From Taft to Trump: Scouting presidential first pitches

On April 4, 1989, Opening Day at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Orioles catcher Mickey Tettleton was approached by a member of the Secret Service.

"I'll never forget it," Tettleton says. "He whispered, 'The president wants to warm up with you.' Me, play catch with the president of the United States? How cool is that? So George Bush and I went down to the clubhouse so that he could loosen up. He had this old glove, and you could tell he was a ballplayer in his day."

George H.W. Bush was about to do what no other president had ever done before. The 41st was the first POTUS to take the hill and throw an actual pitch. With the exception of Ronald Reagan, who soft-tossed the ball from the mound at Wrigley Field in 1988, every president since the 27th, William Howard Taft, had thrown from either a box seat or the fringes of the diamond.

As a crowd of 50,000 that included Ted Williams, Joan Jett and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak looked on, the 64-year-old Bush strode confidently to the mound bearing the old George McQuinn Rawlings first baseman's mitt he wore when he played for Yale. The left-hander toed the rubber, and, without hesitation and with his red tie flapping in the breeze, he threw the ball to Tettleton, who was standing a little in front of the plate. The pitch came in high and inside to a left-hander, but afterward, Bush jokingly said, "He caught it before it started breaking."

Said Tettleton, a two-time All-Star and now an avid golfer and sports father: "I guess you could say it was the nonplaying highlight of my career. I caught the president!"

Had Donald Trump decided to throw out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals' opener against the Miami Marlins on Monday, he would have been following in a long line of right-wingers, left-wingers and even a couple of switch-wingers.

Trump's staff inquired about the possibility, but it was only last week that he thought better of it. His approval rating might have had something to do with it, but to be fair, not every newly elected president has availed himself of the first opportunity to open a season.

But all since William Howard Taft have honored the national pastime by throwing out a first ball. They have done it through war, peace and the 33-year absence of a major league franchise in the District of Columbia. It is a tradition that has made America laugh, moved us past tragedy and, on one occasion, reminded us of our strength.

Who liked to throw out the first ball and who didn't? What kind of command did the commanders in chief actually have? Here are brief scouting reports on the presidents, devoid of political judgment and including the arm they threw from, their age when they made their first pitch and the number of first pitches they threw.

William Howard Taft

Right-handed | Age: 52 | First pitches: two

A huge (300-plus pounds) fan, Taft threw out the first first ball on April 14, 1910, from a box seat before the then-Washington Nationals played the Philadelphia Athletics. The ball was thrown on a bounce to Walter Johnson, who got him to sign it, then pitched a 3-0 one-hitter.

The man who arranged for the ceremony was Taft's military aide, Major Archie Butt. Taft also threw out a ball on Opening Day of 1911, but he missed the occasion in 1912 because the Titanic had just sunk, and Butt was one of the passengers.

Woodrow Wilson

Right-handed | Age: 56 | First pitches: four

A baseball aficionado, he continued the tradition by throwing out three Opening Day pitches. He also became the first president to attend a World Series game, when he saw the Boston Red Sox beat the Philadelphia Phillies 2-1 in Game 2 at Baker Bowl. (Unfortunately, he didn't get to see the Red Sox's 20-year-old southpaw, Babe Ruth.)

The demands of the job took such a toll on Wilson's health that Washington manager Clark Griffith noted his throws got weaker and weaker.

Warren Harding

Right-handed | Age: 55 | First pitches: four

The one-time owner of a minor league team in Marion, Ohio, had the distinction of throwing Opening Day pitches with only one day's rest -- he did the honors at both Yankee Stadium and Griffith Stadium in 1923. He also once held Walter Johnson's son on his lap during a Senators game.

Calvin Coolidge

Right-handed | Age: 51 | First pitches: six

The taciturn Vermonter didn't much like baseball, but he knew a photo op when he saw it. He threw out six first balls, four on Opening Day and one each at the 1924 and 1925 World Series. For some unfathomable reason, he wore an Indian headdress at one game.

Herbert Hoover

Right-handed | Age: 54 | First pitches: six

The former student manager of the Stanford baseball team, Hoover liked the game so much that he threw out six first balls while depressed fans that were disgruntled over Prohibition booed him. You try pitching while people are yelling at you, "We want beer."

Franklin Roosevelt

Right-handed | Age: 51 | First pitches: 11

Though weakened by polio, our longest-serving president (1933-45) threw out a record 11 first balls. One of his most memorable was the ceremonial pitch before Game 3 of the 1932 World Series, when Babe Ruth hit his "called shot." Another memorable one was an Opening Day first pitch at Griffith Stadium in 1940. A Washington Post photographer named Irving Schlossenberger shouted, "One more, Mr. President, one more," and FDR obliged, breaking the lens on the photographer's camera with an errant throw.

Not only did Roosevelt cement the tradition, but he also saved baseball by insisting to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis that the major leagues continue play during World War II. He even suggested to Landis that they play more night games to keep the day-shift workers entertained.

