At the Grover Cleveland Birthplace 4th of July Ice Cream Social this year (2018), the educator “Traveling Trunks” will be spotlighting “Baseball” and the connection to Grover Cleveland and other Presidents. Young (and older) attendees at the “Social” will be encouraged to see our display and take “first pitches” with red, white, and blue wiffle balls. Attendees will also be treated to our previous displays, “The Origins of Basketball” and “The History of the Frisbee”. You might also see a few people recite “Casey At the Bat” and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at our annual event.
President Grover Cleveland and Baseball
In the recent book, The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House by Curt Smith, Smith discusses a 1885 meeting with the championship Chicago White Stockings and President Grover Cleveland at the White House. Cleveland was a long time baseball fan. When meeting “Cap” Anson, Captain of the White Stockings, Cleveland asked how his old friend, Jimmy “Pud” Galvin was. When Cleveland was sheriff and mayor of Buffalo, he and Galvin were good friends.
Cleveland was a fan but certainly not in playing shape when President. In the book Baseball, The Presidents’ Game by William B. Mead and Paul Dickson, the authors also write of this White House meeting. When greeting the rest of the team, Cleveland had difficulty shaking the hands of the physically fit White Stockings players. Player Mike “King” Kelly wrote, “There wasn’t a man in the crowd that wasn’t six feet in height and were all in lovely condition. Their hands were as hard as iron. The president’s hand was fat and soft”. When Kelly shook Cleveland’s hand, he “….squeezed so hard that he winced”. As a result, Kelly reported that Cleveland’s hand was in pain and very swollen. Kelly added, “…he would rather shake hands with 1,000 people than a bad nine after that day” and did not shake hands with the team when they left. Cleveland’s hand nearly “doubled in size”. (Mead and Dickson point out that Cleveland was our second heaviest President and weighed 250 pounds. Cleveland once said, “bodily movement is among the dreary and unsatisfactory things of life”.) Although Cleveland had challenges with the handshaking, Kelly concluded, “He impressed me as being a charming, courteous gentleman who had considerable backbone, and democratic enough to be a Democratic president of our glorious country”.
Cleveland’s Victorian work ethic is spotlighted in this meeting with the White Stockings. When leaving, Anson asked Cleveland if he would come to a White Stockings game but the President turned him down. Cleveland stated, “What do you imagine the American people would think of me if I wasted my time going to the ball game?”. Smith writes how Cleveland understood how Victorian America would “applaud” him for his work ethic..
Presidents attending baseball games didn’t end with Cleveland’s decision not to go to a game. In between Cleveland’s two terms, Benjamin Harrison became the first president to attend a major league game (June 6, 1892) when he saw the Cincinnati Reds beat the Washington Senators, 7-4 at the Swampoodle Grounds, which was located on the grounds of the present Union Station.
By Cleveland’s second term, he had John Geydler, a government clerk recite the poem Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888, by Ernest Lawrence Thayer when delivering a document to the White House. In later years, Geydler became President of the National Baseball League. A copy of Casey at the Bat was recently donated to the Grover Cleveland Birthplace Memorial Association 1880’s/1890’s “traveling trunk” for educators.
The website of the National Baseball League mentions the following “tidbits” about Presidents and their connections to baseball.
— George Washington: At Valley Forge, an unidentified soldier mentioned in his diary the game of “base”. He writes, “He [Washington] sometimes throws and catches a ball for hours with his aide-de-camp.”.
— Abraham Lincoln: A Currier and Ives editorial cartoon shows Lincoln in a baseball themed drawing running against Stephen Douglas, John Breckenridge, and John Bell. (The PBS series Abraham and Mary Lincoln discusses how Lincoln was playing handball when waiting for the results of the Republican Convention. Mead and Dickson state there are various accounts saying he was playing baseball when waiting for the results. The authors also mention how he often walked out behind the White House to watch baseball being played on the “White Lot”, which is where the “Ellipse” is now located.)
— Andrew Johnson: A big baseball fan, Johnson also watched baseball being played on the “White Lot”. (Mead and Dickson report that when there was a Washington city match between the Washington Nationals, Philadelphia Athletics, and Brooklyn Atlantics, Johnson have government employees time off to watch).
— Ulysses Grant: Grant was the first to have a professional team (the Cincinnati Red Stockings) to visit the White House.
— Chester A. Arthur: Arthur brought the Cleveland Forest Citys of the National League to the White House.
— William F. McKinley: McKinley brought the Washington Senators to the White House.
— William H. Taft: In 1910, Taft started the traditional “first pitches” of the season by throwing to Washington Senators pitcher Walter Johnson.
— Franklin D. Roosevelt: FDR choose not to “suspend” playing during World War II.
— John F. Kennedy: JFK threw three “ceremonial” first pitches for the Washington Senators and at the 1962 All Star Game, Although he was a Red Sox fan, he never attended a game at Fenway Park in his years as President.
— Richard Nixon: Even when living and working in Washington, D.C., President Nixon always called the California Angels his “hometown” team. In 1972 (as President) and 1992 (post Presidency), Nixon published his “pick” for historical dream teams from 1925-1992, (Smith).
— Ronald Reagan: In his early years as a Chicago Cubs radio broadcaster for WHO, Reagan “re-created” accounts of major league games from telegraph reports. In 1937, while joining the Cubs at spring training in Los Angeles, he got his first break as a actor by getting a Hollywood screen test. His acting career eventually led to politics as Governor of California and President. (Smith discusses how after Reagan was inaugurated in 1981, he used Speaker of the House Tip O’ Neill’s office to change his clothes. The Speaker pointed out that a desk the new President was using belonged to Grover Cleveland. O’Neill wrote that Reagan was thrilled and stated, “Hey, Grover Cleveland! I played him in the movies!”. Reagan was referring to Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1952’s The Winning Team. O’ Neill stated, “No, no, Mr. President. You played Grover Cleveland Alexander, the baseball player”. O’ Neill felt that Reagan was “a good, lovable guy”.)
— George H.W. Bush: A former Yale first baseman, Bush gave the “first pitch” at the first “new old park”, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, (Smith).
— George W. Bush: On October 11, 2001, Bush gave the “first pitch” at the World Series following the attacks on 9/11. In front of a crowd at Yankee Stadium, the President threw a perfect strike. Bush was also a managing partner of the Texas Rangers before becoming Governor of Texas and President.
— Barack Obama: In addition to the MLB website, Smith reports that in 2011, Obama was set to throw out the first ball for the Washington Nationals’ season. He hid his “hometown” White Sox cap when going to the mound, put it on, and pitched.
Mead, William B. and Paul Dickson, Baseball, The President’s Game.
Farragut Publishing Company, Washington, D.C. 1993.
Smith, Curt, The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 2018.
Spencer, Lyle, “Baseball, Presidents Go Back A Long Way”, Major League Baseball website, accessed June 25, 2018.