They boo presidents, don’t they?

2019-10-27 NationalsPark
The boo birds arose when the president was shown at World Series Game Five Sunday night.

This may disappoint those among his loyal fans who like to think everything he does is without precedent, but Donald Trump isn’t even close to being the first sitting president who was ever booed at a baseball game. That news might bother President Tweety, too, since he likes to think he does things that nobody else has done or would do.

It might surprise no few of Trump’s sycophancy to know that even Democrats were troubled when the president’s mug from a Nationals Park luxury box hit the large video screen on the scoreboard before World Series Game Five and the boo birds chirped and sang “Lock him up!” through the booing.

Frankly think the office of the president deserves respect,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware), “even when the actions of our president at times don’t.”

Trump, of course, played some high school baseball and was actually scouted by the Phillies at the time, choosing instead to follow his father into the real estate game. From his presidential inauguration until Game Five, however, President Tweety hadn’t gone to a single live Washington sporting event. Not even when the Nationals reached the postseason in 2017.

In the seventh inning during the Astros’ 7-1 Game Five win, the Nats Park crowd began chanting “Lock him up! Lock him up!” again. But the target that time wasn’t Trump, it was home plate umpire Lance Barksdale, whose evening full of dubious pitch calls—especially the ball four he called strike three with Nats center fielder Victor Robles at the plate that inning—had both Nats and Astros fans outraged.

The problem with Coons’s distinction between the man and the office is that it works far more intellectually than viscerally. Human nature is what human nature is. Ordinary American citizens write screeds against presidents they despise without being accused of despising the office except by those who adore the targets of their wrath. The law is mostly wonderful that way.

And ballpark crowds have booed individual presidents in the past without once believing they’re booing the presidency, even if they don’t always throw in chants to lock them up. Always have, as the Washington Post‘s “D.C. Sports Bog” writer Matt Bonesteel reminds us. And one or two of them were former baseball people themselves.

Herbert Hoover, for example. He played ball at Stanford University, and also served as its team’s student manager. He played shortstop until a dislocated finger compelled him to stop, but it isn’t known whether he played the position like the signature product of the non-related manufacturing family that bore his surname.

Bonesteel reminds us Hoover’s favourite newspaper reading was the sports section. He made a point of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at every Washington Senators home Opening Day during his single-term presidency. He also went to World Series games in three years, all to watch the Philadelphia Athletics.

And when he went to his final such game in Shibe Park in 1931, the Philadelphia boo birds chirped. Loud. Not because the A’s were doing horribly (they lost two of the three games in Shibe, and would lose the Series in seven to the Cardinals) but because the country was. The Great Depression took hold in earnest, and Prohibition-weary Philadelphians needed a drink pretty much as badly as the rest of the country did.

Hoover was a lukewarm Prohibitionist at best but he often urged the country to dry up about the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act. Upon his World Series presence the Shibe Park audience chanted “We want beer!” when not booing. “Perhaps,” wrote the (shall we say) acidic columnist Westbrook Pegler, referencing bootlegging, “Philadelphia is tired of whiskey and gin.”

About two decades later, the country wasn’t entirely tired of Douglas MacArthur even if Harry Truman was. Truman had canned MacArthur as commander of U.N. Forces Korea, and the day before Opening Day 1951 in Washington’s Griffith Stadium MacArthur delivered his fabled “Old Soldiers Never Die” valedictory to a joint session of Congress.

When Truman attended that Opening Day and threw out a ceremonial first pitch, the crowd gave Harry a little hell. He got booed even more lustily as the eighth inning approached and the public address announcer asked the crowd to stay seated until the president and his entourage left the park.

Trump isn’t even the first president under the threat of impeachment to get booed at a baseball game. Sen. Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio) called for immediate impeachment hearings when Truman pinked MacArthur, and Truman’s approval ratings sank lower than the worst of Richard Nixon’s during the worst of the Watergate scandal. There goes another precedent, Mr. President.

The first President Bush-, a former Yale first baseman, took it on the chin from the boo birds at the 1992 All-Star Game in San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium—Hall of Famer Willie Mays served as an honourary National League captain—perhaps as lingering fury over his broken tax hike promise.

The president didn’t throw out the ceremoninal first pitch that day; San Diego’s native-son Hall of Famer Ted Williams did, after a handshake and pat on the back from the chief executive. But when Bush was introduced formally before the game, the booing cascaded downward.

The second President Bush, formerly the co-owner of the former Senators long entrenched in Texas as the Rangers, got a lusty round of applause when major league baseball returned to Washington in 2005 and he threw out the ceremonial first pitch not long after he was renewed for a White House lease.

He used the ball former Senators pitcher Joe Grzenda didn’t get to pitch to Horace Clarke to try finishing a Senators win in their last-ever home game—because heartsick fans stormed the field, rioted, and compelled a forfeit to the Yankees. And he fired a near-perfect strike to further lusty applause.

But at the Nats’ home opener for 2008, Bush—again wearing a Nationals team jacket as he had in 2005—walked out of the dugout to throw out another ceremonial first pitch. This time, the boo birds out-hollered the cheers rather convincingly for a few moments. The country’s war weariness and economic jitters probably had more than something to do with it.

The boos faded back enough by the time Bush reached the mound to fire one high and to the left of then-Nats manager Manny Acta. A lefthanded hitter would have stood at ball one; a righthanded hitter would have been clutching his head after hitting the batter’s box with a thump.

Barack Obama got his when the boo birds in St. Louis competed with the cheers, as he strode to the Busch Stadium mound—in a White Sox jacket—to throw out a ceremonial first pitch before the 2009 All-Star Game. Obama threw an eephus pitch that might have been clobbered for a home run by a hitter smart enough to wait it out and take a couple of steps forward in the box.

Strangely enough, I could find no record of such presidents as Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton being booed (or, in Nixon’s and Clinton’s cases, hit with “lock him up” chants or similar hollers) when they threw out ceremonial first pitches. Hard to believe considering Vietnam, Watergate, and Whitewatermonicagate.

But when Hillary Clinton was First Lady and threw one at Wrigley Field’s Opening Day 1994, she got some boos mixed in with the cheers, doubtless residue from the HillaryCare debacle. And she threw the ball the old fashioned way—from a box seat, not from the mound. She would never have cut the mustard in Mary Tyler Moore’s parlour.

So President Tweety, his minions, and his fanbois and girls can relax. He’s not the first president controversial enough to get a phlegm-and-bile bath at the old ball game. And, whether he is re-elected, or someone from among the Democratic Party’s current gaggle of geese is plain elected next year, he’s not likely to be the last, either.

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