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President William Howard Taft threw out the first ceremonial pitch on baseball's Opening Day, April 14, 1910. Taft would also throw the first pitch the following year, but missed 1912 due to the sinking of the Titanic five days prior.

Photograph by Bettmann, Getty

How the first pitch became baseball's Opening Day tradition

It’s an honor nearly as old as the major league itself—but in 1910, President William Howard Taft transformed the first pitch into the popular ceremony it is today.

On April 14, 1910, President William Howard Taft was among the thousands of baseball fans who had thronged to the ballpark in Washington, D.C., to watch the Washington Nationals play the Philadelphia Athletics in their first game of the season.

But Taft wasn’t just there to watch the game. He made history that day by becoming the first sitting U.S. president to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day—a tradition that has been carried on by every U.S. president except Jimmy Carter and Donald Trump.

Baseball returns today after a nearly four-month delay due to the coronavirus pandemic and, in a sign of the times, Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, will be throwing out the first pitch in the Washington Nationals’ season opener against the New York Yankees.

Though the ceremonial first pitch is usually associated with U.S. presidents, Fauci joins a line of politicians, celebrities, and other notable people who have thrown out first pitches at baseball games almost since it became a professional sport. In fact, one of the earliest recorded instances was in 1892, when William McKinley—then governor of Ohio and a future U.S. president—threw a pitch at a minor league baseball season opener. (Study suggests sleep preferences can predict baseball success.)

But credit for transforming the first pitch into a true baseball tradition generally goes to Taft on that sunny spring day in 1910 when he attended the season opener with his wife, Helen, and Vice President James Sherman.

Nationals manager Jimmy McAleer came up with the idea for Taft to start the game that day, according to a biography of pitcher Walter Johnson. Taft agreed—but threw in a twist of his own. “As the bell rang to start the game, the President rose in the grandstand and prepared to throw,” Johnson said. “Gabby Street was standing at home plate, waiting for the throw, but suddenly the President shifted his position and aimed at me—and his aim was very good.”

The next day, sportswriters described the events of the game breathlessly. “There have been many openings of baseball seasons in Washington, but none such as yesterday, when the Nationals scored a 3 to 0 victory over the Athletics,” J. Ed Grillo wrote in the Washington Post. “Every available foot of space was crowded with humanity. The stands were filled to suffocation.” The Evening Star noted that “the president was one of the best fans of them all, for he stayed to the very end of the contest, until the last Philadelphian was out, and the victory was stowed away safely in the McAleer bat bag.” (See pictures of baseball from around the world.)

Taft returned to the ballpark the following year, making the presidential Opening Day pitch a tradition that would endure until the modern era—with most presidents doing so at least once in their tenure. But the tradition has changed a bit through the years. Richard Nixon became the first president to throw out the Opening Day pitch outside of Washington, D.C., in 1973, when the city temporarily lost its baseball team. In 1988, Ronald Reagan became the first president to throw an Opening Day pitch from the mound rather than the grandstands.

Only two sitting presidents have skipped Opening Day, Carter and Trump. Carter did throw out the first pitch in the last game of the 1979 World Series, though, and has since thrown out an Opening Day pitch as well. Trump threw out a pitch at a Red Sox game in 2006, but has not done so since becoming president.