POPULAR MEMORY has been unkind to William Howard Taft, twenty-seventh President of the United States, who surely would have wished to be remembered for something nobler than his weight. At 300 pounds, he is the heaviest commander-in-chief on record. It's the rare biographical sketch that doesn't mention the giant bathtub — spacious enough to accommodate four average-sized men — specially built for him in the White House.
Baseball history has accorded him somewhat more dignity, for it was Taft, some 100 years ago, who launched the tradition of the Presidential first pitch on opening day. The occasion was a game between the Washington Senators and the Philadelphia Athletics on April 14, 1910 at Griffith Stadium. Apparently on the spur of the moment, umpire Billy Evans handed Taft the ball after the rival managers had been introduced and asked him to throw it over home plate. The President did so with delight. Nearly every chief executive since Taft (the sole exception being Jimmy Carter) has opened at least one baseball season during their tenure by tossing out the first ball.
Taft and the seventh-inning stretch
Legend has it that Taft inspired another baseball tradition on that same day, quite by accident. As the face-off between the Senators and the Athletics wore on, the rotund, six-foot-two president reportedly grew more and more uncomfortable in his small wooden chair. By the middle of the seventh inning he could bear it no longer and stood up to stretch his aching legs — whereupon everyone else in the stadium, thinking the president was about to leave, rose to show their respect. A few minutes later Taft returned to his seat, the crowd followed suit, and the "seventh-inning stretch" was born.
A charming tale, but folklorists have a saying: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't.
Consider the story of Brother Jasper of Mary, F.S.C., the man credited with bringing baseball to Manhattan College in the late 1800s. Being the Prefect of Discipline as well as the coach of the team, it fell to Brother Jasper to supervise the student fans at every home game. On one very muggy day in 1882, during the seventh inning of play against the semi-pro Metropolitans, the Prefect saw his charges were becoming restless and called a time-out, instructing everyone in the bleachers to stand up and unwind. It worked so well he began calling for a seventh-inning rest period every game. The Manhattan College custom spread to the major leagues after the New York Giants were charmed by it at an exhibition game, and the rest is history.
Or not, as the case may be. As it turns out, baseball historians have located a manuscript dated 1869 — 13 years before Brother Jasper's inspired time-out — documenting what can only be described as a seventh-inning stretch. It's a letter written by Harry Wright of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first pro baseball team. In it, he makes the following observation about the fans' ballpark behavior: "The spectators all arise between halves of the seventh inning, extend their legs and arms and sometimes walk about. In so doing they enjoy the relief afforded by relaxation from a long posture upon hard benches."
History vs. folklore
Truth be known, we have no idea where and when the custom of the seventh-inning stretch began. Based on the evidence that exists, it's doubtful the phenomenon originated with William Howard Taft, or even Brother Jasper. We know it's at least as old as 1869, that it cropped up in various places afterward and that it eventually became a solid tradition. No record of the phrase "seventh-inning stretch" exists before 1920, by which time the practice was already at least 50 years old.
Where history cannot tell the whole story, folklore arises to fill in the gaps.
- "Baseball History." Official Site of Major League Baseball.
- Dickson, Paul. The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary. New York: Harvest Books, 1999.
- Schlossberg, Dan. The New Baseball Catalog. New York: Jonathan David, 1998.
- "What's a Jasper?" Manhattan College Website.
- "William Howard Taft." White House History.