Ladies and gentlemen, please direct your attention to the VIP box adjacent to the home-team dugout...or to the pitcher's mound...or to the sky above, where Bill Clinton, 14 other presidents, Paul Revere, Ben Franklin, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Cary Grant, Clint Eastwood, James Cagney, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan, Lillian Carter, John Glenn, George Jetson, Roger Rabbit, Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Smoky Joe Wood, Smokey the Bear, Mike Ditka, Casey Stengel, Monica Seles, Marianne Moore, Elie Wiesel, Elle Macpherson, Kiteman, Rocket Man, Cannon Man, a naked woman, the Pope, Yul (the King) Brynner, Queen Elizabeth II, Mrs. Walter O'Malley or Mr. Rogers will throw out...or hand-deliver...or bounce in the dirt...the ceremonial first ball.
Lo, and often low, the first pitch. Ball One. It is as much a part of the Big Game—Opening Day, the All-Star Game, the World Series—as the commemorative program, the introduction of both teams, the bunting draped over the railings, the national anthem as sung by Dwight Yoakam. The origin of the ceremonial first pitch has been lost to baseball history, but the throw seems always to have been there. When Abner Doubleday and his friends played the first game of "base ball," in upstate New York in 1845, the mayor of Cooperstown probably threw out the first ball.
A century and a half later, the first ball tradition thrives. In fact, the Clinton family of Washington, D.C., came close to pulling off an unprecedented First Family first ball tripleheader to open this season. The original plan was for Bill to throw out the ceremonial pitch in Baltimore on Monday while Hillary Rodham was in Chicago to do the honors for her beloved Cubs. However, due to the recent stroke suffered by her father, Hugh Rodham, she was unable to attend the opener at Wrigley Field. Meanwhile, First Daughter Chelsea was invited by the Class A Daytona Cubs to throw out the first pitch in their home opener on April 12, but because of her grandfather's illness, she too had to decline.
The Bill Ball era began shortly after noon on Monday in Oriole Park at Camden Yards. President Clinton, dressed in an Oriole warmup jacket, strolled around the field while the visiting Texas Rangers—who, ironically, are partially owned by George W. Bush, son of the 41st president—were taking batting practice. Someone yelled, "Are you going to play today, Mr. President?" and Clinton replied, "I've taken enough positions this week."
He looked a little tired, but then day games after summit meetings are always tough, especially when the game is in Baltimore and the summit was in Vancouver. He met several of the Rangers, including Jose Canseco and manager Kevin Kennedy, giving Clinton one more photo op with a Kennedy. Asked if he gave the President any advice on the upcoming first pitch, Kennedy said, "I told him to keep his shoulder in and not fly open." In a batting cage beneath the stadium, Clinton took about 40 practice throws.
In the meantime, outside the park, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and fellow demonstrators from his National Rainbow Coalition distributed literature and chanted, "Partnership and ownership/Baseball, yes; racism, no." The President did not encounter the demonstrators, but their handouts included an eight-page letter from Jackson to Clinton urging more minority hiring throughout baseball.
After the national anthem, the emcee of the opening ceremonies, Oriole broadcaster Jon Miller, told the sellout crowd of 46,145, "Here to throw out the first ball is a rookie who's just moved into the area from Arkansas, the President of the United States, Bill Clinton." To a mixture of cheers and boos, Bill took the hill. Actually he jogged to a spot just in front of the mound, turned and, with his left hand, quickly lobbed the ball about 50 feet to Baltimore catcher Chris Hoiles. It was a decidedly conservative pitch and on the right side of the plate. Even with baseball's desperate need for southpaws, Clinton should keep his day job.
After the pitch, the President joined fellow Arkansan Brooks Robinson, the Orioles' Hall of Fame third baseman, and Miller in the WMAR-TV booth, where together they called the top of the first. They chatted about Clinton's own modest baseball career, about listening to Harry Caray on the radio and about Canseco. "I shook hands with him before the game," said the obviously impressed Clinton. "He's a good-sized fellow.... Why has he changed his stance, Brooks?" The President stayed until the seventh inning, then headed back to the White House, where he was to meet Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak the next day.
