On a hot sticky July day in Washington 81 years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made his way to the tiny ballpark two miles northeast of the White House, escaping a political storm of his own making.
On his heels over his unpopular plan to “pack” the U.S. Supreme Court with extra justices to overcome a court that had stymied some of his New Deal legislation, FDR found campaign-style adoration at the 1937 All-Star Game. Before the game, American League and National League stars lined a parade route on the field as the grinning president rode past, waving his hat to the fans from the back seat of a convertible. Later, he threw out the first pitch from his presidential box.
That afternoon marked the first time Washington hosted the All-Star Game, and it would do so again in 1956, 1962, and 1969, with presidents playing a central role in three of the four games. Next week, the Midsummer Classic returns to DC for the first time in nearly a half-century. The White House has not yet said whether President Trump will throw out the first pitch on July 17. If so, he’d be continuing a summer tradition started by FDR, who died a year before Trump was born in 1946.
Whether Trump shows up or not, next month’s All-Star Game will be the hottest ticket of the summer, just as it was eight decades ago. In 1937, the Washington Post society editor called the All-Star Game “the most thrilling event of the summer social season.” Celebrities filled Griffith Stadium, including Cabinet secretaries, military leaders, members of Congress, and the 42-year-old FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover. Fans without connections could buy $1.65 seats from scalpers for $20 ($345 in today’s dollars).
But FDR’s battle with Congress over his court-packing plan almost cost senators a chance to watch the game. While the House adjourned for the day so members could attend, Senate Majority Leader Joseph T. Robinson, D-Ark., announced that the Senate would meet to take up a compromise version of FDR’s court-packing proposal.
As Robinson saw it, there was no justification for suspending Senate action “in order that members may have an opportunity of attending a baseball game.” He wound up relenting, at least halfway – scheduling a morning session and adjourning at 1 p.m., giving senators time to make it up to the ballpark at Georgia Avenue NW for the afternoon game.
FDR, who had won a landslide re-election the previous November but was under attack for a court-packing plan unpopular with both parties, got a respite at the ballpark. The president, who suffered from polio, once told Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith, “If I didn’t have to hobble up those steps in front of all these people, I’d be out at the ballpark every day.”
When the Nationals host the All-Star Game, they will do so as legitimate World Series contenders. That was not the case for the Senators in 1937, when their best baseball was in the rearview mirror. The team had won its final pennant in FDR’s first year in office, 1933. At the All-Star Break in 1937, Washington was mired in sixth place in the eight-team American League, and they would draw just 398,000 fans that season – attendance tamped down by the Great Depression and bad baseball.
New Yorkers ran the show in Washington that summer. Because they had won the previous year’s pennants, New York Yankees manager Joe McCarthy and New York Giants manager Bill Terry were in charge of the All-Star teams. McCarthy didn’t mind playing favorites, starting five Yankees in the AL lineup, including a young Joe DiMaggio and an aging Lou Gehrig. As Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich described it: “A neat packing job by manager Joe McCarthy with President Franklin D. Roosevelt looking on – perhaps wistfully.”
The National League lineup, meanwhile, boasted an astonishing seven players who were hitting .349 or higher at the break – led by St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Ducky Medwick (.404), who wound up winning the last Triple Crown in NL history that season.
It was against this backdrop that the host team was relegated to an afterthought at its own ballpark. McCarthy kept all three Senators – second baseman Buddy Myer, and the pitcher-catcher brother duo of Wes and Rick Ferrell – on the bench the entire game, putting a bigger emphasis on winning the game than mollifying the local fans.
The pitching matchup that afternoon pitted colorful St. Louis Cardinals righthander Dizzy Dean for the NL against Lefty Gomez of the Yankees, who was making his fourth start in just the fifth All-Star Game in history. But Dean was almost a no-show, declaring initially he wasn’t going to play because he was “tired of having people tell me what to do.”
He wound up showing up at the last minute by plane (in an era when most travel was by railroad), and hundreds of fans greeted him. Dean told reporters:
“Shucks, you fellers ought to have known Ol’ Diz would never take a run-out like that. I just didn’t like the idea of that long train ride and I figured if I stalled around long enough the only way they could get me here would be by airplane. So I got my airplane ride and here I am.”
The two pitchers matched scoreless innings until the bottom of the third, when the American League took a 2-0 lead behind a single by DiMaggio and a home run by Gehrig, who waved his cap to FDR as he crossed the plate.