Harry Truman

Right-handed and left-handed | Age: 61 | First pitches: eight

On Sept. 8, 1945, six days after Japan surrendered to end World War II, Truman became the first left-hander and oldest president to throw out a first pitch at a game between the St. Louis Browns and the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium.

He was ambidextrous and kept the fans guessing as to which arm he would use. On Opening Day in 1950, he threw out two first balls, one with each hand.

Dwight Eisenhower

Right-handed | Age: 62 | First pitches: seven

Presidents throwing out the first pitch on Opening Day had become such a tradition that the general took some heat when he decided to play golf at Augusta National on the day of the Senators' season opener. Fortunately for him, the game was rained out, and he threw out the first ball in the makeup game, passing Truman as the oldest to do so.

An outfielder at West Point, Eisenhower could also throw a changeup. On Opening Day in 1956, he motioned for the awaiting players to move back, then softly lobbed it to Yankee Gil McDougald.

John F. Kennedy

Right-handed | Age: 43 | First pitches: three

Our youngest president was clearly an excellent athlete. That's evident with one look at the first ball he threw out at Opening Day for the new Washington Senators in 1961.

As White Sox manager Al Lopez later commented: "The president is better than sneaky fast. He can really fire that thing." The player who came up with the ball was Chicago outfielder "Jungle" Jim Rivera, a free spirit who didn't like the way JFK signed the ball. "You'll have to do better than that," Rivera told Kennedy.

Lyndon Johnson

Right-handed | Age: 57 | First pitches: three

The assassination of JFK was still fresh when Johnson threw out the first pitch to open the 1964 season in Washington. He would do that only twice more, but he did set a record: most hot dogs eaten by a president on an Opening Day (four).

Richard Nixon

Right-handed | Age: 56 | First pitches: three

For someone who was once a candidate for baseball commissioner and who worshipped the game, Nixon could not throw very well. Nor did he fare well on Opening Day. At his first in 1969, the seal in front of his box read "THE PRESIDNT OF THE UNITED STATES," leading one writer to comment, "Someone should've gotten an E for that one."

He was also the first president since William McKinley to wake up on Opening Day without a major league team in his city: The Senators had become the Texas Rangers for the 1972 season.

The next year, Nixon did throw out a first pitch at Anaheim Stadium, where he had an interesting chat with his catcher, Jeff Torborg of the Los Angeles Angels.

As Torborg recounted in a 1993 Sports Illustrated article, "We're making small talk, and I said, 'I guess your job is like an umpire's -- you can't please everybody.' And he said, 'I didn't think ballplayers thought about anything but their batting averages.' So I said, 'Well, come to think of it, I wasn't too pleased when you canned the Peace Corps.' The conversation didn't go much after that."

Gerald Ford

Right-handed and left-handed | Age: 62 | First pitches: two

When Nixon resigned in 1974, Vice President Ford took his place. A center on two undefeated Michigan football teams, he could legitimately lay claim to being the best athlete ever to occupy the Oval Office.

He showed his athleticism at the 1976 All-Star Game in Philadelphia. Standing in a box next to Hank Aaron, he threw right-handed to Reds catcher Johnny Bench and left-handed to Yankees catcher Thurman Munson.

Unfortunately for the Republican Party, the Democrats were holding their convention at the same time. Had more people seen Ford's feat, the 1976 election might have turned out differently.

Jimmy Carter

Right-handed | Age: 55 | First pitches: one

An avid softball pitcher, Carter didn't seem to have much time for baseball. In fact, he's the only POTUS not to throw out the first pitch on an Opening Day.

But he did the honors before the seventh game of the 1979 World Series between the Pirates and Orioles in Baltimore. O's catcher Rick Dempsey echoed the thoughts of many baseball fans when he jocularly shouted at Carter: "Next time, get your a-- here before the seventh game." Carter saw Pittsburgh win 4-2, thanks in large part to Willie Stargell's two-run homer off Scott McGregor in the sixth inning.

Ronald Reagan

Right-handed | Age: 73 | First pitches: three

Reagan didn't throw out a first pitch until four years into his presidency, but that was perfectly understandable since he was wounded in an assassination attempt early in his first term.

Before he became a politician, Reagan was a Des Moines sportscaster who recreated Cubs games via telegraph reports, and he was a movie and television actor. In "The Winning Team," a 1952 film about Grover Cleveland Alexander, Reagan played the great pitcher himself, while Doris Day played his wife. The problem with the film was not that Reagan went through the motions -- it was that his motions hardly resembled Alexander's. A pitcher he was not.

But he gave it a go at a surprise appearance for the 1984 Opening Day in Baltimore, and again at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium in 1986. As his second term was winding down in 1988, he showed up at Wrigley Field to revisit his old team and sit in with Harry Caray. Before the game, he went to the mound and threw two balls to Cubs catcher Damon Berryhill. Pitches they were not.

George H.W. Bush

Left-handed | Age: 64 | First pitches: four

He knew baseball, and he was acquainted with greatness. As captain of the 1948 Yale baseball team, Bush had the honor of escorting Babe Ruth, who was on campus to present a manuscript of his memoirs to the library.

