Leading Tuesday’s edition of the Politico Playbook was the juiciest of springtime rumors in the first year of a presidential term: “Playbook’s Palm Beach correspondent Luke Russert sends in this dispatch,” Politico reported. “President Donald Trump is in talks to throw out the first pitch at Nats Park on Opening Day. He also might spend an inning in the announcing booth with MASN.”
Turns out this won’t be coming to pass. The Nationals told reporters touring their stadium today that the president won’t be visiting next Monday “due to a scheduling conflict.” All the better: the Nationals were setting themselves up for a massively embarrassing opening day had Trump showed up.
Just 36 percent of people nationally approve of Trump’s job performance so far, and it’s a safe bet he’s even more disliked around the Nationals’ sphere of influence. Only 4 percent of DC residents voted for Trump last November, and not many more suburban voters supported him either. Still, he’s the president, and the Nationals felt obligated by tradition to invite him to throw out a ceremonial first pitch and spend a few minutes with the broadcasting team.
But just imagine the reaction if Trump did indeed take the mound next Monday afternoon. Even if baseball fans skew slightly more Republican than the electorate in general—according to a 2013 survey by National Journal—and there’s a hustle of “Make America Great Again” caps littered among the curly W hats, it’s hard to see a presidential visit in 2017 ending in anything less than a shower of jeers.
In Trump’s case, the boos would’ve been be well-earned. On top of his baseline unpopularity in the region, Trump’s also waging an ideological and budgetary war on the source of many Nationals ticket-holders. It’s difficult to see what benefit the team would have gained from lending its agency to a man who dreams of causing a regional recession that would drive down consumer spending. (And in case anyone thinks the Nationals are recession-proof, MLB’s overall attendance dropped about 5 percent during the Great Recession, according to sports economist Andrew Zimbalist.)
Still, the Bronx cheer the image-obsessed Trump just dodged comes with the office. Economic prognostications aside, booing the President at a baseball game is almost as old a tradition as presidents attending baseball games. Herbert Hoover attended both the 1930 and ’31 World Series, only to be hounded by Philadelphia Athletics fans weary of the Great Depression and Prohibition.
“[T]he president of the United States was accorded the bird, or razzberry,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported from the 1931 Series. And in his memoirs, Hoover remembered the anti-Prohibition chants better than the events on the field. “I left the ball park with the chant of the crowd ringing in my ears: ‘We want beer!,'” he wrote.
Harry Truman fared no better two decades later when he threw out the first pitch at the Washington Senators’ first game of the 1951 season. The crowd let him have it for dismissing General Douglas MacArthur as the commander of US forces in Korea. “Douglas MacArthur spoke before a joint session of Congress, in which he delivered his famous line, ‘Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,'” DC baseball historian Fred Frommer writes in
You Gotta Have Heart: A History of Washington Baseball. “Truman had fired the popular MacArthur as Far East commander earlier that month, and the president was met by a cascade of boos at the ballpark.”
The passing years did not make baseball fans any kinder toward presidents, although a few recent White House occupants seemed to be judged more for their pitching skills than their favorability. George H.W. Bush, a former team captain at Yale, was booed when he bounced a pitch in the dirt at Camden Yards in 1992. Bill Clinton didn’t do much better the following year when he chucked it high and wide. But politics has a way of sneaking back in: Clinton was booed again in 1996—even in deep-blue Baltimore and even though he landed in the strike zone.
Perhaps the only presidential first pitch to earn a universal ovation was the one George W. Bush threw out before Game 3 of the 2001 World Series. But MLB’s era of heavy-handed patriotism wasn’t enough to spare Bush fans’ wrath as the Iraq War slogged on. Vice President Dick Cheney really heard it when he threw out the first pitch at a Nationals game in 2006.
Bush got about as many boos as he did cheers when he threw out the first pitch at the inaugural game at Nationals Park in 2008. Barack Obama did better two years later, though some fans might’ve taken issue with the fact that he paired a Nationals warmup jacket with the cap of his beloved Chicago White Sox, to say nothing of the fact that his pitch was actually pretty terrible.
But Obama still carried an approval rating of about 50 percent in 2010—and probably higher in the DC area. Trump is so unpopular here, it’s tough to think of a scenario in which inviting him to the mound next week wouldn’t have ended in some kind of fiasco. If Trump had entered to boos, he’d likely complain about it to F.P. Santangelo and Bob Carpenter in the broadcast booth, to say nothing of what he’d tweet later that evening. Perhaps the following day’s episode of Fox & Friends would have portrayed Washingtonians as a bunch of swamp-dwellers who slag off from serving the people so they can insult the President. And what would the Nationals have gotten? A crowd of angry fans who spend the afternoon grumbling about how Trump ruined the game, or possibly a “Curse of Trump” added to the local lore if the season turns sour? Nobody wants that.
If the Nationals still need some Opening Day sparkle now that Trump’s bailed, maybe they should invite one of the former presidents instead. There’s a pretty popular one who lives about seven miles from the stadium.