The onset of spring, for many Americans, means just one thing. The start of baseball season. And among those who have loved going out to the old ballgame one can count a number of First Ladies.
It is probably a dead heat tie between Grace Coolidge and Bess Truman when it comes to the Biggest White House Baseball Fan – and that includes the Presidents too.
Just how and when Grace Coolidge began her love of the sport as a spectator is unclear, but by the time her husband was tossing out the first ball of the season for the old Washington, D.C. team of the Senators at the long-gone Griffith Stadium, she was the most obviously enthusiastic one between them.
In later years, she confessed that, “Mr. Coolidge never played baseball. I know of no sport in which he took part. He did not share my enthusiasm for baseball.”
Barely three months after becoming First Lady, on October 10, 1924, the First Lady made her first public appearance at a ballgame, bringing her husband to watch Game 7 of the World Series between the New York Giants and Washington Senators.
It was as a former First Lady that Mrs. Coolidge’s devotion truly emerged, with her loyalty to the Boston Red Sox.
Well into her 70s she was a familiar figure in Boston’s Fenway Park, cheering on her team and when the management knew she was coming from her home in Northampton, there was always a special seat reserved for her just above the Sox dugout.
Contradicting her staid public appearance, Bess Truman had been an active sportswoman as a young girl, winning awards in high school for her physical prowess at tennis, shot-put, track, and basketball.
One legendary tale in her family was how, one day, while passing a baseball game where her two younger brothers were playing they needed an extra player.
Young Bess Wallace took her place as a pinch-hitter among the otherwise all-boy baseball team.
As First Lady, Bess Truman not only appeared with the President on opening day of the Senators at Griffith Stadium, but also went on her own or with her daughter and friends.
Shortly after leaving the White House, she appeared at a Yankees game in New York where, by coincidence, three rows in front of her was sitting another out-of-towner there for the game, Grace Coolidge.
Upon retiring to Independence, Missouri, the former First Lady was able to fully indulge her love of the game, a doggedly loyal Kansas City Royals game. She also had loyalty to Missouri’s other team, the St. Louis Cardinals.
When the strictly unpolitical former First Lady was asked to co-chair the reelection campaign of U.S. Senator Thomas Eagleton, part of her incentive for accepting was the fact that former Cardinals star Stan Musial would serve as her co-chair and she had the chance to talk baseball with him.
Not long after baseball caught on as the national pastime, several First Ladies showed an interest or support for it.
When White House clerical staff members used their lunch hour to play ball on the White House South Lawn they were cheered on by Ida McKinley watching from a window.
Nellie Taft insisted on joining her husband, President William Howard Taft, when he became the first President to throw out the ball to open the baseball season, on April 14, 1910 in a game between the Washington Nationals and the Philadelphia Athletics.
Florence Harding was also a baseball fan, keeping her own scorecard. While taking a winter sojourn in Augusta, Georgia in 1922 she joined her husband to take in a Warren Park exhibition game between the Detroit Tigers and an unspecified Canadian team, but what especially excited the First Lady was the presence there of local resident and baseball legend Ty Cobb.
Although details are sketchy, it is believed she returned to see Cobb play there again, the following year, when the presidential party again stopped in Augusta on its way to Florida. Following the sudden death of President Harding in August 1923, the legendary Babe Ruth wrote a heartfelt sympathy letter to the presidential widow.
Following Bess Truman’s omnipresence at Griffith Stadium, however, it was nearly two decades before another First Lady regularly returned to the ballpark.
Jacqueline Kennedy never joined her husband when he pitched the ceremonial season opening game, but as a former First Lady, she often took her son, John F. Kennedy, Jr. to local New York Shea Stadium and Yankee Stadium for games played by the Mets and the Yankees, respectively.
Jackie would even return to Shea Stadium with her daughter and second husband, Aristotle Onassis for a 1969 World Series game, and all eyes were on her as she explained the finer points of the game to him.
A local newspaper would later suggest that Mrs. Onassis be invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the Mets to break a long slump but she was apparently never actually approached to do so.
When next an incumbent First Lady showed up at a professional ball game without a President, she made history.
On October 11, 1971 Pat. Nixon became the first First Lady to toss out a baseball for a major league team, being at Game Two of the 1971 World Series, making her ceremonial first pitch at Baltimore Memorial Stadium.
While not as avid as Mrs. Coolidge or Mrs. Truman, Mrs. Nixon had long loved going to watch baseball games with the stadium crowds, sometimes with her husband or with her daughters, a presence at Griffith Park in the 1950s when she had been serving as Second Lady.
Pat Nixon’s precedent, however, was not followed. It was not until the last months of the Reagan Administration that another First Lady stepped up to the plate, literally.
On October 15, 1988, Nancy Reagan threw out the first pitch for Game One of the World Series, between the Oakland Athletics and the Los Angeles Dodgers, at Dodgers Stadium. Here is a video of the moment, which the outgoing First Lady used to promote her “Just Say No” program:
Six and a half months later, Barbara Bush became the first First Lady to toss a ceremonial first pitch for aa Texas Rangers baseball game, on May 5, 1989.
She did so just a month after her son, the future president, became managing general partner of the Texas Rangers and did so as a way to help promote his endeavor. Mrs. Bush would prove to be a regular at opening games.
And she continued her love of baseball well past her White House years, often seen attending games of her local team, the Houston Astros.
Mrs. Bush would also become the only former First Lady to date to town out a first pitch, in this case at Game Four of the Yankees vs. Red Sox World Series, on October 17, 2004.
Her visibility at the nationally-televised event, many discerned, was a boost to the presidential re-election campaign of her son, incumbent president, George W. Bush.
On April 4, 1996 Hillary Clinton threw out the ceremonial first pitch of the baseball season at a Chicago Cubs game in Wrigley Field; born and raised in the city she was a lifelong fan of the team.
She spent the weekend before practicing her pitch to the President in the White House Rose Garden.
Hillary Clinton also proved herself formidable as a player, participating in a White House baseball game informally held for members of the staff, to help kick off the PBS documentary series on baseball.
When she began her unprecedented campaign for a U.S.Senate seat in her adopted state of New York, however, Mrs. Clinton had to split her loyalties with the Chicago Cubs, adopting the Yankees and happy to don one of the team baseball caps.
Not since Barbara Bush has there been as frequent a ballpark First Lady as Michelle Obama.
In July 2010, the First Lady tossed the first pitch of a Baltimore Orioles vs.Tampa Bay Rays game, practicing first at Camden Yards, the Orioles stadium..
Her appearance, as had been Nancy Reagan’s, was in conjunction with her primary special project, the “Let’s Move” effort to encourage exercise among children.
She was joined by members of Baltimore’s Boys and Girls Club of America and not only pitched – but caught a baseball.
That autumn, she was at another major league game, this time for Game One of the World Series, appearing with Second Lady Jill Biden to help promote their project, “Joining Forces.”