Curt Smith, who worked for Bush as a speechwriter and is now writing a book about presidents and the national pastime, said: "I may be prejudiced because he's my old boss, but I think he was the best player, hands down, among all the men who have occupied the White House. He was kind of the Iron Horse of Yale, a man of humility who never missed a game."

Bush 41 threw out three more Opening Day first pitches -- in Toronto (1990), Arlington, Texas, (1991) and Baltimore (1992). "As natural as he was," Smith said, "he would invariably bounce the ball in the dirt. We would kid him about it, and he would say, 'That's what happens when you throw wearing a steel vest.'"

Bill Clinton

Left-handed | Age: 46 | First pitches: five

Clinton also got around, throwing out the first pitch in Camden Yards in 1993 and 1996, Jacobs Field in 1994, Shea Stadium in 1997 and Pacific Bell Park (now AT&T Park) in 2000.

Perhaps his most memorable was for the opening of Jacobs Field in Cleveland on April 4, 1994. Wearing an Indians cap and warm-up jacket, he had to go mano a mano with two other dignitaries: Ohio Gov. George Voinovich and Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller. Clinton's pitch to Sandy Alomar didn't have much velocity, but it was a perfect strike. The governor's throw was off the plate. Feller, too, threw a ball, wide to the left.

So on this one day, Clinton bested the only pitcher ever to throw a no-hitter on Opening Day. Then again, Feller was 76 at the time.

George W. Bush

Right-handed | Age: 55 | First pitches: six

He certainly had the bloodlines. He also had the added advantage of proximity to major leaguers, thanks to his role as managing general partner of the Texas Rangers.

He had bounced his first first pitch on Opening Day at Miller Park in Milwaukee in 2001. Now it was Oct. 30, Game 3 of the World Series in Yankee Stadium, six weeks after 9/11. While his father warmed up with Mickey Tettleton in the bowels of Memorial Stadium, W had to prepare by throwing with press secretary Ari Fleischer on the South Lawn. Then again, nothing could prepare Bush for the moment. "It was by far the most nervous moment of my presidency," he said years later.

Wearing an FDNY jacket, he waved to the crowd as he strode to the mound. Once there, he gave a thumbs up, quickly went into his delivery and threw a perfect strike, with pace, to Yankees catcher Todd Greene.

"I wasn't supposed to be the catcher," Greene said. "It was Jorge Posada, but Roger Clemens took too long warming up in the bullpen, so they told me to grab my glove. I guess I have Rocket to thank. I caught the most important pitch a president has ever had to make."

As W walked off the mound, Greene and Bush exchanged compliments and public address announcer Bob Sheppard said in that godlike voice of his: "Thank you, Mr. President." And the crowd began to chant, "U-S-A, U-S-A."

Thank you, indeed.

"I still get tingly watching it," Greene said. "Any American old enough to understand the significance of that pitch has to feel the same way."

Barack Obama

Left-handed | Age: 47 | First pitches: two

Say this for him: He's loyal. When Obama jogged out to the mound at the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis, he wore his beloved White Sox warm-up jacket. And then, dragging his back foot, softly tossed a ball that Albert Pujols dug out of the dirt. When he opened the 2010 season at Nationals Park on the 100th anniversary of Taft's first pitch, he wore a Nationals sweatshirt but pulled out his old White Sox hat to the boos of the crowd. His pitch to Ryan Zimmerman was closer to the on-deck circle than it was to the plate.

But at least Obama admits he was bad. "The truth of the matter," he once said, "is that I did not play a lot of baseball when I was a kid."

And he does know one thing about the game. "There is something about baseball that is so fundamentally woven into our culture."

Part of that culture is the first pitch, thrown by 18 very different presidents since 1910.

Donald Trump

Right-handed | Age: 70 | First pitches: TBD

Once upon a time, The Donald was a first baseman at the New York Military Academy. His former coach, Col. Ted Dobias, was quoted as saying, "He was good-hit and good-field. We had scouts from the Phillies come to watch him, but he wanted to go to college and make real money."

That he did. Occasionally, though, Trump has shown off his athleticism to the public. At the Jim Kelly Stargaze Shootout in Buffalo in 1992, he threw a football through a target hole, much to the delight of the crowd and his then-girlfriend Marla Maples.

More recently, and more to the point, he threw out a ball between games of a doubleheader at Fenway Park on Aug. 18, 2006, to benefit the Jimmy Fund. Standing on the mound with two kids, wearing a Red Sox shirt over his suit and trademark red tie, Trump let loose with a grimace and a hint of the arm he once had.

Afterward, he visited with Red Sox announcers Jerry Remy and Don Orsillo in the booth as they replayed the pitch.

Trump: Fortunately, I threw it OK? I got very lucky. It's been a long time.

Orsillo: Nice form.

Remy: I mean, not many guys with a tie and a suit and a shirt on top of it can throw strikes.

Trump: It's pretty tough, you better believe it.

But that was close to 10 years ago, and Trump is a little thicker now.

He might do well to practice and keep this in mind: A first pitch is a little like an election. You just never know.