When baseball kicks off its 2020 season with the Yankees visiting Washington this week, it will be like no other opener in history – from empty stands to the late July date. But the game will be a nod to convention in one important way, by reviving a rich 20th century tradition that often pitted the two powerful cities against each other on Opening Day.
The old Washington Senators would often start the season in DC a day before the rest of the American League in what was known as the “presidential opener,” when the president would throw out the first ball. And over seven decades, the Senators’ home opener featured the Yankees about two-dozen times.
The Senators started the ’25 season on the road, winning three of four against the Yankees and splitting a two-game series in Philadelphia, before coming home to host New York.
This year, of course, there will be no fans in the ballpark, and no presidential first toss, although the game will feature Anthony Fauci throwing out the first ball. Fauci has strong connections to both franchises – he grew up a Yankees fan in Brooklyn but is now a huge Nats fan, telling Ryan Zimmerman in April, “I love the Nats. I love everybody on the Nats.”
At Washington’s 1925 home opener, a political who’s who crammed into tiny Griffith Stadium on Georgia Avenue. President Calvin Coolidge, fresh off a landslide victory the previous November, threw out the first ball. Several members of his Cabinet joined him, including his secretary of treasury, secretary of state and attorney general, sitting in a section with a U.S. flag draped over the railing.
Before the game, a parade of players, sailors, soldiers and Marine band members marched to center field, led by Senators owner Clark Griffith and Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, who raised the U.S. flag. “There were so many official dignitaries that members of Congress were stumbling over each other,” a snarky New York Times reporter observed.
The Yankees started the season without Babe Ruth, who was sidelined with an illness that would cost him the season’s first two months. Starting in his place in right field was 21-year-old reserve Lou Gehrig, who went 1-for-3, raising his batting average to .143. (About six weeks later, on June 1, Gehrig would start his 2,130-game consecutive game streak with a pinch-hit appearance against the Senators at Yankee Stadium, on the same day that Ruth returned to the lineup.)
The Senators (also known as the Nationals) made an opening-day statement on that sunny but chilly afternoon, thrashing the Yankees 10-1 behind ace Walter Johnson, in front of a raucous crowd of 32,000 fans and 2,000 cameramen. Washington mounted a 14-hit attack, including one from Johnson, who went on to hit .433 that year.
As The Washington Post described the victory in the typically florid newspaper writing style of the day:
The world champions pried off the lid of 1925 in their own bailiwick yesterday afternoon amid the hearty raucous, soul-stirring plaudits of an idolotrous [sic] populace celebrating its first collective siege of baseball heebee jeebies in the history of the nation’s seat of government, the auspicious occasion being the first time that the natives had ever helped to open the season with a double-riveted winner.
The Post highlighted Johnson’s age, reporting that the 37-year-old “performed nobly, despite his senility” (!), as well as the team’s young player-manager, 28-year-old Bucky Harris, calling him the “Jackie Coogan of the national game.” (Coogan was at the time a 10-year-old child actor whose unsuccessful battle with his mother and stepfather for his earnings led California to pass the Child Actors Bill, known as the Coogan Act. In the ‘60s, he would go on to star as Uncle Fester in “The Adams Family.”)
The previous season, 1924, the Senators had edged New York by two games to win their first American League pennant, but the “Ruthless Yankees,” as one reporter called them, were not a match for DC in its ’25 home opener.
As the New York Times summarized it, in a dig at the Yankees that also showed how Congress’s popularity hasn’t changed in a century:
The Yankees have rarely looked worse than they did today, and the Senators rarely better. As a result, the Washington folks tonight rate the Yankees one degree below a congressman and can’t see any reason why the local team shouldn’t waltz on to another title.
And that’s what happened, as the Senators cruised to their second straight pennant, and the Yankees finished an uncharacteristic 7th place, 28 ½ games out – two years after winning their third straight pennant.
The Yankees regained their perch at the top of the league in 1926, starting another streak of three straight pennants, including the Murderers’ Row team of ’27 that won 110 games. The Senators had one more pennant in them, in 1933, before falling into a decades-long tailspin, which coincided with a string of opening day losses to the Yankees.
