DC All-Star Game reminds us: Baseball, US history inextricably linked

DC All-Star Game reminds us: Baseball, US history inextricably linked
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“There’s no present or future — only the past, happening over and over again-now,” wrote Eugene O’Neill in his 1957 play, “A Moon for the Misbegotten”.

For Washington, hosting the Major League Baseball All-Star Game may not seem like “over and over again” — it last occurred in 1969 — but it is finally happening “now.” Tuesday marks D.C.’s fifth "Mid-Summer Classic," each memorable for the city and game. Each set a precedent in All-Star history, likely portending more novelty tonight.

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Washington’s All-Star story began July 7, 1937 when 31,391 at Griffith Stadium hailed Franklin Roosevelt entering the park and riding from right field in an open car, giving his clasped-hands salute.

 

In the third inning, New York Yankee Lou Gehrig blasted a two-run home run off the St. Louis Cardinals’ Dizzy Dean, “the stunning comic hero,” wrote critic Lloyd Lewis, “most famous of all living pitchers.”

Irate, Dizzy threw a fastball to the next batter, Earl Averill, whose drive struck a glancing blow off Dean’s left toe. “Your big toe is fractured,” a doctor told him.

“No, it ain’t,” said Diz. “It’s broke.”

Dean tried to return prematurely as a pitcher but altered his motion, hurting his arm and retiring in the early 1940s — the All-Star Game’s most seminal injury.

By D.C.’s second All-Star Game in 1956, Diz was an institution on CBS’ Game of the Week. President Dwight Eisenhower presided. The National League won, 7-3. Moreover, the match set another precedent: It was the only game in which the four mid-century colossi of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Stan Musial and Ted Williams all homered.

Griffith closed in 1961, succeeded by a park “with great football [but not baseball] sightlines,” according to The Washington Post's Shirley Povich. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy opened District of Columbia Stadium, later renamed for his brother, Robert.

JFK had been elected president two years earlier, and an All-Star vignette was born in the spring of 1960 as the Democratic candidate approached Musial to shake hands: “I’m Jack Kennedy,” the 42-year-old told the Cardinals great, then 39. “They tell me you’re too old to play baseball and I’m too young to be President, but maybe we’ll fool them.”

In the summer of 1962, D.C. Stadium hosted the capital’s third All-Star Game. Musial made the National League team by hitting an age-defying .330. Kennedy was delighted when Musial recalled their 1960 conversation, adding, “Mr. President, I guess we fooled ‘em.”

JFK threw out the first pitch. Pinch-hitting, Musial got the capacity 45,458 crowd’s loudest roar for any player. He spanked a single, left the game and heeded Kennedy’s wave to revisit his box, setting another precedent: No All-Star friendship had been as evident between a president and a player. The National League won, 3-1.

As professional baseball turned 100 in 1969, President Richard Nixon hosted a gala at the White House for more than 36 Hall of Famers, roughly 60 players and other members of baseball’s family prior to the All-Star Game at RFK.

Such a populist congregation — 400 in all — remains a precedent of “perfect storm”: baseball’s centennial; the capital; America’s most famed building thrown open as it rarely had been, with names rarely better known; and a president greeting every guest with facts and/or stories that moved one attendee to state, “The players, the old-timers, and the press all were astounded at Nixon’s memory and his interest.”

After the reception, Nixon had planned to attend the dinner and game, then take Air Force One for a Pacific Ocean rendezvous with the Apollo 11 astronauts who days earlier became the first humans to step on the moon. Sadly, a thunderstorm postponed the game, making it impossible for Nixon to go. 

Two days later, aboard the USS Hornet off Guam, the president asked the astronauts through the space capsule’s glass, “Were you told how the All-Star Game came out?” The N.L. won, 9-3. Memorably, the Washington Senators’ Frank Howard homered.

Unlike his four All-Star predecessors, President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE will not attend this game, resting after his international summit trek. He would never, in any case, have approached Nixon’s 1969 baseball tour de force, declining even to toss out the 2017-18 Nationals’ Opening Day first pitch.

As O’Neill might have mused, when something happens Tuesday night, it may involve comedy, drama, friendship, and/or injury, conjuring “the past, happening over and over again.”

Yet, if Washington’s first four All-Star Games form a precedent, tonight will also seem as fresh as spring chirps —and even after 49 years, as worth waiting for as a day right behind the rain.

Curt Smith is a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and the author of 17 books, including the new, "The Presidents and The Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House." Smith is an Associated Press-award-winning radio commentator and a senior lecturer of English at the University of Rochester.