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Theodore Roosevelt and the Yankees (Highlanders)

by Paul Semendinger

(Originally published October 27, 2019)


I had the good fortune of spending time with the great Yankees historian Marty Appel last week. Over the course of our time together, he shared a plethora of stories about baseball and the Yankees including a very little known story about the 1908 Highlanders and president Theodore Roosevelt. (This story can be found in Marty Appel’s wonderful epic history of the Yankees, Pinstripe Empire.)

It seems that in 1908, the Highlanders became the first ever baseball team to visit the White House. As relayed in Pinstripe Empire, the Highlanders were in first place early in the season when they traveled to Washington to play the Senators. During that trip to the nation’s capital, team visited the President’s home and met Theodore Roosevelt. This was the team’s (and I believe any team’s) first ever White House visit.

What makes this story great though, isn’t just the fact that as early as 1908 a team was visiting the President, but, as Mr. Appel shares, it was the fact that baseball resonated in the President’s home. It seems that Roosevelt’s son, Quentin, who was not present when the players stopped by, was extremely upset at missing this visit. Appel relates that the boy was “inconsolable” because he “worshiped” baseball players and that he knew all of their records.

Since Theodore Roosevelt was born on this day, October 27, in 1858, I decided to research this story to see what else I could find about this special visit.

In the book A Franchise on the Rise: The First Twenty Years of the New York Yankees, author Dom Amore shares that the Highlanders’ manager Clark Griffith brought the team to the White House after their game with the Senators had been rained out. It seems that Roosevelt hadn’t been much of a fan of the game, but he also relays that his son, Quentin was. In this book, Amore shares that Quentin actually played baseball at school with Charlie Taft, whose father, William Howard Taft, would also become President of the United States (succeeding Roosevelt in 1909).

In this text, it seems that as part of the visit, Clark Griffith encouraged Roosevelt to seek reelection that year, but that the President had already decided against it. He also shares that Roosevelt told the team how much his son loved the game.

In his book, A History of the Baseball Fan, Fred Stein recounts the relationships between many of the presidents and baseball. Stein also recounts that Theodore Roosevelt was not a big fan of the game. In fact, he called baseball a “molleycoddle” game. It seems that the rugged Roosevelt preferred more hearty sports such as football and boxing among others. Still, the book recounts that the Highlanders did visit Roosevelt at the White House in 1908. In this text, I also learned that the Cleveland Nats (later the Indians) also visited with Theodore Roosevelt at the White House that year. Interestingly, there is no account of the actual team from Washington, the Senators, ever visiting the President. One can also assume that Roosevelt never attended a game because it was his successor, William Howard Taft, who was the first president to attend a game in 1909. Interestingly, that Senator’s team was managed by Clark Griffith, the man who brought the Highlanders top see Roosevelt just one year prior. (Stein also notes that Taft was the first President to throw out a first pitch which took place the next year, in 1910.)

William B. Mead and Paul Dickson authored Baseball: The Presidents’ Game. In this text, they spend about four pages on Theodore Roosevelt and his relationship with the game. In this book, the authors share that representatives from “The National Association of Professional Base Ball Leagues” visited the White House in 1907 and presented Theodore Roosevelt with a 14-karat gold season pass to any baseball game in the USA or Canada. In presenting this pass to the president, one member stated that he wanted to prove to him that there were no “mollycoddles” in baseball.

This book also shares that another of Roosevelt’s sons, Kermit, also played the game and that his school team once played another Washington, D.C. team on the grounds of the White House. According to the text, Kermit’s team won 23-4.

The thoroughly detailed and outstanding Baseball Reference web page also has a few great nuggets about Theodore Roosevelt and his relationship to the game. It seems his son, Theodore, was a back-up on the baseball team at Harvard. This page also shares the following quote from Theodore Roosevelt himself regarding baseball:

“I like to see Quentin (Roosevelt) practicing baseball. It gives me hope that one of my boys will not take after his father in this respect, and will prove able to play the national game.”

How great is that? (Maybe the reason T.R. didn’t like the game was that he found his skills in that area lacking.)

The Baseball Reference page also shares that the great Ted Williams (named Theodore Samuel Williams – although his birth certificate reads “Teddy”) was named after Theodore Roosevelt.

Finally, the wonderful site Baseball Almanac shares this great poem, “A Tip To Teddy” written by the legendary Grantland Rice in 1909 just before (or just after) Theodore Roosevelt left office:

That’s the only job for you, take your tip now, Theodore, Think of how your pulse will leap when you hear the angry roar. Of the bleacher gods in rage, you will find the action there, Which you’ve hunted for in vain, in the Presidential chair. Chasing mountain lions and such, catching grizzlies will seem tame, Lined up with the jolt you’ll get in the thick of some close game. Choking angry wolves to death as a sport will stack up raw, When you see Kid Elberfeld swinging for your under jaw. When you hear Hugh Jennings roar, “Call them strikes, you lump of cheese!” Or McGraw rushing in, kicking at your shins and knees.

Keen Yankees fans will see a name in that passage of an early Yankees (Highlanders) legend – Kid Elberfeld, a scrappy, fiery infielder who played for New York from 1903 through 1909. Elberfeld came to the Highlanders in the first season, 1903, from Detroit a story that also deserves to be looked at further…

And this, THIS!, is what makes baseball so wonderful. What began as a quick look into one small event became a trip through baseball history, a journey that once started, never seems to end…

We’ll end this piece here before I start researching all about Kid Elberfeld, Clark Griffith, and the other ballplayers of those by-gone days.


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