The first chief executive to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day was the 27th president, William Howard Taft, who decided on the spur of the moment, on April 14, 1910, to go to the game at National Park between the Washington Senators and the Philadelphia Athletics. Legend has it that Taft was in the mood for a distinctly masculine pursuit because of the rough treatment he had suffered the night before at a suffragettes' meeting in Alexandria, Va. (Women were 10 years from voting and 83 years from First Woman Hillary Rodham Clinton.)
In any case the 300-pound righthander showed up without much fanfare, commandeering-in-chief a choice box. Head umpire Billy Evans suggested that President Taft throw out the first ball, a privilege usually reserved for a District of Columbia commissioner. Since then, every president has let fly a ceremonial pitch, though Jimmy Carter missed out on Opening Day. What follows is a brief scouting report on each of our national aces.
TINY TAFT (TWO OPENERS): According to one newspaper account of this former pitcher's first toss from his box, "He did it with his good, trusty right arm, and the virgin sphere scudded across the diamond, true as a die to the pitcher's box, where Walter Johnson gathered it in."
WOODY WILSON (THREE): The Senators went 3-0 under Wilson, but team owner Clark Griffith noticed that Wilson's arm was tiring. "That last year, when he had failed to get America into the League of Nations," Griffith told author A.E. Hotchner, "he was a beaten man who barely had the energy to lob the ball a few feet forward. But how straight and true he had thrown it his first year in office!"
SLICK HARDING (THREE): The former owner of a minor league team in Marion, Ohio, Warren G. knew and threw his baseball well. In fact, one player who caught a Harding pitch admiringly described it as "heavy."
LIPS COOLIDGE (FOUR): Calvin clearly didn't want to be out there; on one Opening Day he couldn't get past the first inning. However, his wife, Grace, a former scorekeeper for the Vassar baseball team, loved the game and often went the distance.
VACUUM HOOVER (FOUR): Herbert, a former student manager of the Stanford baseball team, showed remarkable poise, throwing strikes while Depressed fans booed him and Prohibited fans chanted, "We want beer."
SPECS ROOSEVELT (EIGHT): With so many first tosses, Franklin was bound to have a mishap, especially with his unorthodox delivery. At the 1940 opener he smashed the camera of Washington Post photographer Irving Schlossenberg.
HARRY (THE HAT) TRUMAN (SEVEN): The former Independence, Mo., haberdasher demonstrated his independent streak by throwing the ball righthanded in '46 and lefthanded in '47, thus becoming the first presidential southpaw. In both 1950 and '51 he threw one ball righty and another ball lefty.
IKE EISENHOWER (SEVEN): The general, an outfielder at West Point, took a great deal of flak for passing up the 1953 Senators' opener to play golf, but fortunately for him the game was rained out and he didn't miss his start. One of Eisenhower's tosses was described as a "bursitis sinker," but he could also throw a changeup. In 1956 he motioned for the New York and Washington players waiting for his toss to move back and then lobbed the ball a short distance to Gil McDougald of the Yankees.
KID KENNEDY (THREE): The youngest president ever elected also had the best arm. According to Al Lopez, the manager of the Chicago White Sox, the Senators' 1961 Opening Day opponents, "The President is better than sneaky fast. He can really fire that thing." Jim Rivera, the White Sox outfielder who caught the ball, didn't much like the autograph JFK had put on it, so he told the President, "You'll have to do better than that, John."
LINDY JOHNSON (THREE): A former first sacker, he showed decent form and a hearty appetite. Johnson holds the presidential record for hot dogs consumed at an opener: four.
TRICKS NIXON (TWO): Someone should've gotten an E for Nixon's 1969 lid-lifter. The seal on the front of his box at RFK Stadium read: THE PRESIDNT OF THE UNITED STATES.
WHITEY FORD (ONE): A football player. In his one Opening Day appearance, in Arlington, Texas, he left in the first inning.
PEANUTS CARTER (NONE): A softball player. Brother Billy and mother Lillian often got into the act.
DUTCH REAGAN (TWO): A good arm, but after all, he did play Grover Cleveland Alexander in the 1952 movie The Winning Team. At his first opener as president, in Baltimore in 1984, Reagan apparently lost track of the count. He ordered six hot dogs for his Secret Service agents, then offered the vendor $5.
BULLET GEORGE BUSH (FOUR): The captain of the 1948 Yale baseball team, Bush was and is a tireless hurler. As president he did four openers in three different cities (Baltimore, Toronto, and Arlington, Texas) and numerous other games. Practice did not make perfect, however. Last Opening Day in Baltimore, Bush, who was encumbered by a bullet-proof vest, bounced his pitch in the dirt, then threw his hands over his head in embarrassment. Said Oriole catcher Hoiles, "That was the worst toss I've ever seen in my life." Still, Mr. Bush can't seem to stop. He did one spring training game in Fort Myers, Fla., in March and an exhibition game in Houston Friday night.
While the nature of the presidential first pitch has remained constant, the first catch has undergone something of a transformation. From Taft to Hoover the recipient always seems to have been the Big Train, Walter Johnson. But somewhere along the line, probably when photographers began to demand two first balls, the ceremony became a free-for-all, with players from both teams scrambling to catch the presidential throws. Occasionally a good player like McDougald or Allie Reynolds would catch a ball, but more than likely it was a fringe player like Marty Kutyna or Ken Retzer or Andy Gilbert or Dorrell (Whitey) Herzog. In fact, stories were written about the so-called presidential jinx—players who caught the ball seemed to disappear shortly afterward.
Still, that didn't stop players from elbowing and pushing each other to get to the ball. Fritz Peterson of the New York Yankees showed up for Nixon's inaugural throw carrying a butterfly net. The tradition of fighting for a souvenir ball ended in the Nixon administration, either because the Washington Senators became the Texas Rangers in 1972 or because the players didn't want to risk their rising salaries on a memento. (Imagine the headline: NOLAN RYAN DISLOCATES SHOULDER IN FIRST BALL MELEE.)
Once the ceremony became less of a scramble, the catcher sometimes found himself alone with the president. In 1973 Nixon threw out the first ball on Opening Day at Anaheim Stadium, and his catcher was Jeff Torborg of the California Angels. As Torborg, now the New York Mets' manager, recalls, "We're making small talk, and I said, 'I guess your job is like an umpire's—you can't please everybody.' And he said, 'I didn't think ballplayers thought about anything but their batting averages.' So I said, 'Well, come to think of it, I wasn't too pleased when you canned the Peace Corps.' The conversation didn't go much after that."
On Opening Day in 1986 Reagan threw out the first ball in Baltimore to Oriole catcher Rick Dempsey. The president then sat down next to Dempsey on the bench in the O's dugout. Dempsey turned to him and said, "So, what are you gonna do about Gadaffi?" Reagan, demonstrating that he could talk the talk, told Dempsey, "I think we ought to nail his——to that log over there and push him over."
There have also been vice-presidential first balls of note. LBJ sent HHH—VP Hubert H. Humphrey—in his stead for the '66 Senators' opener, which also happened to be the major league debut of Emmett Ashford, baseball's first black umpire. But the 51-year-old Ashford had a hard time getting in the players' entrance because Humphrey's Secret Service men did not believe there was such a thing as a black umpire.
Dan Quayle played Milwaukee last year for the Brewers' home opener, and he made quite a nice toss from the mound to catcher B.J. Surhoff. Afterward the vice-president mentioned to Milwaukee pitcher Chris Bosio that he might sec him again in Baltimore in October—for the World Series. Said Bosio, "I'm not voting for him, no matter what." In his defense, Quayle may have just been anticipating realignment.
Hillary Rodham Clinton would not have been the first First Lady to throw out a first ball, by the way. Pat Nixon, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush have all done it. Catcher Mike Scioscia, now with the San Diego Padres, remembers Mrs. Reagan giving him a hug after he caught her as a Los Angeles Dodger at the '88 World Series. He also remembers forgetting about the glove he autographed that night for a team official. "My mother-in-law visited the Reagan Library," says Scioscia, "and she saw the glove. I never thought I'd be part of a presidential display case."
Politicians have long been a staple of the first ball ceremony, whether it be JFK's grandfather, Boston mayor John (Honey Fitz) Fitzgerald, at Fenway Park (1912) or Harris County (Texas) commissioner Squatty Lyons at the Astrodome (1990). Long before Dwight Gooden, a Dr. K threw out a first ball: Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, at the 1975 All-Star Game in Milwaukee. Some pols have even earned the honor. Secretary of Labor Ray Donovan threw out the first pitch of 1981's second season at Yankee Stadium after he helped settle the baseball strike.
But for the most part the political first ball is a rather hollow gesture. And sometimes a politician can get in the way. In 1984 the Cleveland Indians wanted to honor Mike Garcia, a pitching hero from the '54 club who was suffering from a kidney ailment. A presidential candidate happened to be in town, and his campaign stall" asked that he be part of the ceremony. After Garcia threw the ball to the candidate, reporters covering the campaign nearly trampled the frail ex-pitcher. His catcher? Jesse Jackson.
Generally the first ball thrower can be classified as one of five species: politician, military person, celebrity, average Joe (or Jo) and stuntman (or stuntwoman or stuntelephant). You have already read enough about the pol, and we will not linger long on our Few Good Men and Women. One military honor is worth noting. To his credit, Richard Nixon had a Vietnam War POW substitute for him in the Senators' 1971 opener. (To his discredit, Nixon let son-in-law David Eisenhower do the honors in 1970.)
As for the celebrity, well, there are several subspecies. Closest to home is, of course, the baseball star, such as Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays or the star of stars, Joe DiMaggio. Call him the Yankee Flipper. Joe D did the Florida Marlins' opener on Monday, the Yankee openers in '63, '82 and '92, the Oriole opener in '81, the San Francisco Giant opener in '85, the Kingdome opener in '78 and World Series games in '76, '77, '78 and '81.
Occasionally the honoree is a real old-timer. In 1982 the Red Sox had 92-year-old Smoky Joe Wood throw out the first ball. Unfortunately Wood had to throw with his left hand because his right arm was still sore from the 1912 season. And occasionally the old-timer will keep his legend alive. Tim Flannery, the former Padre infielder, recalls that Jimmy Piersall threw out the first ball at the 1974 Babe Ruth World Series in Mattoon, Ill. "He came out," says Flannery, "and threw the first pitch over the backstop and into the parking lot. On purpose. I just thought to myself, Wow, all those stories are true."
Stars from other sports have been known to throw out first balls: Seles, Eric Lindros, Walter Payton. In the glory days of Da Bears, coach Mike Ditka was given Opening Day nods by both the White Sox and the Cubs. Joe Girardi was his Cub catcher, and after Ditka threw the baseball, Girardi threw Ditka a football he had hidden behind his back. "He didn't know it was coming," says Girardi, "but he caught it. I think he got a kick out of it."
There are also men and women of letters, as opposed to men and women who have lettered. Distinguished author and 1986 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel threw out the first ball before an '86 World Series game at Shea Stadium. Horror of horrors, Stephen King has been asked to perform the first rites at Fenway Park, but he has refused, holding out for an Opening Day assignment. In 1968 the Yankees asked the great poet and baseball fan Marianne Moore to throw out the season's first ball, which the octogenarian did with flair, tilting back her trademark tricornered hat. She threw a strike to backup catcher Frank Fernandez, who then planted a sweet kiss on her cheek. Someone up there must have appreciated his gallantry, because Fernandez, a .170 hitter in '68, hit the game-winning homer that day.
Loosely qualifying in the literary category are sportswriters, whose first pitches have fortunately been few and far between. Before Game 6 of the 1992 American League Championship Series in Toronto, Neil MacCarl, the longtime baseball writer for The Toronto Star, took the mound. Perhaps because he bore the burden of all scribes on his right shoulder, MacCarl bounced the pitch 15 feet in front of him and watched it roll to the plate.
That was not the worst first pitch in history, however. That distinction belongs to Mr. Rogers, who wasn't even in the neighborhood when he dribbled out the first ball in Pittsburgh a few years ago. Boys and girls, can you say wild pitch?
Which brings us to the stars of stage, screen and television who have aired out their arms. You name 'em, they've probably done it. The stars have come small (Squiggy from Laverne and Shirley), medium (Karl Maiden, who did play Jimmy Piersall's father in Fear Strikes Out) and large (the Chairman of the Board, my friends).
How about Yul Brynner? Sure. The road show of The King and I was in Kansas City one year on Opening Day. Rodney Danger-field? Naturally, he threw out the first ball for a special Opening Day II promotion at Shea Stadium for the second game of the 1985 season. Stefanie Powers? She was once the opening act for a Class A game in Palm Springs. Staying in character, she walked through the clubhouse, looked at a young, strapping catcher named Jim McNamara and said, "You can be my bodyguard."
Former Oakland A's receiver Gene Tenace once caught Clint Eastwood. "I asked him to autograph the ball for my wife, Linda," Tenace recalls. "He wrote, To Linda, with love, Clint Eastwood. I said, 'That was really nice, but you didn't have to write with love.' " Eastwood, by the way, may be an Oscar winner, but he is no Oscar Zamora when it comes to pitching.
Dodger fan Cary Grant. Cardinal fan David Hartman. Met fans Glenn Close and Richard Dreyfuss. "Richard threw the ball very well," says former Met and current Seattle Mariner Mackey Sasser, who has obviously remained on a first-name basis with the actor. While Queen Elizabeth II didn't throw out the first ball at the Oriole game she attended on May 15, 1991, her look-alike did in the movie The Naked Gun.
There has actually been a Furst ball, thrown by the actor Stephen Furst. You don't know him? Obviously you don't cherish the movie Animal House. "I didn't recognize his name," says Oriole catcher Jeff Tackett, who caught Furst at a Double A game in Charlotte, N.C., in 1988. "He threw the ball, and I went out to shake his hand. Suddenly I recognized him. 'You're Flounder!' I said."
Hammer threw out the first ball before a 1990 ALCS game in Oakland. From the mound he demonstrated a major league delivery. The pitch, however, was strictly U Can't Touch This. Hammer had worked for the A's as a batboy back in the days when he was just Stanley Burrell and Charlie Finley was, well, Charlie Finley. The A's owner loved to have celebrities throw out first balls: Bob Hope, Rock Hudson, Jack Benny.
Benny was given the honor at a World Series game in the early '70s, and former commissioner Bowie Kuhn remembers it well. "I was standing next to him because I was supposed to hand him the ball," says Kuhn. "He was very specific about the mechanics of the thing, the timing of the public-address announcement, the signal I would give him. Twice he asked me, 'Is this going to be on television?' I assured him it was, and when the time came for the announcer to say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, please direct your attention to...' I handed Mr. Benny a ball. He held it up, looked at it approvingly, and then, giving that classic Benny expression, he put the ball in his pocket."
During the last years of his tenure Kuhn instituted a policy against clubs using celebrities and politicians in first ball ceremonies. This did not sit well with George Steinbrenner, who threw a fit when told that James Cagney wouldn't be able to throw a pitch before an '81 Series game at Yankee Stadium. Kuhn backed off, diplomatically declaring Cagney "a national treasure."
Catchers certainly don't object to catching an attractive female celebrity. "When I was in Memphis in 1990," says Kansas City Royal catcher Brent Mayne, "I got a first pitch and a kiss from Miss Tennessee." Pirate catcher Don Slaught recalls the night he caught Miss Deaf Texas in Arlington. World Series MVP Pat Borders fondly remembers being on the receiving end of a first pitch from Jennifer Beals of Flashdance fame. "Bui I don't remember how hard she threw," he says.
Elle Macpherson, the model who has graced three SPORTS ILLUSTRATED covers, threw out a first ball in Oakland a few years ago. "I remember her," says former A's catcher Ron Hassey, now a coach for the Colorado Rockies. "How can you forget her? She didn't know what to do after I caught it. I didn't know if we were going to shake hands or if I was going to get a smack on the cheek. I ended up hitting her on the forehead with the beak of my helmet." And that, dear reader, is why Elle hasn't been on the cover of the Swimsuit Issue recently.
As much as catchers like pretty girls, they dislike mascots and cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse. "They can't get a good grip with the mittens on," says Mayne.
"They more or less grenade the ball and throw it all over the place," says Slaught. "I don't mind catching a real person. But George Jetson and the Oscar Mayer Hot Dog? You're supposed to be getting ready for a game, and you've got a guy in a costume throwing baseballs to you."
Sasser had a run-in with Roger Rabbit at Shea in 1990. "He was throwing the ceremonial pitch from the stands, and I was about 10 feet from him," says the catcher. "I expected a soft toss, but all of a sudden he fires at me. I didn't have time to get my glove up, and the ball nicked my ear as it went past me. There were a lot of kids around him, but I got all over him. I aired him out pretty good."
So much for celebrities. Sometimes, as it should be, the fanfare is for the common man. Mike Burke, the former president of the Yankees, gave an 81-year-old pharmacist at the Plaza Hotel, Herbert Bluestone, the first shot on Opening Day in 1973. Bill Veeck did Burke one better, or rather 19,999 better. For the Comiskey Park opener in 1977, Veeck gave out 20,000 foam balls, which the fans threw on the field to usher in the season.
In 1976 the Dodgers had a peanut vendor throw out the first ball. This was no ordinary peanut vendor, however. This was Roger Owens, whose distance and accuracy with a bag of nuts is truly astounding; he has since gone on to fame on The Tonight Show. In '76 Owens was asked to make the longest ceremonial pitch ever, from halfway up the loge level behind home plate at Dodger Stadium, over the field-level seats and over the screen to waiting catcher Steve Yeager. As Owens recalls, "They had this big announcement about me and how I'd been throwing peanuts since 1958, and that got me nervous. There were 50,000 people watching me, and I was trembling. Somehow I got the nerve up and let it fly. The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner said the next day that I threw a perfect strike, though they were probably being kind. Yeager might have had to move his glove a little."
The choice of Owens was certainly more inspired than the choice to open Dodger Stadium in 1962: Kay O'Malley, the wife of owner Walter O'Malley. As one writer observed that year, the honoree should have been Avrana Arechiga, the matriarch of a clan that the Dodgers had evicted from Chavez Ravine to build their stadium. "After all," he wrote, "[O'Malley] threw her out three years ago."
The king of first ball promoters is Bill Giles, the president of the Philadelphia Phillies. Giles's career, in fact, owes quite a lot to his first ball selections. When he was promotions director of the Astros, he arranged for 24 astronauts to open the Astrodome by throwing 24 balls to 24 different players and coaches. The Phillies hired him away to oversee the debut of Veterans Stadium, and for its first Opening Day, in 1971, Giles had a helicopter hover above the stadium and drop a ball to catcher Mike Ryan, who was standing on second base. As Ryan remembers, "It was windy. I looked up, and I couldn't see the ball. Then I saw it, and I just start running like hell. I caught it 15 feet in front of the dugout on the dead run. It hit the heel of my glove, bounced straight up in the air, and I grabbed it. Phew."
Over the years, Giles has had the first ball thrown by Paul Revere, who galloped from Boston to Philadelphia ("The Redbirds are coming! The Redbirds are coming!"); Ben Franklin; William Penn; Kiteman I, II, III and IV; Cannon Man; Rocket Man (not Roger Clemens); and aerial motorcyclists Monique & Guzman (neither Juan nor Jose). For a time, the late National League president and baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti put a stop to such stunts, but on Thursday the Phillie Phanatic is scheduled to parachute down to former manager and general manager Paul Owens—a.k.a. the Pope—who will then throw out the first ball.
Still, it will be hard to top the Kiteman Kronicles. In 1972 Giles hired a daredevil he had read about in SI who flew off cliffs with a kite (now better known as a hang glider) on his back. The flier had Giles build a $5,000 ramp in the outfield stands, but because the season was delayed a week and the guy had a prior commitment to teach the president of Mexico how to water-ski, Giles had to find a replacement. "I looked in the Yellow Pages, but I couldn't find any Kiteman," he says. Giles found a substitute, but on Opening Night the substitute froze. Giles told his people to push him down the ramp. The reluctant Kiteman took off, but as the wind caught him, he veered off and crash-landed into the centerfield seats. "I almost had a heart attack," says Giles. "I thought he was dead. The fans were really booing. But I saw him kind of struggle to his feet and lob the ball to the bullpen.
"It wasn't too pretty. But we got so much attention, we had him back the next year. We made the ramp three times as wide. He made it down the ramp. And then he crashed into centerfield. So the next time we tried, in 1980, we used another guy. And he made it."
In 1977 the Atlanta Braves tried to hire King Kong—the mechanical ape from the 1976 movie—to throw out the first ball, but he was too expensive and too dangerous. "Instead of throwing out the first ball," p.r. director Bob Hope said at the time, "his arm could go crazy and wipe out several dozen fans." Farrah Fawcett-Majors also proved too expensive for the Braves that year—she wanted $50,000.