In the 1936 home opener, Washington’s Bobo Newsom outdueled future Hall-of-Famer Lefty Gomez to beat the Yankees 1-0. But after that the Senators lost six straight home openers to the Yankees over a 10-year-period beginning in 1939.
By the 1950s, the Senators had cemented themselves as an American League doormat, while the Yankees were winning the pennant virtually every year. But as Tom Petty famously wrote, “Even the losers get lucky sometimes.” That happened in the ’54 opener, when the Senators defeated the defending World Series champs, 5-3, on a two-run, 10th inning homer by Mickey Vernon.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower was so excited that he started to make his way onto the field to congratulate Vernon before Secret Service agents intercepted him. Instead, they brought Vernon over to the president’s box. As Vernon told me for my book on Washington baseball history, You Gotta Have Heart, when he crossed the plate, someone grabbed him:
I tried to pull away from him; there [were] a bunch of players there, and I thought he was just a guy from the stands. He says, “No, come with me, the President wants to talk to you.” So he took me over to his box.
“Wonderful, a wonderful home run,” Eisenhower told Vernon. Meanwhile, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower hugged and kissed Griffith. “What an opener!” Griffith told reporters after the game. “We never had one like it—we never had a president practically run out onto the field to salute one of our ballplayers.”
But that was an outlier in the now one-sided Yankees-Senators relationship. By that point, the idea of Washington beating out New York for the pennant was pure fiction – it happened in the famous play “Damn Yankees,” in which a frustrated middle-aged Senators fan sells his soul to the devil to be transformed to 21-year-old Joe Hardy, who leads his team to the pennant. The play opened on Broadway in 1955.
Meanwhile back in the harsh real world, the Senators finished in last place that year, 43 games behind the first-place Yankees.
After the 1960 season, the Senators moved to Minnesota to become the Twins, and an expansion Senators took their place in DC. The new team continued the losing tradition until 1969, when rookie manager Ted Williams led the franchise to its only winning season. But things didn’t get off to a good start that year in the team’s opener against the Yankees – on or off the field.
With new owner Bob Short hosting new President Richard Nixon, the presidential seal was misspelled “Presidnt,” and Nixon compounded the error by dropping the ball he was to throw out for the ceremonial first pitch – eliciting a grin from Ted Williams, standing nearby in a crisp red-and-white Senators uniform.
Baseball’s new commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, who had grown up in Washington, sat next to Nixon during the game, and when Senators slugger Frank Howard came up to the plate, Kuhn told the president how Williams was trying to make Howard a more disciplined hitter. As Kuhn recalled to me:
“So here comes Howard to bat, the first pitch bounces six feet in front of home plate, and he swings and misses. And the president looked at me and didn’t say a word. His silence spoke volumes. We both laughed. He was a great baseball fan.”
Things went downhill from there, as the Yankees routed the home team, 8-4. Williams, who was a big admirer of the president, was impressed that Nixon stayed for the entire game. The Senators bounced back from the loss, winning the next two games to take the series, and went on to post an 86-76 record – and a rare finish ahead of the Yankees. Williams won the
AL Manager of the Year Award.
Three years later, the Senators announced they were moving to Texas. After all those years of starting off the Senators’ seasons, who better to see them off than the Yankees? On September 30, 1971, the Senators played their final game, hosting New York at RFK Stadium.
Washington took a 7-5 lead into the ninth inning, but fans stormed the field in a funereal anti-celebration, and the game was awarded to the Yankees as a forfeit. In the stands that night was 74-year-old Bucky Harris, who as the Senators “Boy Wonder” player-manager had dethroned the Yankees back in 1924. “I never thought I’d see the day when they would leave Washington without a franchise,” he said.
Baseball wouldn’t return to the nation’s capital for 33 years. The Yankees have played the Nats in DC a few times since then, but never on Opening Day. Maybe this season, so disconnected from 150 years of baseball, will at least revive one great tradition.
Frederic J. Frommer is the author of You Gotta Have Heart: Washington Baseball from Walter Johnson to the 2019 World Series Champion Nationals, from which some of this story is based; and the head of the Sports Business Practice at the Dewey Square Group, a Washington, D.C. communications firm. Twitter: @ffrommer