The All-Star game is baseball’s celebration of transcendent talent and league loyalty. For one game a year, fierce rivals suit up on the same team, and the fans get to root for the best players in the sport, not just their hometown stars. But tonight at the 2009 All-Star game in St. Louis, Barack Obama will take the mound to hurl the first ceremonial pitch with no plans for hiding his personal team loyalty. According to a White House source, the president will once again suit up in the gear of his hometown Chicago White Sox. (Not clear if this will just be a cap, or a cap and jacket or jersey, or the far more unlikely stirrup socks and cleats.)
U.S. Presidents have been throwing out first pitches at baseball games since William Howard Taft at Griffith Stadium in 1910. And for decades, they have been showing up at games in the garb of their favored teams. Ronald Reagan wore a Chicago Cubs jacket. Bill Clinton donned the orange bird of Baltimore. George W. Bush went National in the nation’s capital. But the best I can tell, today will be the first time that a U.S. president has ever played a favoring fan at an All-Star Game.
For those keeping score at home, three four presidents have previously tossed the first ball at an All-Star Game. [UPDATE: I initially wiped from history Gerald Ford's 1976 appearance, in coat and tie, at the All Star Game in Philidelphia.] Franklin Roosevelt in 1937. (He wore a white double-breasted suit and hat.) Richard Nixon in 1970. (He wore a dark grey suit in Cincinnati.) And George H.W. Bush in 1992, where he attended with Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari in San Diego. (I can’t find a picture online of this momentous slice of history, but the news coverage at the time made no mention of his attire, and the fact of the election year would have made taking sides less likely.)
As for Obama, he is known to have worn baseball gear on at least two occasions: in 2005, when he tossed before Game 2 of the AL Championship series, dressed as a White Sox billboard–Sox hat and pinstripe “Obama” jersey, and as a toddler, when he was, the photographic evidence suggests, a fan of the University of Hawaii.
One other note: there is a reason beyond fashion that presidents stopped wearing suit coats or blazers for first tosses. The Secret Service has encouraged the first men for decades to wear bullet-proof vests on the mound, making the looser jersey’s and warm-up jackets a preferable attire. Richard Ben Cramer, in his book What It Takes, famously documented one blue-blazer/bullet-proof vest disaster, the 1986 first pitch by George H.W. Bush during game one of the 1986 NL Championship. To wit:
This is it: the moment, the glorious nexus. Poppy is winding up–well, sort of. He can’t really get his arms above his head, so they end up together in front of his face, and he sort of swivels to his left, and his left arm flies back–but it won’t go back, so he gets it back even with his shoulder, and starts forward, while his right lace-up feels for the dirt on the downslope, and he can tell it’s short while the throw is still in his hand, and he is trying to get that little extra with his hand, which ends up, fingers splayed, almost waving, as he lands on his right foot, and lists to his left, toward the first-base line, with the vent of his blazer aflap to show his gray flannel backside, with his eyes still following the feckless parabola of his toss, which is not gonna . . . oh, God! . . . not gonna even make the dirt in front of the plate, but bounce off the turf, one dying hop to the . . . oh, God!
For his part, Obama said this morning that he has been practicing his throw, though he was vague about the specifics. “I think it’s fair to say that I wanted to loosen up my arm a little bit,” the president said in the Oval Office, after a meeting with Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende of the Netherlands. “You know, my general strategy the last time I threw a pitch was at the American League Championship Series and I just wanted to keep it high. Now, there was no clock on it, I don’t know how fast it went — but if it exceeded 30 miles per hour, I’d be surprised. But it did clear the plate.” He can only hope to do it again.