Four decades after the first official Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game was played at what was then Washington’s newest sports venue, history seems to have proved that in partisan baseball battles, as in life, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Having spent the past nine years at Prince George’s Stadium in Bowie, Md., and at several other venues before that, Congress’ yearly hardball matchup followed Major League Baseball’s lead by returning to the nation’s capital and Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium this year for the 44th annual competition. And though none of today’s players was on the field during those first 11 years that Congressional baseball was played just a stone’s throw from the Capitol Dome, the similarities between today’s contest and those of yesteryear are striking.
Members still take this annual rivalry pretty darn seriously, pitching continues to be the biggest concern for both teams and the Republicans just keep on dominating the game.
The Democratic team, led by 19-year veteran skipper Rep. Martin Sabo (Minn.), heads into tonight’s game in the familiar position of having its back against the wall. The Republicans could sweep the current best-of-five series with a win tonight and hand their manager, Rep. Mike Oxley (Ohio), his second coveted Roll Call trophy. In the 11 series completed since 1962, the GOP has captured nine trophies (and 29 games) to the Democrats’ two titles (and 13 games).
“It never gets old,” Oxley said. “If anything, there’s more pressure to retire my second coveted Roll Call trophy.”
But hope springs eternal for the Democrats.
“We have basically all our players returning ... and we take them one game at a time,” Sabo said. “It’ll be a a different experience, playing in an actual major league field.”
While the modern era of Congressional baseball began in 1962 at what was then known as D.C. Stadium with a Roll Call-sponsored three-inning showdown between Democratic and Republican Members, the full history of the contest can be traced back to 1909. It was that year that then-Rep. John Tener (R-Pa.), an Irish immigrant who pitched for four years for the Chicago White Sox in the 1880s, organized a baseball game between Members on both sides of the aisle at American Park, located at Ninth and S streets Northwest. In order to accommodate Democratic demands that the one-time professional pitcher play another position, Tener moved to shortstop. Democrats were right to fight that point — they ended up winning the game 26-16.
Tener left Congress to become governor of Pennsylvania in 1910, but the tradition stuck and Members continued to play baseball on a sporadic basis for 37 years.
After World War II, the game became more formalized when the now-defunct Evening Star newspaper became the contest’s official sponsor in 1946. During its first year of publication in June 1955, Roll Call even covered the GOP’s 12-4 victory over the Democrats.
By the late 1950s, a rash of injuries as well as lean charity fundraising threatened to end the contest and, in 1958, Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) called off the game indefinitely, citing safety concerns.
But in the early 1960s, what started off as an effort to boost lagging gate receipts for Washington’s Major League Baseball team, the Senators, turned into a full-fledged revival of Congressional baseball as Roll Call founder Sid Yudain helped re-establish the contest. The star of the first game of the Roll Call era was future House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.), who hurled a shutout that May evening.
“I had a great old string of wins there. ... All they were looking for back in those days was someone who could get the ball over the plate,” said Michel, who helped lead the GOP to nine victories in the first 10 years of the Roll Call era. Michel remains part of the game today, often returning to Congressional matchups since leaving Congress in 1995.
“I must say overall we’ve got some better players today than we had back in the old days,” he said.
Over the years, the game has drawn a growing fanbase as well as more and more money for charity. Last year, the Congressional baseball game was played in front of 4,878 spectators and raised about $100,000 for charity (see related story, page 26).
Members on both teams are confident that the contest’s return to RFK will make this year’s game the biggest yet.
“This is big-time now, after 31 years, to be able to come back and have Congressional baseball in a major league park,” Oxley said.
But RFK will also present the teams with a new set of challenges.
“I went to the opener for the Nationals, and the gaps are huge out there in the outfields,” Oxley said. “I may have to issue my outfielders motor scooters.”
Sabo, too, scouted a Nationals game to see how the field at RFK could affect his game plan.
“It’s got a big foul area, and that should put a few more foul balls into play. How that will affect either team I don’t know,” he said.
But the outcome of tonight’s game will most likely fall on the shoulders of each team’s pitching staff — and in that department, the Democrats may have an advantage.
Last year’s 14-7 thrashing of the Democrats by the GOP was lead by Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who, as he did in the 2003 contest, pitched a complete game. But, after undergoing heart surgery in the off-season to repair a genetic heart condition known as severe mitral valve regurgitation, Shimkus took himself out of this year’s lineup and will be helping to lead the team from the dugout.
“Pitching is a big part of the game,” Oxley confessed. “I’ve been blessed over the years with great pitchers. I might have to hold a ‘Gong Show’ to find some pitching talent this year.”
“The last year they had pitching turmoil, we won,” Sabo observed, referring to the 2000 game. That year, the GOP’s star pitcher, then-Rep. Steve Largent (Okla.), was forced to give up the ball and play outfield. Leading 8-5 in the final inning, the Republican pitching staff couldn’t close out the game and allowed the Democrats to pull out a 13-8 victory.
Even though Shimkus has stabilized the GOP pitching and restored Republicans to their winning ways, players on both benches said they’re sad to see Shimkus leave the mound.
“I’m disappointed personally that Shimkus won’t be able to pitch because he’s done a great job in the past,” said Rep. Mel Watt (N.C.), the Democrats’ pitcher for the past 10 contests and the man who allowed a 13-run rally that effectively sealed last year’s contest in the second inning. “I personally would like the challenge of playing against their best.”
And Watt said the Democrats shouldn’t read too much into the loss of the GOP ace: “When Largent left, everyone thought it was the end of the world. I expect they have some ringers down their bench that will step up. They’ve got some people over there that aren’t fooling me. Oxley’s just playing possum.”
A side story in tonight’s game will also be whether Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) makes it past the first inning.
Brady left the 2003 contest in the opening frame after breaking and dislocating his left shoulder when he collided with Rep. Tim Holden (D-Pa.) at home plate. He didn’t make it any further last year, leaving the game after straining his right calf muscle while running to second on a hit by Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.).
“I may not even put him in until the second inning so he can say he made it past the first this year,” Oxley joked.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.