But the most significant play came when the next batter, Cleveland Indians outfielder Earl Averill, lined a ball up the middle, breaking Dean’s toe. Dean was just 27 but the injury essentially ended his run as an elite pitcher. Later that season, he tried to come back too soon, and wound up altering his mechanics and ruining his arm.
The American League never trailed after Gehrig’s homer, coasting to an 8-3 victory, its fourth in five years.
On the Curly W Live Podcast this week, Nationals Principal Owner Ted Lerner, 92, recalled attending the game as a 12-year-old boy.
“I was an usher at the game, and the injury to Dizzy Dean was probably the most important event of that day, since he was a sensational pitcher, and lost his effectiveness after that game,” Lerner said.
It would be nearly 20 years before Washington hosted the All-Star Game again, and the Senators saw barely more action than the first time. At the 1956 All-Star break the team was in seventh place, with the Yankees once again in first, and AL manager Casey Stengel limited Washington to just one at-bat in the Midsummer Classic – a popup by Roy Sievers in the ninth inning.
While local fans again didn’t have many local favorites to root for that afternoon, they were treated to a home run display by four future Hall-of-Famers. Willie Mays and Stan Musial homered for the NL, and Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle went deep for the AL (although Mantle struck out in his other three at-bats).
The real star of the game, however, was Cardinals third baseman Ken Boyer, who made several defensive gems for the NL, while picking up three hits, helping his league win in a rout, 7-3.
This time there was no presidential first pitch, as Dwight D. Eisenhower was recovering from surgery, although he did announce that day he was running for re-election. Povich, the Post columnist, panned the moved: “The first error of the 1956 All-Star festivities is committed by Mr. Eisenhower. On a day when the nation is baseball minded, Ike’s announcement that he will stand for reelection could wind up among the Sally League results” – a nickname for a low-level minor league.
The president watched the game with his doctors in Gettysburg, Pa., pulling for Washington’s league. White House press secretary James Hagerty told reporters, “He and I rooted for the wrong team.”
Five years later the Senators moved to Minnesota to become the Twins, and the American League immediately awarded an expansion team to DC, also called the Senators, to take their place. The new Senators hosted an All-Star Game in just their second season, 1962, in the new $24 million federally-funded DC Stadium.
At an All-Star luncheon the day before the game, Vice President Lyndon Johnson quipped, “I am among those who have prayed for the Washington baseball club – if the Supreme Court doesn’t mind.”
Like FDR a quarter-century earlier, President John F. Kennedy threw out the first pitch. He also greeted an old friend from the campaign trail: Stan Musial, the 41-year-old Cardinals outfielder playing in his 22nd All-Star Game. During the 1960 election, Musial had campaigned for JFK and served on a “National Sportsmen for Kennedy Committee” along with Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio and athletes from other sports.
Now, as the young president and old ballplayer shook hands, Kennedy told everyone what a great job Musial had done campaigning for him. Musial reminded Kennedy, who was just 3 1/2 years his senior, of their conversation when they first met during the campaign. JFK had said: “They tell me you’re too old to play ball and I’m too young to run for president. I have a hunch we’ll fool ’em.” At the ballpark that afternoon, the young president mused, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the old man got a hit?”
Kennedy got his wish. Entering the game as a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning, Musial singled, and was replaced by pinch-runner Maury Wills, who stole second and went on to score the first run of game. Then in the eighth inning, with the National League leading 2-1, Wills used his aggressiveness to manufacture an insurance run.
Sitting in the president’s box that afternoon was American League President Joe Cronin, who had led Washington to its final pennant as a 26-year-old player-manager in 1933. Now he summoned New York Mets manager Casey Stengel, who was coaching first base for the NL, to meet Kennedy. But the normally loquacious Stengel only had time for a quick hello.
“Hi Mr. President. It’s nice to meet you. I’d stay a little longer only I’m not working for myself today,” Stengel said, as JFK laughed.
The NL held on for a 3-1 victory, and Wills, a DC native who went on to set the single-season stolen base record that season (since broken), won the game’s MVP award. The new Senators were so bad – they would finish 10th in the 10-team American League – that none saw any action in the game. (That year was the final season of MLB’s short-lived run of playing two All-Star Games, and Washington Senators pitcher Dave Stenhouse started the second one, held at Wrigley Field, a few weeks later.)
The All-Star Game returned to Washington just seven years later, in 1969, as MLB commemorated the centennial of pro baseball. The ballpark had recently been renamed Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, following RFK’s assassination on the presidential campaign trail the previous year.
