Lawmakers In The Outfield: The Story Behind The Congressional Baseball Game

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Former Sen. Rick Santorum played in the 2005 Congressional Baseball Game. The tradition dates back to 1909. (Shaun Heasley/Getty Images)
Former Sen. Rick Santorum played in the 2005 Congressional Baseball Game. The tradition dates back to 1909. (Shaun Heasley/Getty Images)

Sen. Rand Paul wants you to know something about the Republican baseball team:

"We really try to win," he says. "There's no messing around. This isn't kinda like the Washington Generals vs. the Harlem Globetrotters. We are trying. It may not look we're trying."

Each summer, Republican and Democratic lawmakers meet in the Congressional Baseball Game. Since before Paul took office in 2011, the Republicans have been in a bit of a slump.

And there's a simple reason for that: the Democrats have a ringer.

Cedric Richmond, a Rep. from Louisiana, pitched in college. (Word on the Hill is he can still sling it in the 80s.)

Sen. Rand Paul is a regular in the Republican lineup for the Congressional Baseball Game. (David Greedy/Getty Images)
Sen. Rand Paul is a regular in the Republican lineup for the Congressional Baseball Game. (David Greedy/Getty Images)

"And they're not ashamed of keeping him in, hell or high water," Paul says. "If they're ahead 27-0, they're pitching him in the last inning."

Now, just to be fair, that's a bit of an exaggeration. But not much of one. In 2013, the Democrats did win 22-0 – and Richmond did pitch the whole game. In 2014, the Democrats won 15-6. In 2015, it was 5-2. That marked the seventh straight GOP loss.

But Rand Paul and his Republican teammates still showed up to Nationals Park again last June for the annual game.

"Going into that game, what was sort of the talk in the Republican locker room?" I ask.

"Well, for years the talk had been that, 'Those damn Democrats, they believe in so many regulations that we should propose a new regulation -- and the regulation should be that their best pitcher should only be allowed to pitch for two innings," Paul says. "But we found it quite ironic that, as much as they love regulating the economy, not one of them was for this new baseball regulation to limit their best player's pitching time."

"We found it quite ironic that, as much as [Democrats] love regulating the economy, not one of them was for this new baseball regulation to limit their best player's pitching time."

Sen. Rand Paul

So the pesky Democrats once again gave the ball to Richmond.

But this time, the Republicans caught up to him. And in the final inning, with the score tied at 7, Republican Tom Rooney stepped to the plate with a runner on third.

Rooney singled, and the Republicans won.

"We were quite excited," Paul says, "and we're anxious to defend our title this year."

This year's game will be played on June 15 — as specified by our founding fathers in the constitution.

Nah, just kidding.

But where does this silly tradition come from? Turns out, the idea behind it wasn't so silly.

Let's go back to an era not unlike our own.

Tariff Talk

"It was pretty tense in both the House and the Senate. People just kinda stopped talking to each other," says Mary Craig, a Ph.D. student in political science at Baylor University.

She's been researching the first decade of the 20th century.

"There were a lot of companies, particularly in Europe, who wanted get into and create an American market for their products," she says.

The big issue was tariffs. Democrats wanted them higher to protect U.S. industry.

New Republican president William Howard Taft wanted to lower them to boost consumerism. When Taft took office in 1909, he immediately tried to push through his agenda.

"So he created a special Congressional session, just to try and pass a tariff bill," Craig explains. "It did not go smoothly at all. The Senate and the House Republicans had vastly different ideas of what they wanted the bill to look like."

(Sound familiar?) Anyways, on one side, there were the House Republicans, who mostly backed the president's plan. And on the other were wealthy Republican Senators, who Craig says wanted to raise certain tariffs to protect their own companies from foreign competition.

"People just could not come to an agreement, even within their own party," she says.

A Pitcher In Congress 

One of the Republicans in the House who supported Taft's effort to lower tariffs was a fellow from Pennsylvania named John Tener.

Tener was a newcomer to Congress — and he had taken an unusual path to office. After losing both his parents at a young age, Tener became the first in his family to graduate from high school. He was a good athlete, and in 1888 he joined the Chicago White Stockings as a pitcher.

"His very first start in the major leagues, he lost 14 [to] nothing," Craig says. "So, I mean, at that point, it's like, could it possibly get worse?"

