We pick up the story in 1961. Members of Congress had gone three years without their beloved baseball game after Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) put a stop to the event, citing a rash of injuries.
That year, Rep. Carroll Kearns (R-Pa.) and Sid Yudain, founder of Roll Call, took the first step toward reviving and improving on a lost tradition.
According to Yudain, Kearns was curious about declining interest in Washington’s baseball team, the Senators. Kearns, who died in 1976, suggested a home run contest for Members of Congress in conjunction with a Senators game. Not surprisingly, lawmakers “got excited to be in the same category as Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle and people like that,” Yudain said.
“When it was over, they asked if they could play more games,” he added. “That’s when we decided to form teams and play as a prelude to a Senators game at Griffith Stadium.”
And so the contest was reborn in 1962 as the Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game, an event filled with camaraderie (get used to that word), competition, charity — and even, on occasion, some decent baseball.
Republicans and Democrats return to Nationals Park tonight for the 50th installment of the game, and though the Democrats have been the better team of late, Republicans have dominated the past five decades. The GOP is 33-16-1 in the Roll Call era, having captured 10 coveted Roll Call trophies to the Democrats’ two. (A trophy is permanently awarded to whichever team wins three out of five games, playing one each year.)
While the players compete to win — managers have been known to take the trophy to the House floor to show off in front of the competition and C-SPAN cameras — victory never seemed to be the driving force. For many Members, getting on the field offered opportunities to build relationships and accomplish legislative goals, as well as to raise money for local charities.
“The guys who work out together have a natural camaraderie. A couple subcommittee members could get an agreement [on the field] easier than around a table,” said former Rep. Bob Michel (Ill.), who pitched for the Republicans in the 1960s and threw a shutout in the ’62 game.
Former Rep. Marty Russo (D-Ill.), a two-time most valuable player who now serves as a public address announcer for the game, agreed.
“It created a lot of relationships. Some of my closest friends — [former Republican players] [Mike] Oxley, [Zach] Wamp, [Kenny] Hulshof — I got to know them just because of the baseball game,” he said. “I think it’s the one thing that’s left where Members get to have fun together.”
Yudain saw another reason for such bonding: respect for the game.
“There was a great camaraderie among the players. … The respect they had for sharing the same lockers with major league players” was clear, he said.
Of course, everyone wants to win.
“You might lose an election, but you didn’t want to lose the baseball game,” said Russo, whose teams fared better than many other Democratic squads. The party captured its first series in his fifth game, and he helped set the team up for its second series victory before stepping aside after the 1992 game.
But for the most part, the top talent has been on the GOP side, dating all the way back to 1909 when one-term Rep. John Tener (R-Pa.), an Irish immigrant who pitched for the Chicago White Stockings in the late 1880s, organized the first Congressional baseball game. The Democrats fought to keep Tener off the mound, and the GOP conceded, moving Tener to shortstop, but still won the game, 26-16.
Sixty years later, the parties fought the same battle when another former major league pitcher, Rep. Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell (N.C.), joined the GOP squad. After the one-time Cardinal, Pirate and Met pitched the Republicans to a 6-2 victory in 1969, the Democrats insisted he play a different position. Despite giving in, the Republicans continued their winning streak.
After losing the second Roll Call-sponsored game, in 1963, the GOP did not lose again until 1975 (Russo’s first game).
Then came NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent (R-Okla.), who dominated from the mound, compiling a 5-1 record and winning the MVP award three times.
Of course, not all professional athletes have excelled in this game. Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning — a former Republican Senator from Kentucky, Philadelphia Phillie and Detroit Tiger — gave up five runs before getting the hook and taking the loss in his only Congressional baseball appearance. And the jury is still out on former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler, a Democratic House Member from North Carolina.
The game has even featured two presidents (Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford) and at least one governor (Bill Richardson of New Mexico). But it’s been the characters, not necessarily the biggest names, who have defined the game during the years.
Take Rep. Silvio Conte (Mass.), who managed the Republican team through an 11-game winning streak and once smacked a double while on crutches. Russo remembers Conte reading a poem after games, and Yudain recalls Conte’s cigar. “He just looked like an old-fashioned baseball manager,” Yudain said.
Once upon a time, in pre-Roll Call days, the Democrats dominated the game. But then Rayburn put a stop to the on-field competition — and to Democratic momentum: According to a history maintained by the Clerk of the House, Democrats won 19 of the 27 games played from 1909 to 1957. Having won the two most recent games, Democrats could be poised for another long period of domination. Or perhaps the Republicans’ electoral wins in 2010 will renew their winning ways. Either way, there’s one element that is unlikely to change.
“I still go for the camaraderie of the thing,” Michel said. “It’s nice to come down to the major league park and watch the game.”
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.