Bush Follows JFK in Opening New Ballpark

By: AP
By: AP

WASHINGTON (AP) -- On Sunday night, President Bush is set to throw out the first ball at Nationals Park and help inaugurate the Washington Nationals' new stadium.

President John F. Kennedy did the same on April 9, 1962, when D.C. Stadium debuted as the home field for the fledgling Washington Senators, in their second season as the American League's second Senators franchise.

The park - known today as RFK Stadium, after the late president's slain brother - was the out-of-date home for the Nationals over the past three years.

Forty-six years ago, more than 44,000 fans showed up for the Senators' opener, a then-record for a Washington sporting event. News stories called the ballpark "beautiful," "first class," "magnificent" and "graceful." The previous fall, the park's other tenants, the NFL's Washington Redskins, had christened the stadium.

Before the 1961 season began, Calvin Griffith, the owner of the original Senators franchise, moved that team to Minnesota and changed its name to the Twins. The American League, fearing congressional vengeance, immediately filled the vacancy by awarding Washington a new team. The 1961 Senators played as tenants of the old owner at Griffith Stadium.

Charlie Brotman, the longtime public address announcer for the Senators, handled the logistics of Kennedy's opening-day toss. Brotman recalled looking for the president in the dugout before the 1962 opener, but not finding him anywhere.

"And so now I'm panicking a little bit," Brotman said. "I went down the passageway from the dugout to the locker room to see if he's there. Midway down the passageway, there is President Kennedy, smoking a big cigar, all by himself, no security, no friends, just relaxing and having the time of his life. And I said, `Mr. President, it's time to go to work.' He said, `OK,' snuffed out the cigar, and I escorted him to the box seats. And he had a wonderful time."

Bush is to make his delivery from the pitcher's mound to Nationals manager Manny Acta. Kennedy, in keeping with the tradition of the times, made his toss from the presidential box in the stands, throwing the ball up for grabs into a scrum of players from both teams. Nobody could haul in a Kennedy pitch that one reporter described as a "half-speed curve."

Finally, Senators pitcher Marty Kutyna picked up the ball on the first base line and brought it over to the young president for an autograph.

Kennedy looked confident as he made the toss from behind the Senators dugout, surrounded by Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress. But he was not as self-assured when a foul ball came screeching into his box.

According to The New York Times, as the towering foul headed toward Kennedy in the fourth inning, his special assistant and longtime friend David Powers blocked the president and the ball bounced off the top of the dugout. The Times' front-page headline the next day said Kennedy was "Good Pitch, No Field."

Two Senators players had a bit of an adventure making their way to the game that day. Rookie Senators pitcher Jim Hannan recalled getting a ride from outfielder Jimmy Piersall, whose book about his battle with mental illness, "Fear Strikes Out," had been turned into a movie and created quite a stir.

"He showed up in what looked like a '37 Chevy," said Hannan, now a stockbroker in Washington. "It broke down right in front of the White House. So we had to take a cab to the stadium."

Later, the White House placed a call to Piersall, Hannan said. A secretary told him to hold for the president.

"And Kennedy gets on and says, `What are you doing leaving that piece of junk in front of my house?'" Hannan relates with a laugh. Piersall and Kennedy knew each other personally, Hannan said. In the 1950s, Kennedy was a real senator, from Massachusetts, while Piersall played for the Boston Red Sox for much of the decade.

Piersall did not shy away from the president at the ballpark. On his way out to center field, the colorful ballplayer playfully slapped Kennedy on the shoulder.

When rain showers briefly interrupted the game, the president and his party stayed dry by passing time in the umpires' room, signing autographs and chatting with the men in blue. Only days before, Kennedy had nominated former NFL star Byron White to the Supreme Court. The president asked umpire Hank Soar, another ex-NFL player, for a scouting report.

"I never saw any better," Soar told Kennedy, according to The Washington Post.

Kennedy had such a good time at the game that he blew off a 4:30 p.m. appointment at the White House with the Laotian ambassador to stay until the last out. It was 5:30 by the time the president returned.

"The Laotian ambassador, Tiao Klapman, of the patient, understanding East, was waiting for him," the Times reported.

The Senators got off to a good start in their new stadium, defeating the Detroit Tigers, 4-1. "I'm leaving you in first place," JFK told the team's top brass after the game, and indeed the Senators owned the best record in the league; no other American League teams played that day.

But the effect didn't last. Washington lost 101 games that season and finished last in the 10-team league.

The Senators were last again in 1963, leading to a modest rallying cry for the next year: "Off the floor in '64." They met that goal, barely, finishing in 9th place. The new Senators would manage just one winning season, in 1969, before moving on to Texas following the 1971 season, where the Senators became Rangers.

A politically connected investor named George W. Bush eventually became the managing partner of the Rangers.

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EDITOR'S NOTE - Frederic J. Frommer is the author of "The Washington Nationals: 1859 to Today" (2006, Taylor Trade).

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