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



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.

Gorman, a flamboyant host who paid the visitors' substantial bar bill at the Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, succeeded in drawing the biggest crowd ever seen at Washington ballgame. With thousands—not hundreds—of people in attendance, one wide-eyed scribe reported the stands were "filled with the belles of the Capital and the beauty and fashion of the city." The visiting nine ungraciously pounded their nervous hosts 87 to 12. Meanwhile, the Atlantics were crushing the Empire Club, also from New York, 55 to 3. But when it came time for the Atlantics to play the Athletics, the Philadelphia team balked. They would not make any money off of game at the President's Ground—the Nationals would keep the gate receipts—and they already had a game scheduled in Baltimore. Gorman stayed up all night trying to cut a deal to satisfy both teams but he failed. The Athletics left town. Gorman's prescient dream of a playoff system was thwarted by a problem that still plagues the game: revenue-sharing.

The consolation prize—and it was a modest one for the players—was a visit to see Gorman's friend, the President of the United States. On August 30, 1865, Gorman escorted the Atlantics to the presidential mansion where they met Andrew Johnson. It was the first time a U.S. president had ever associated himself with the game some called the national pastime, and it was predictably awkward. The president, of course, was harassed by visitors, and pleaded the usual "urgent business" as the reason he had skipped their game. He promised to attend a contest soon.

Johnson made good on his promise on Opening Day 1867, perhaps because he was in trouble with the Republican majority in Congress for abandoning President Lincoln's policy of reconstructing the South. Gorman ushered Johnson and his entourage to cushioned chairs parked along the first base line of the National's new home field on Capitol Hill to watch the Nationals play the Athletics. The visitors again pounded the home team but Johnson got a political boost. When the newspapers reported his attendance, at least twenty baseball clubs around the country wrote to offer him honorary memberships. Johnson, facing impeachment proceedings, needed all the public support he could get. Associating himself with the popular pastime helped but not enough to save him from being turned out of office in 1868.

Gorman benefited more. The Nationals attracted more fans, netted a bigger gate, and generated free publicity for the Nat's upcoming Western road trip, where they went 9-1. When the season was over, Gorman was elected president of the National Base Ball Player Association. The group promptly banned African-Americans from membership. The national pastime would remain bifurcated by skin color for the next 80 years.

The presidential blessing of baseball continued in 1869 when Johnson's successor, Ulysses Grant, invited the Cincinnati Red Stockings to the White House. In 1883, President Chester Arthur did the same for Forest City Club of Cleveland, taking the occasion to offer the historically dubious claim that "good ballplayers make good citizens." Arthur's successor Grover Cleveland personally liked baseball players but worried voters would think his attendance at a game was a waste of time. William McKinley was invited to throw out the first pitch but didn't show. McKinley was the last president to resist the siren call of baseball. As cameras improved, every chief executive in the 20th and 21st century found baseball an irresistible venue for flattering photo ops. The rest is public relations history.

As for Art Gorman, he parlayed his political baseball connections into a long career in Maryland politics, getting himself elected to the U.S. Senate on three different occasions. A conservative Democrat, he favored protectionist tariffs for his big business allies. When the never-quite successful National baseball club of Washington rebranded themselves as the Senators in the 1890s, Gorman got the credit. He was dubbed "the original Washington Senator," thus giving birth to the modern franchise that went on to become one of the losingest clubs of the 20th century.

Gorman died in 1906 and was mercifully forgotten. But if you see a 21st century presidential contender wearing a Major League Baseball cap, he's the guy to blame.