The history of bipartisan congressional baseball dates back more than 100 years, though the game hasn’t always been played.
The current iteration of the game for charity goes back to 1962, when it was revived by Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts with the backing of Sid Yudain and the then-young Roll Call newspaper.
A few years earlier the game had been stopped, thanks to Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas. It had been played on and off until Rayburn temporarily stopped the series, with the first recorded contest having taken place back in 1909.
In an account from The New York Times archived by the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., Rayburn’s discontinuation of the game was explained as also having the backing of the Capitol’s physician.
“You gotta have heart to be a lawmaker, too, they argued,” the Times said. “It would be foolish for Congressmen to flirt with coronary thrombosis while the town still has the Washington Senators to supply laughter at the ball park.”
The Senators, of course, were a perennially hapless franchise, with the baseball writer Charles Dryden line about Washington being “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League,” largely sticking with the team.
A Roll Call retrospective for the 100th anniversary of the 1909 match-up told the story of the game’s humble origins far away from the modern event played at Nationals Park.
Rep. John Tener, who started the pick-up game, was a Pennsylvania Republican who played for the old Baltimore Orioles, Chicago White Stockings and Pittsburgh Burghers, before becoming National League president.
The venue was the old American League Park off Florida Avenue in Northeast Washington, home of the original Washington Senators.
As Roll Call reported in 2009:
The tradition began as any bipartisan event would — with lots of arguing.
The Democrats didn’t think it was fair for Tener to play for the Republicans, given his experience, and the Republicans, for lack of a better argument, wanted to win. The two sides reached an accord allowing Tener to play, but not atop the mound. He’d stand between second and third instead. Without their star pitcher, the Republicans lost the inaugural game, 26-16.
When Tener left Washington to serve as governor of Pennsylvania in 1910, the game took a year off — and it wouldn’t be the last hiatus. From 1927 to 1932, the players took the field only once, in 1928. The tradition gained steam after World War II, when the Washington Evening Star agreed to sponsor the event.
The game moved around major league stadiums when it was played over the years, making stops at Griffith Stadium and RFK Stadium, as well as the old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore and other venues like Four Mile Run Park in Alexandria, Va., and Prince George’s Stadium in Bowie, Md.
And Tener was not the only major leaguer to be a ringer in congressional baseball. The best pro in the game’s history was undoubtedly former Sen. Jim Bunning. The Kentucky Republican, who passed away May 26, made his congressional baseball debut in 1987.
Bunning’s Hall of Fame career included a perfect game for the Philadelphia Phillies against the New York Mets in 1964 at Shea Stadium, but his debut in congressional baseball did not go nearly as well. The Democrats won that contest in an offense-filled affair, 15-14. Bunning was a House member at the time.
According to the account from Cooperstown, future President Gerald Ford hit the first recorded grand slam during the 1957 contest.
The game has become a highlight of the summer in Washington for Republicans and Democrats on Capitol, and it serves as an important fundraiser for several charities in the national capital region.
The 2017 contest, which is expected to take place as scheduled Thursday, will be raising money for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, as well as the Nationals Dream Foundation and the Washington Literacy Center.