked about old games, and teammates. He remembered in detail my sometimes successful swing, I remembered his smooth delivery on the pitchers mound. The memories and relationships from baseball are timeless, like the game itself.
Our discussion turned to opening day, and our favorite stories of first games from seasons past. For me it was easy. It happened in 1967 when a rookie pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, 21 year old Billy Rohr made his debut against the New York Yankees on opening day in Yankee Stadium. Not only did Rohr beat veteran Yankee ace Whitey Ford, he missed a no-hitter by just one pitch. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Yankee Elston Howard lifted a soft single into right field. The next hitter was retired on a harmless fly ball. The New York fans booed Howard, because by the seventh inning they were rooting for the young hurler.
Imagine that, Yankee fans rooting for a Red Sox player. They wanted to see history, a no-hitter on opening day. Although it was just one game, the game provided hope for Red Sox fans. The team had finished last in the American League the previous year, but in 1967 the Sox would accomplish “The Impossible Dream,” winning the pennant on the last day of the season, and playing the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
Baseball is important to Americans, especially in difficult times. Our leaders know that. President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Green Light Letter” advocated the continuation of baseball during WWII.
He said in part, “I honestly feel it would be best for the country to keep baseball going, … the players are a definite recreational asset to at least 20 million of their fellow citizens — and that in my judgment, is thoroughly worthwhile.”
Roosevelt would throw out the first ball eight times while in office. He was a great fan of the Washington Senators, and when he died on April 12, 1945, major league games for April 14 were postponed. His successor, Harry Truman, was ambidextrous; he threw out the first ball of the 1946 season as a left-hander, and in 1947 as a right hander. In both 1950 and 1951 he threw out a ball with each hand. Truman saw the Washington Senators 16 times while in office including every opening day.
On April 12, 1955, after he was out of office, the Missouri native threw out the first ball of the first game ever played by the Kansas City A’s.
President Warren G. Harding was an avid fan.
Commenting on the beauty of the game, he said, “I never saw a game without taking sides and never want to see one. There is the soul of the game.” Harding played baseball in Marion, Ohio, and later owned a minor league franchise there. He was described as the “president of the fans” because of his interest in the game. Babe Ruth was a guest at the White House several times during his administration.
President Herbert Hoover was also an enthusiastic fan, primarily rooting for the Yankees. He once stayed through an entire game despite steady rainfall.
At age 87 he declared himself “the oldest living baseball fan.” Hoover would throw out first ball four times in the 1930 and 1931 World Series, and attended game 5 of the 1929 fall classic. Hoover said it simply, “Next to religion, baseball has had a greater impact on the American people than any other institution.”
Today, we wait and try to stay patient and optimistic. But this fan yearns for the National Anthem, and the call “Play Ball.” How about you?