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Obama throws first pitch at Washington Nationals' game, keeping a 100-year-old tradition [Updated]

President William Howard Taft throws out the first ball on Opening Day to start the season for the Washington Senators in 1912 by AP
Back in the day, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House, Lyndon Johnson was Senate majority leader and Sam Rayburn was speaker of the House, Americans still held their public officials in esteem. So it was a running national joke, and had been for a long time, when people said of Washington's baseball team, the Senators, that they were "First in war, first in peace and last in the American League."

(UPDATE: Video of President Obama's pitch, high and to the outside for a right-handed batter and equally high and behind the head of a left-handed batter, has been added below.)

Now, the city's team, known as the Nationals, plays in the National League. But like its predecessor teams (the Senators, who became the Twins, and the new Senators, who became the Rangers)  the team draws a lot of Washington insiders to its games. And like its predecessor teams, the current crew of Nationals -- except for a brief and delicious half-season run under Frank Robinson -- has been in baseball's cellar ever since it became a new team in 2005.

Plenty of presidents have thrown out the ceremonial first pitch before a Washington team's game. In fact,  the very first president who ever hurled the starting pitch on opening day was....

...William Howard Taft -- and he did it in 1910 before a Washington Senators game. In the photo above, he seems to have quite an arm.

[Corrected at 10:16 a.m.: An earlier version of this post said Taft threw the opening day pitch in 1912. Also, the post incorrectly described the history of the Senators.]

Ever since, presidents have tried to link their own political destiny to the fan base of what was....

...once America's pastime. But Monday marks the first time that President Obama, in his second baseball season as president, throws out the first ball on opening day at Nationals Park.

Maybe he's been busy. Maybe he, like much of the country, has moved on to basketball and football. Or maybe, as he said last week, he likes to hang out with winners. You remember, the post-healthcare victory edict: "Nothing succeeds like success in this town."

But whatever the reason, he's finally making the trek, and the players seem thrilled, especially those to whom Obama is like the Jackie Robinson of politics. "Being an African American person, I'm excited just to meet him," said center fielder Nyjer Morgan. "He basically broke down the barrier."

Who knows. Maybe success is contagious. Maybe this endearing team of young hopefuls will surprise the pundits.

I could write more about the history of presidents and baseball -- the number of times they've gotten their throws over the plate, the corollary between a presidential opening-day first pitch hitting its mark and the odds of the home team winning the game -- but I'm off to the game.

After all, as presidents have long understood, spring is about hope, renewal and baseball.

Some opening day facts from the Washington Nationals

•    U.S. President William Howard Taft (the 27th President of the United States) first threw an Opening Day first pitch on April 14, 1910.  That day the Washington Senators defeated the Philadelphia Athletics 3-0 behind a one-hit, complete game shutout by Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson.

•    Obama will be the 13th President to throw a ceremonial first pitch at the home opener of the Washington Senators or Nationals. 

•    This game will be the second time President Obama has thrown a ceremonial first pitch while in the White House.  Obama threw the first pitch of the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis on July 14th.

•    The event will mark the 48th time a President has thrown an Opening Day first pitch in Washington D.C. and the 64th time it has occurred in any city on Opening Day.

•    The Senators and Nationals hold a record of 25-23 during Opening Day games when the President has thrown the first pitch.

•    Six Presidents have thrown out an Opening Day First Pitch outside of Washington D.C.: Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush threw out ceremonial first pitches on Opening Day a total of 15 times in nine cities between 1973 and 2006. 

•    The only recent President who never threw out a ceremonial first pitch at an Opening Day game was Jimmy Carter.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: President Taft throws out the first presidential ceremonial first pitch at the Washington Senators' opening day in 1910. Credit: Associated Press

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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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