In Tener's case, the answer was sorta yes. After two decent years in Chicago, he joined his hometown Pittsburgh Burghers. He posted a 3-11 record with an ERA over 7. It was his last season in Major League Baseball.

Tener transitioned to finance and worked his way up from teller to bank president. He was known in town for personally greeting customers.

With a rags-to-riches story plus a dash of sports celebrity, Tener was a blue chip political prospect. And in 1908, he ran for the House — and won.

Tener favored lowering tariffs — but perhaps his bigger concern was the growing strife within the Republican Party.

"He thought that all this in-fighting would damage their control over Congress, as well as any sort of momentum they had gained," Craig says. "And so he was very concerned that this would kind of be the end of the Republican Party — and therefore be the end of his political career. So he wanted to try and reconcile the Party."

His big plan was a charity baseball game. It would pit the Republicans against the Democrats — and his logic was pretty straightforward:

"Who among the Republicans could fight with one another when they had to do battle with the Democrats?" Craig explains.

So the Republicans were in. Then Tener went to the Democrats...

"So, at first the Democrats were really into the game. And then they realized that, 'Oh, no! There was this Major League pitcher who was gonna be the captain of the Republican team,'" Craig says. "You know, as poor as he had been in the Majors, he was still a lot better than anyone they had to offer. So they went to the Republicans and they essentially said, 'OK. We'll do this little charity game, but he cannot pitch against us because we don't wanna look like fools.'"

The Republicans agreed, and the game was on.

American League Park, site of the first Congressional Baseball Game. (Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)
American League Park, site of the first Congressional Baseball Game. (Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

Democrats Vs. Republicans 

Leading up to game day, Tener's plan seemed to be working. In their free time, the Republicans gathered for rounds of catch.

And on July 16, 1909, a thousand people ponied up a couple quarters each for a ticket to D.C.'s American League Park to watch the Congressmen take the field. It was an odd-looking bunch. Some wore straw hats; others preferred bowlers. Those who could fit into baseball pants wore them.

The game started respectably — it was tied 2-2 after one inning.

And then things started to fall apart.

General fitness was a key problem.

"More than one player collapsed rounding second base and had to be subsequently removed from the game or offered refreshments to try and revitalize them," Craig explains.

Even those who remained upright on the base paths sometimes struggled to remember which way to run.

And the defense wasn't much better.

"None of the outfielders caught any fly balls," Craig says. "They just kinda let them drop."

A bold strategy.

"There were a lot of errors," Craig says. "And then, at a certain point, they just kinda stopped counting errors because they had trouble figuring out who to specifically assign them to."

So neither team had much talent — but the Democrats did have a plan. Or, at least a willingness to bend the rules.

Going into the contest, the two sides had agreed to stick with nine players for the entire game. But early on, the Democrats started subbing in fresh players.

In a game in which some participants couldn't run 180 feet, that was a tremendous advantage.

There's some debate over the final score – maybe it was 26 to 16 – but everyone agrees the Democrats won.

"Minority Congressmen Wallop Republican Colleagues," read one newspaper headline.

An Unexpected Legacy 

But how about John Tener's brilliant plan to unite the Republican Party?

"So, after this game, it did nothing to solve the issues of the Republican Party — because, like, of course it didn't," Craig says. "So then they went back to Congress. And eventually, after a lot of fighting, they compromised a lot on the bill."

And by “compromise,” Craig means the wealthy Senators mostly got their way. The Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act was signed into law on Aug. 5, 1909.

"What's been the legacy of the bill that did eventually get passed?" I ask.

"It was completely torn apart by basically everybody in the country," Craig says. "People point to this as the destruction of the Republican Party at this point in time. So it's not a really great legacy for the bill."

No, you wouldn't think...

In the 1910 congressional elections, the Democrats took control of the House. The Republican Party split in two: the Progressives and the Old Guard.

So John Tener wasn't able to unite the Republican Party. But he did leave an unexpected legacy.

"People just kinda loved seeing these old, portly fellows giving baseball a go," Craig says. "Everybody absolutely loved the game. They thought it was just the funniest thing that they had ever seen."

Funny would be good in Washington these days, right?

To learn more about the first Congressional Baseball Game, check out Mary Craig's article for The Hardball Times, "A Comedy of Errors: The First Congressional Baseball Game"

This segment aired on May 27, 2017.

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Martin Kessler Producer, Only A Game
Martin Kessler is a producer at Only A Game.



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