Politicians and Baseball: How a Dubious 150-Year-Old Tradition Was Born

As the new season begins, a look back at the man who first encouraged the cozy relationship between presidents and the national pastime

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Reuters


More than a few baseball fans scoff when Hillary Clinton pretends to be a Yankee fan. They suspect President Obama is pandering when he wears a Chicago White Sox jacket. And they don't cut George W. any slack because he once owned the Texas Rangers. These bleacher bums boo any politician who shows up at the ballpark, and generally mistrust the politics of baseball. For them, Opening Day is an appropriate time to hoist an overpriced stadium brew and curse the name of Art Gorman, a sociable slugging third baseman for the Washington Nationals who first encouraged the the close relationship between presidents and the national pastime nearly 150 years go. Baseball, as we all know, exudes honorable traditions, comforting rituals, and (per Doris, Ken, and George) eternal verities. But the pastime has also been known to indulge hype, humbug, and trickery. And the forgotten story of Arthur Pue Gorman combines them all.

In the spring of 1865, Gorman, 26 years old, was penciled in as the starting third baseman for the Washington National Baseball Club of Washington. The Nationals competed on a grassy expanse just south of the White House known as the President's Grounds (the area now known as The Ellipse). Off the diamond, Gorman was ambitious. As a boy he had worked as a page on Capitol Hill, ingratiating himself with Illinois Congressman Stephen Douglas, the windy pro-slavery statesman from Illinois, and Andrew Johnson, the politically ambidextrous Senator from Tennessee who had been elected Vice President under President Abraham Lincoln the previous fall.

Gorman politicized the game for the best of reasons: to escape the doldrums of civil war. During the war years, the National nine flourished with a solid corps of excellent players who had somehow dodged the conscription of not one, but two, armies. The club's president was Edmund French, who "managed the second base beautifully," according to one reporter, but couldn't hit a lick. Gorman, the vice president and public spokesman, was a slugger who tended the hot corner with aplomb and substituted spectacularly in center field. Ace pitcher H.P. Williams, who threw an intimidating curveball (known as a "twister"), served as the club's secretary. Since the Nationals had less than two hundred dollars in the bank, Williams's check-signing duties did not unduly tax his pitching arm. And the fans stayed away in droves. Gorman wanted, in the lingo of the day, "to keep up the shake," i.e. stimulate public interest to draw more paying customers.

As always, Opening Day 1865 came with the feelings of hope and renewal. The merciful end of the Civil War had been followed by the tragic assassination of President Lincoln. Suddenly Gorman's friend Andrew Johnson was president of the United States. To attract bigger crowds, the Nationals built amphitheater-style seating around the diamond on President's Ground, including a viewing stand where women would feel welcome. Gorman and Co. laid down chalk baselines for the first time and persuaded Eb Smith, a slick-fielding shortstop from the Enterprise Club in Brooklyn, to join their team. And at a time when most clubs were charging ten cents for admission to the sidelines, the Nationals started charging a dollar. In his own way, Art Gorman helped write the modern owner's playbook: build a new stadium, sign free agents, expand the fan base, and jack up ticket prices.

The Nationals called themselves "the champions of the South," an appropriately modest moniker because most fans knew the best teams in the nation hailed from the North. The two national powerhouses of the game were the Athletic Base Ball Club of Philadelphia and the Atlantic Club from Brooklyn, New York. With the Athletics scheduled for a two-game series with the Nationals starting on August 28, 1865, Gorman made his front-office move. He put aside his bat and traveled north to Brooklyn for a friendly meeting with the Atlantics. He offered to pay all their travel expenses if they would come to Washington while the Athletics were in town. The Atlantics accepted. Gorman wanted to create a tournament of the nation's top teams so as to determine a national champion.

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Jefferson Morley is a former editor at The Washington Post and the author of Our Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA. He writes about JFK's assassination at JFKfacts.org.

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