It was a time of big change for the national pastime, which had suffered from lagging fan interest and anemic offense in recent years, epitomized by the “Year of the Pitcher” in 1968, when the leagues’ players hit a combined .237.
To inject more offense into the sport, MLB lowered the pitching mound. Each league added two teams (including the Montreal Expos, who would later become the Nationals) and split into two divisions. And new baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, a Washington native who had earned a $1 a day working the scoreboard at old Griffith Stadium as a teenager, showed a flair for marketing by creating a couple of days of activities to celebrate the centennial in DC.
On the Monday night of All-Star week, MLB hosted an Oscars-style dinner, with 2,200 people in attendance, to honor the All-Time All-Star Team. Babe Ruth was named the best player ever, and former Washington Senator Walter Johnson was named greatest right-handed pitcher. Ted Williams, the Senators rookie manager, lost out to Joe DiMaggio as the best living player and blew off the dinner. His wife accepted his award as greatest living leftfielder.
The next afternoon, a few hours before the scheduled All-Star Game, President Richard Nixon hosted a White House event with 400 baseball VIPs, including Hall-of-Famers, All-Stars, and sportswriters. Nixon told the crowd: “I just want you to know that I like the job I have, but if I had to live my life over again, I would have liked to have ended up as a sportswriter.”
Then the dignitaries made their way to RFK Stadium. Kuhn, the commissioner, held a pre-game100th birthday party in three tents on the fields of the National Armory, across the street from the ballpark. A drenching summer storm soaked the VIPs in attendance, and soon after led to the first postponement in All-Star Game history. But Kuhn wasn’t discouraged.
“The whole thing went off so well that I could not even get depressed by the rain and the postponement,” he said. “There were U.S. senators standing there in two inches of rain talking about baseball. How could I get depressed?”
For once, DC hosted the All-Star Game with a (barely) winning record, at 51-50. DC’s new skipper, Ted Williams, the New York Times said, was the “focus of a tremendous revival in baseball interest in the nation’s capital, and of a remarkable improvement in the weak team’s fortunes on the field.” The Senators would finish the season 10 games over .500, the team’s only winning record in 11 seasons in Washington, before moving to Texas to become the Rangers in 1972.
Nixon, probably the biggest baseball fan to occupy the Oval Office, had been scheduled to throw out the first pitch, but the postponement scuttled those plans, as he had to leave for a world trip the next day. Vice President Spiro Agnew stood in for him.
The scheduled starting pitchers were Detroit Tiger Denny McLain of the American League against Cardinal Steve Carlton of the National League. But when the game was rained out, McLain insisted on flying back to Detroit on his private plane to keep a dental appointment the next morning. By the time he got to the ballpark the next afternoon, the game had already started. So he pitched one in inning in relief. Then he left early.
“Denny McLain was the envy of every working man in America today,” wrote Murray Chass in the New York Times. “He arrived for work late and left early.”
Befitting their resurgent team, Senators fans for once got to cheer one of their own in an All-Star Game. Slugger Frank Howard started in left field, and after the NL took a quick 3-0 lead, he smoked a 458-foot home run over the clock in right-center field in the second inning to make it 3-1.
The All-Star Game demonstrated baseball’s success in generating more firepower. The NL won 9-3, a year after winning the previous All-Star Game 1-0 (and the previous two games 2-1). The ’69 game featured five home runs, including two by the San Francisco Giants’ Willie McCovey. All 12 runs came in the first four innings. Carlton was the winning pitcher, despite giving up two earned runs in three innings.
After the game, Bowie Kuhn told Ted Williams: “Hope to see more of you, Ted,” alluding to Williams’s decision to skip the dinner two days earlier. Both men laughed.
Despite the entertaining All-Star Game, the moon outshined the stars that summer. Later that week, Nixon met the Apollo astronauts after their splashdown in the Pacific following their return to Earth after the lunar landing. One question Nixon had for them was whether they heard about the All-Star Game. They said they had, and Neil Armstrong told Nixon he was sorry the president missed the game. “You knew that, too?” Nixon asked. Armstrong replied that they heard about the rain, and they couldn’t control the weather yet – but looked forward to doing that.
Frederic J. Frommer is the author of You Gotta Have Heart, a history of Washington baseball, and the head of the Sports Business Practice at the Dewey Square Group, a Washington, D.C. communications firm. Twitter: @ffrommer