Congress on the Diamond: A look at the highs and lows of a DC tradition

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Baseball was on the rise in the early 20th century.

The Boston Americans defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates five games to three in a best-of-nine series in 1903. And that was the first modern World Series.

It took six years, but Congress launched its own baseball showcase – usually the Democrats against the Republicans, but sometimes even lawmakers against the congressional press corps.

Imagine that now.

Late Rep. John Tener, R-Penn., grew up in what is now Northern Ireland. But after coming to the U.S., Tener played for an older version of the Baltimore Orioles, the Chicago White Stockings and the Pittsburgh Burghers prior to entering Congress. Tener founded the annual Congressional Baseball Game as a lawmaker – and then went on to serve as governor of Pennsylvania and president of the National League from 1913 to 1918.

The Democrats went on to win the first five congressional games.

World wars, concerns from the House speaker and the COVID-19 pandemic have periodically canceled congressional games over the years. But lawmakers have met on the ball diamond most years since 1909.

Lawmakers from both parties suit up for the latest installment of the parliamentary series on Wednesday night at Nationals Park, just blocks south of the U.S. Capitol. Republicans have won the past two games. In the ‘modern’ era of the game – played since 1962, Republicans recorded 36 wins to the Democrats’ 23 victories.

These days, the game is a scene. More than 20,000 fans are expected to cram into Nats Park. Many aides and interns bring signs, wear specialized T-shirts and transform parts of the stands into customized cheering sections for their lawmakers. Republican fans sit behind the GOP dugout. Democratic fans sit behind the Democrats’ dugout. The partisan crowd cheers when players for their side are announced and boo heartily against the opposition.

Sometimes in a not-so good-natured fashion.

Current House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., attended last year’s game along with then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. But not all House speakers have embraced the contest.

House Speaker Champ Clark, D-Mo., wasn’t a fan of the game. He often complained that the tilt interfered with congressional work – a grievance that is still lodged periodically today.

 In 1914, congressional players arranged to play a game in northern Washington, D.C., just as the House prepared to debate a spending bill on cotton damage. However, the lack of a quorum stalled debate on the House floor. A miffed Clark dispatched the House sergeant-at-arms to round up the players and haul them back to the Capitol. But rain canceled the game by the time the sergeant-at-arms arrived. Members reluctantly traveled back to the Capitol. But it was too late to resume debate on the cotton bill.

House Speaker Sam Rayburn, D-Texas, canceled the game in 1958 because of injuries. This attests to just how seriously members take the game. There have been some significant injuries over the years to players. There have also been some Pete Rose-Ray Fosse-esque collisions at home plate.

Then-Rep. and now Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, pushed a bunt down the third baseline on the first pitch of the 1994 game at Four Mile Run Park in northern Virginia. Late Rep. and former GOP manager Mike Oxley, R-Ohio, played first base. The throw came to the first base coaching box side of the bag. Brown collided with Oxley as he ran through the base, badly breaking his colleague’s arm. Oxley writhed in pain on the infield grass and required surgery.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn., had a major collision at home plate with Democrat catcher and former Rep. Tim Holden, D-Penn., in the 1995 game at Prince George’s County Stadium, home of the Bowie Baysox (AA affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles). Former Democrat manager and Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Penn., bloodied his nose in a play at the plate some years ago. And in the 2022 game, Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., crashed into Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., the Democrat catcher, at the plate. But Murphy hung on to the ball and Cammack was out.

Baseball and Congress seemingly go together.

A host of lawmakers has left a more significant mark on baseball than they did on Congress.

Late Rep. Ray Cannon, D-Wis., played for the Chicago Cubs in the preseason but never appeared in a Major League game. After he left Congress, Cannon served as counsel for Shoeless Joe Jackson after he was banned from baseball in the 1919 ‘Black Sox’ scandal. Jackson and other players for the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.

Late Rep. Pius Schwert, D-N.Y., played for the New York Yankees as a catcher in 1914 and 1915.

