Attending a baseball game in 1910, President William Howard Taft threw a ceremonial pitch from the stands, kicking off the Washington Senators’ season. Since then, every sitting commander in chief, aside from Jimmy Carter and Donald Trump, has shown off his arm at the ballpark (FDR set the record at 11 times).
The American presidency has been tied to a public appreciation of sports since at least 1865, when baseball’s Washington Nationals and Brooklyn Atlantics visited President Andrew Johnson in the White House. That can be in the form of campaign-time proclamations about which team a candidate was rooting for, making a show of seeing games live, or the hosting of championship teams at the White House, which became routine under President Ronald Reagan.
But after 2016, when then-candidate Donald Trump launched abrasive criticism of NFL players who knelt in protest during pre-game renditions of the national anthem, what once felt like a space for fans of all political stripes to set aside their differences became yet another venue for conflict.
Of course, it didn’t start with President Trump. Golfer Tom Lehman refused to meet President Bill Clinton, reportedly calling him a “draft-dodging baby killer”; Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas declined to go to the Obama White House because of his anti-government sentiment; and even Herbert Hoover, when he threw out the first pitch on Opening Day in 1931 was jeered by fans opposed to Prohibition, who chanted “We want beer!”
But as with any other aspect of partisan bitterness, Trump deliberately made it worse. As a result, the president was booed at several sporting events, and championship-winning teams and some of the country’s biggest athletes began boycotting White House events. Some explicitly said they didn’t feel welcome because of Trump himself.
Since Trump left office — and as the pandemic has abated — some sense of normalcy has returned, and the NBA championship winning Milwaukee Bucks visited President Biden at the White House. But Biden hasn’t attended a live sporting event, much less thrown out a ceremonial first pitch.
Of course, if presidential involvement in sports isn’t the unifier that it once was, should we even bother with it anymore? LZ and Will discuss.