Batter up: Summer exhibit celebrates presidents, national pastime
For almost a century, U.S. presidents and major league baseball have had a connection.
In 1909, William Howard Taft inaugurated the tradition of throwing out the first pitch at a season-opening game. That tradition included the mad scramble, in which players from both teams would fight for the ball tossed by the president.
But by 1956, former Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower had seen enough combat. The president did away with the free-for-all, and replaced it with a simple toss to the home team's catcher.
The Gerald R. Ford Library is celebrating the tie between U.S. presidents and the national pastime this summer with the exhibit, "Play Ball Mr. President!" Headed by audiovisual archivist Kenneth Hafeli, library staff members have assembled more than 75 photographs of presidents throwing balls and playing baseball, and participating in other activities related to the game. The items are on display through Sept. 6 in the museum's lobby on North Campus.
"The exhibit was conceived in connection with the upcoming All-Star game at Comerica Park in Detroit," says Elaine Didier, director of the Ford Library and Museum. "Staff realized that among the presidential libraries there are numerous photos of presidents engaged in the national pastime."
While the majority of photos show President Ford, a U-M alumnus, nearly all presidents since Taft are featured. There also are displays of 1910-12 baseball cards, signed equipment and more.
"I didn't want a political exhibit," Hafeli says. "We're just trying to show that presidents are like everybody else; they enjoyed the game of baseball as youths and adults. When you see them throwing out the first pitch, it doesn't appear that it's a job. It's something they enjoyed doing, that they really enjoyed the game of baseball."
At the 1975 baseball All-Star game, President Ford was not content to throw out just an opening pitch. He threw out twoone with his left hand to the Cincinnati Reds' Johnny Bench and one with his right to New York Yankee Thurmon Munson.
A surprising 1948 photo shows young Yale University baseball captain and first baseman George H.W. Bush accepting a copy of Babe Ruth's autobiography for the Yale library from the smiling Bambino himself, taken in a ceremony at Yale. Bush is wearing his Yale uniform and cap, and the Babe is in a dark suit.
A 1952 film still in the exhibit shows Ronald Reagan in a St. Louis Cardinals uniform playing troubled pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander in "The Winning Team." Reagan's connection to baseball also is commemorated in another photo in which he is shown smiling at the microphone of WHO radio in Des Moines, Iowa. At that station, he re-created games by weaving play-by-play received over ticker tape into game narratives.
Reagan also started the tradition of presidents leaving the stands to go to the pitcher's mound to throw out the first pitch.
One photo shows Ford in black tuxedo welcoming home run king Hank Aaron to the White House during a state dinner for Japanese Prime Minister Hirohito.
Hafeli says the photo he was most surprised to find is of Theodore Roosevelt at a baseball game sometime during his presidency, 1901-08. "He's in the crowd wearing a top hat and an old double-breasted coat," he says. "I didn't know the photo existed."
There also are several photos of congressmen at the annual charity baseball game in Washington between Democrats and Republicans.
President Jimmy Carter is seen wearing shorts and playing softball.
Newer photos show George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium in New York to open the 2001 World Series, just weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Bush also is pictured hosting a kids T-ball game on the White House south lawn.
The library is open 8:45 a.m.-4:45 p.m. weekdays. For more information, call (734) 205-0555 or visit http://www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov.