One can almost compare the Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game to the typical family’s Thanksgiving football matchup. It’s all in good fun, everyone wears a smile — but there’s also a heck of a lot of pride on the line.
And as Democrats and Republicans take to the diamond for the 43rd consecutive year tonight, what many fans and players might not realize is that Members have been fighting their partisan baseball battle in and around Washington for nearly a full century.
Congressional baseball was founded by Rep. John Tener (R-Pa.), an Irish immigrant who pitched for the Chicago White Stockings for four years in the late 1880s.
After retiring from baseball with a lifetime record of 24 wins and 33 losses (and a .235 batting average), Tener moved to Pennsylvania, where in 1908 he was elected in the 24th district.
During his one term, Tener, who eventually became president of baseball’s National League, organized the first baseball game between Members in 1909 at American Park, located at Ninth and S streets Northwest. Proving that egos were on the line even then, the two parties fought over whether to allow Tener to play for the GOP. True to form, the Members debated the issue heavily and a compromise was reached: Tener stayed off the pitcher’s mound but was allowed to play shortstop. The move didn’t work out well for the Republicans, who ended up losing the game 26-16.
After Tener left Congress to become governor of Pennsylvania in 1910, Members continued to play baseball, but on a sporadic basis for 37 years.
The spirit of the game was given new life following World War II when, in 1946, The Evening Star newspaper became the official sponsor.
Again the Democrats came out strong, winning three straight contests before the GOP went on a five-game run. During Roll Call’s first year of publication, the newspaper that would become synonymous with Hill baseball covered the GOP’s 12-4 victory in June 1955. Chief Justice Earl Warren threw out the first pitch.
In the late 1950s, injuries — including a collision in 1956 in which Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) dislocated Rep. Tom Curtis’ (D-Mo.) arm — as well as lean charity fundraising put an end to the annual contest. Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) called off the game in 1958 citing safety concerns.
But the tradition was revived gradually. In 1960, some Members and baseball buffs worked to boost lagging morale surrounding the major league Washington Sen-ators and gate receipts at Griffith Stadium. As part of the project, Roll Call began sponsoring a “Roll Call Night” at the ballpark in 1960, featuring batting and hitting contests preceding the regular Senators games.
The modern era of Congressional baseball began in 1962, when the annual “Roll Call Night” included a three-inning showdown between Democratic and Republican Members. On that May evening 42 years ago, 2,000 fans watched the GOP win 4-0. (For more on the game’s revival, read about Roll Call Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Charlie Brotman on p. 22.)
And while that historic night also marked the first time the coveted Roll Call trophy was presented by Roll Call founder Sid Yudain — each trophy is “retired” by whichever team wins a best-of-five series, with one game played each year — the event didn’t receive much attention around D.C.
“Congressmen are incensed over the local press treatment of the Congressional baseball game last Tuesday night,” Yudain wrote in a March 30, 1962, column. “Local papers refused to cover the event, carried no advance stories and completely blacked out the interesting game itself. It points up the local press snubbing of the Congress which has gone on for years and years. If it isn’t legislation, it’s disregarded. Fortunately, Roll Call came along to provide a medium through which Congressional buffs can find out what’s going on in the most important community in the world.”
Publicity and game intensity grew during the first 10 years of Roll Call sponsorship, and the GOP proved a dominating force by winning nine games and three consecutive trophies. The single Democratic victory came in 1963, when the GOP was dismantled 11-0. A Washington Senators warmup pitcher hurled for both teams that game, and the one-sided battle led some Republicans to question the pro’s impartiality.
But overall, the Democrats’ performance in the game’s early years proved disappointing. After the GOP’s easy 8-3 victory in 1971, Roll Call reported on July 22, “Some 2,400 Congressmen, aides and baseball enthusiasts jammed the Longworth Cafeteria for a pre-game pep rally, filled up on hot dogs, beer, Dixieland music, then bused out to RFK Stadium to watch Speaker Carl Albert toss out the first ball — one of the few things the Democrats did right in the annual Roll Call classic.”
Democrats got their first taste of victory, and more importantly the trophy, in 1979. After 18 years of trying, the Democrats finally put away a series by defeating the GOP 7-3. Roll Call attributed that victory to “timely hitting, reckless abandon on the bases and a fine pitching performance by Rep. Ron Mottl (Ohio). Several fielding lapses by the Republicans in crucial situations also contributed heavily to the Democratic win.”
But the 1979 game almost wasn’t:
“For a while, fans worried that the 18th annual game might be postponed following the cloudbursts that poured down in the early afternoon. But some people in the stands held up a sign that warned: ‘Notice: In case of rain, the baseball committee will accept God’s resignation.’”
As the game grew, the 1980s turned into a slugfest, with 1988 proving to be one of the most exciting games in the history of the competition.
After taking a seven-run lead in the fourth inning, the Democrats watched the GOP rally to within a single run in the sixth. In the top of the last inning, the Democrats seemed assured of victory when they pushed their lead to three with a bases-loaded single by Rep. Tom Downey (N.Y.). But the Republicans never gave up. After pulling within one run in the bottom of the final inning, the captain, Rep. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), came to the plate to face Rep. Mel Levine (D-Calif.), who had already thrown some 200 pitches that day. Coats slammed the ball to deep center to secure the tying and winning runs.
By 1990 the game was drawing some 4,000 fans a year and garnering national attention. The guest announcer for that year’s GOP victory was sports personality Brent Musburger, who praised both teams after the game and was quoted as saying, “You know what surprised me? You didn’t see too many fat guys out there.”
After a memorable 1992 contest, which was rained out twice before the GOP prevailed, 1993 marked the first time women played. That year Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) got in on the action.
In more recent years, injuries have unfortunately been a memorable part of the game. Among them: In 1996 Rep. Tim Holden (D-Pa.) broke his nose, cheekbone and jaw in a collision with Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.). In 2000, elbow surgery kept the GOP’s star pitcher, then-Rep. Steve Largent (Okla.), off the mound.
As the game gets under way tonight, the overall record has the GOP ahead with 28 wins to the Democrats’ 13 (in 1983 the game ended in a 17-17 tie after eight innings) and the Republicans are gunning for a 2-0 lead in the current series. The GOP has already retired eight trophies, while the Democrats have two.
But the Republicans aren’t bored by their success, and the Democrats haven’t given up. After 95 years of Congressional baseball in Washington — including 43 years of Roll Call sponsorship — both sides have learned not to take defeat too personally. After all, there’s always next year.
Sen Mary Landrieu, D-La., poses for a selfie with LSU football fans as she campaigns at tailgate parties on the Louisiana State University campus before the LSU-Mississippi State game on Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. Buy photo here.