New Mariner manager Lou Piniella says he often wondered why his former boss Cincinnati Red owner Marge Schott never taught her dogs, Schottzie I and II, to throw out the first pitch. The Athletics thought they had an elephant who could do just that in 1989, the year the pachyderm was restored as the team mascot. Its name was Akili, and it performed flawlessly in rehearsal, flicking the ball some 40 feet to the catcher with its trunk. Showtime came and Akili was freaked out by the crowd. It just dropped the ball at its feet. The A's promotions director, Sharon Kelly, had to pick the ball up and throw it to the catcher.
Pittsburgh coach Rich Donnelly has seen a lot of first ball ceremonies in his time, but his most memorable was at the 1978 opener in Tucson, where he was managing the Texas Rangers' Triple A team. "The first pitch came down with a sky diver who was nude," says Donnelly.
What did he do?
"What did she do," Donnelly corrects. "She didn't have to do anything. She tried to throw out the first pitch, but she couldn't get it through the screen on the paddy wagon. I think she was a dancer at the Cha Cha Club. Our pitching coach, Ed Nottle, set it up."
By now you probably have some idea of what it's like to catch a first ball. Sometimes it's a pain. "Some guys try to throw as hard as they can," says Mike Macfarlane of the Royals, "but eight times out of 10, it's in the dirt. You don't wear your mask out there, but definitely your cup." Sometimes it's fun. "When I was at Memphis," says Macfarlane, "this 13-year-old girl softball pitcher threw me a dart right in the middle of the plate. It shocked the heck out of me. She threw better than some guys on the team." And sometimes it's rewarding. Dave Valle of the Mariners once caught the U.S. Treasurer, and she gave him an autographed $1 bill to commemorate the occasion. "I still have it," says Valle.
But what's it like throwing a first ball? Former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill says he practiced for two weeks before his first ball in the 1986 World Series. "You know the crowd is going to boo the hell out of you, but the first ball is a thrill you can't turn down," he says. "I would drag my administrative assistant out into the hall of the Capitol, and we'd practice right there. We'd start off at 15 feet, then 18, then 20. People would be walking right by us because Congress was in session at the time. I'm sure they understood what was at stake. By the time the game rolled around, I was ready." And Tip threw a strike.
Then there is Kuhn. He may be the unofficial first pitch champion, having presided over baseball for 15½ years, the second-longest tenure of any commissioner. He has thrown out hundreds of first balls all over the world: in the U.S., Canada, Japan, Mexico, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and the People's Republic of China. "I loved the first ball ceremony," he says. "I had a reasonably good arm, so I didn't mind showing it off from the mound. I do remember two embarrassing instances, though. One was in Jacksonville about 10 years ago. I was all set to throw out the first ball at a minor league game there, but while I'm standing in the box with the ball in my hand, I hear the crack of the bat. They had started the game without me.
"The second occurred at a ceremony in Riverside, California. For a reason I can't recall, Stan Musial was at the plate, and Monte Irvin was the catcher. Stan says, 'How about if I swing at your first pitch?' I thought that was a great idea. But I looked at Stan in the batter's box in that stance of his, and I suddenly felt like all those National League pitchers must have felt. I couldn't for the life of me throw the ball over the plate. After three pitches I gave up."
Stripped of the pomposity and costumes and gimmickry, the first ball ceremony can still mean something. Al Newman, an in-fielder with the Minnesota Twins in 1991 and now a scout with the club, was honored before Game 1 of the '91 Series, not as the thrower but as the receiver. The pitcher was Steve Palermo, the American League umpire recovering from a gunshot wound he had received earlier that summer as he chased a fleeing mugger, and he specifically asked that Newman be his catcher. "Steve and I always seemed to talk when we were on the field, but I had no idea he was going to pick me," says Newman. "It was very touching. It brought a tear to my eye. Later I asked him why he picked me, and he said, 'I respect you and the way you play the game.' It's one of my great moments in baseball."
One of the most eloquent first ball ceremonies came before the resumption of the 1989 "Earthquake" World Series in the Bay Area, when 12 ordinary people who had done extraordinary things for emergency services during the disaster were given the honor for Game 3 at Candlestick Park. Says Giant coach Bob Brenly, who caught one ball, "They picked the right people that day. If ever there was an appropriate ceremony, that was it."
Every once in a while, that first pitch is a strike.