Remembering President George W. Bush’s First Pitch
“America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and could be again.” – Field of Dreams
Have you ever wondered why baseball is America’s national pastime? The answer is surprisingly simple: it came first. Baseball has, as Phil Alden Robinson wrote in the iconic monologue delivered by James Earl Jones, “marked the time.” Through two world wars, one Great Depression and at least 28 presidencies, baseball has endured, its staid hand producing indelible moments to inspire an oft-weary nation. So intertwined are the stories of America and baseball that the very fabric of our national history is woven with red stitching, and in our newest feature, we will highlight the moments when baseball transcended the game to tell the American story.
The moments that have irrevocably changed the course of American history have been remarkably few, yet some stand out among the others. On October 24, 1929, the stock market began a five-day crash which led to 10 years of an economic downturn that would become known as the Great Depression. On December 7, 1941, a date, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt aptly predicted would “live in infamy,” the empire of Japan launched a sneak attack on the U.S. Naval Base of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, propelling the U.S. into World War II. On September 11, 2001, foreign terrorists hijacked four commercial flights, flying two into New York’s World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C., claiming nearly 3,000 lives. And that’s where this story begins.
For those who witnessed it, 9/11 would serve as the fulcrum upon which our entire worldview forever pivoted. The concept of war, for many of us, was just that: a concept. It was nebulous, something that happened in history books or movies or in other parts of the world. The last war fought on U.S. soil ended in 1865. The last foreign attack on U.S. soil occurred in 1941.
But on that humid September morning, not only did war come to our doorstep, it entered our homes. Horrified, the world watched on television as terrorists used our own commercial aircrafts to strike not targets of infrastructural or military importance, but of symbolic resonance. In New York, the people they targeted were not soldiers or politicians, but ordinary citizens, all of whom awoke that morning with no idea they would never again see their husbands or wives, sons or daughters, brothers or sisters.
At 9:03 AM, the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center’s south tower, and in the hour that followed, as unspeakable scenes played out in Manhattan, it became clear that this was no accident. We were under attack. All flights were grounded. Fighter planes were scrambled, prepared to intercept other potential hijackers. Conflicting reports indicated numerous other targets around the country: the White House, the Statue of Liberty, the Capitol.
Then, reports of another nature started to trickle in. A fourth plane, purportedly bound for another Washington, D.C. target, had crash landed in a field in Pennsylvania. In the hours that followed stories about what happened aboard Flight 93 made clear why the fourth plane never made it to its intended target. Through phone calls with friends and loved ones, the 44 passengers on board were made aware of what had just happened in New York and Washington, D.C.
And they decided enough was enough.
In an attempt to reach his wife, passenger Todd Beamer was rerouted to an operator named Lisa Jefferson, whom he apprised of the situation as well as the passengers’ plan to thwart it. In the days and months that followed, Beamer’s last words to Jefferson became a national rallying cry as a nation in agony rose to its feet, its anguish turned to resolve. “Let’s roll.”
Appropriately, sports took a backseat over the next week, as games around the country were postponed. But President Bush urged people to return to normalcy: go shopping, go on vacation, play sports. So we did. MLB picked up where it left off, eventually whittling the World Series field down to two: the Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Yankees. In any given year, the Yankees making the World Series is so common as to be trite. But not this year. This year it had to be. It had to be New York. And it had to be the Yankees. The national pastime would play out its most important series in the house that Ruth built. With a franchise so ingrained in the American culture and history that the White House might as well have Yankee pinstripes.
After the first two games in Phoenix, the series moved to New York, where on October 30, 2001, President Bush would throw out the first pitch in a city whose wound was still fresh. Here, it’s important to note that President Bush is a baseball man, having played at Yale — where his father, President George H.W. Bush, had long ago been the team’s captain — before going on to own the Texas Rangers. Therefore, he knew the importance of throwing out the first pitch in Yankee Stadium, telling Grantland’s Louisa Thomas: “I can’t remember thinking, If you don’t bounce it, that’ll lift their spirits. But I probably knew, instinctively, that a bounce would kind of reduce the defiance — the act of defiance toward the enemy.”
The president, man presented daily with all of America’s existential threats, also revealed that the moments leading up to that pitch were the most nerve-wracking of his presidency, telling Thomas: “Your adrenaline isn’t surging during decisions.” Also, when making presidential decisions, the president is often surrounded by advisors, whereas, “on the baseball mound, you’re alone,” said Bush. Meanwhile, Yankees star Derek Jeter, in attempt to lighten the mood, reminded the president that if he bounced it, the crowd would boo.
He needn’t have worried. Despite wearing a flak jacket beneath his FDNY pullover, the president, a baseball man, fired, from 60 feet, six inches, a perfect strike, and in a scene that feels almost unfathomable in today’s bitterly polarized political climate, was met with chants of “U-S-A” by fans inside Yankee Stadium and households around the country.
In the interceding years, it has become the first pitch against which all other first pitches are measured, and upon which they have fallen short. They all will. Because we lost on 9/11. On 9/11 we suffered. The terrorists took something from us. But on October 30, thanks to our national pastime, we took something back.
*Photos courtesy of the U.S. National Archives