Late Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., served six terms in the House and two terms in the Senate. But Bunning is best known for his Hall of Fame exploits for the Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies. Bunning fired what was then only the seventh perfect game in Major League history in 1964. Bunning is also only one of five pitchers who threw no-hitters in both the American and National leagues.

Late Rep. Jacob Rupert, D-N.Y., was part of New York’s Tammany Hall political machine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After leaving Congress, Rupert attempted to purchase the New York Giants. That didn’t work out. So, Rupert acquired the New York Yankees instead. The Yankees back then were barely also-rans. Under Rupert’s ownership, the Yankees bought the contract of Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox. The Yankees quickly matured into one of the most legendary sports franchises in history. Rupert is now enshrined in Cooperstown.

Like Bunning, late Rep. Vinegar Bend Mizell, R-N.C., is better known for his pitching than his three terms in Congress in the late 1960s and mid-1970s. Mizell is a two-time all-star who played for the St. Louis. Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and was an original New York Met in 1962. Mizell pitched for the 1960 Pirates club that defeated the Yankees in one of the most dramatic finishes in World Series history.

Former Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla., is best known for his Hall of Fame career as a wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks. When he retired from football, Largent held the NFL’s records for most receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Largent served as the GOP’s starting pitcher in the mid-1990s. He pitched all seven innings (the Congressional games are seven innings, not nine) for the Republican squad in 1995, fanning nine and only allowing four hits and a walk.

Former Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., played third base for the Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s. It was reported for decades that Richardson was drafted by the then-Kansas City Athletics in 1966. But it took until the early 2000s until reporters determined that the A’s never drafted Richardson.

However, late Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., did pitch in the minor leagues for one season for the Albuquerque Dukes. But that was before the team became an affiliate with a big league club. Albuquerque was later associated with the Los Angeles Dodgers for nearly four decades.

Domenici may not have made it to the bigs. But he did have a claim to fame on the diamond. Pitching for the GOP in the 1974 Congressional game at old Memorial Stadium (then-home of the Baltimore Orioles), Domenici made quick work of future President Joe Biden, who played in the game as a senator from Delaware. Domenici got Biden to ground out once and struck out the future commander-in-chief in another at-bat.

‘I wouldn’t want to make a career out of hitting against him,’ a local newspaper quoted the future president about Domenici’s pitching. ‘He has some motion. I just took my cuts and hoped.’

There was a bit of irony in Biden’s appearance. It was long customary for lawmakers to don the uniforms of local MLB teams. They sometimes wear uniforms from colleges or high schools in their home districts. Minor league team uniforms occasionally made an appearance. All Republican players now wear the same uniform. The Democrats still mix it up. Residing in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1974, the future president wore a Philadelphia Phillies uniform – No. 46 to be exact. Today, Biden is the 46th president of the United States.

As a footnote, the only player Fox could find who wore No. 46 for Philadelphia in the 1970s was pitcher Dan Boitano. Boitano pitched one game for the Phils in 1978, bouncing around for several seasons with the Texas Rangers, Milwaukee Brewers and New York Mets. Of course, famous relief pitcher Tug McGraw wore No. 45 for the Phillies in those days. Pitcher Randy Lerch donned No. 47.

President Biden appears to be one of only three presidents who ever appeared in the Congressional game. President Gerald Ford played in the game when he served in the House – later becoming Minority Leader. Ford holds the distinction of hitting the first grand slam home run in the Congressional game in 1957.

President George H.W. Bush played in the game in the late 1960s when he represented Texas in the House in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

President George W. Bush never served in Congress and therefore never played. But Bush 43 owned the Texas Rangers in the 1990s.

Late Rep. James Richards, R-S.C., crystallized the spirit of the Congressional game in a 1948 floor speech.

Richards said members ‘drop the care and worries of Capitol Hill. Forget about the heat and temporary animosities of debate and go out at night to a baseball field where the great American game is played.’

Richards added that lawmakers play to ‘show the people of the United States that regardless of the fact that we sometimes differ on party matters, that after all we love our country and our flag. And like every boy in America, we love our national game, too.’

And that hasn’t changed much since the 1940s.

Except now, it’s boys and girls.

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