In 1909, a new Capitol Hill tradition took root at American League Park in Washington, DC: the Congressional Baseball Game. Organized by first-term Representative and former professional baseball player John Tener of Pennsylvania, the ballgame took the region by storm. Cheered on by locals and staff, Democrats won that first outing convincingly over their Republican colleagues, 26-16.
Over the next few decades, Congress occasionally skipped games and, for a brief period, changed the format of the contest. For much of the 1930s, Democrats and Republicans played on the same team against members of the news media. After World War II, Democrats and Republicans once again squared off against one another and the format has remained the same ever since. The games proved popular, often drawing dignitaries, the press, and Presidents. Radio stations broadcast the game starting in 1928 and the Washington Evening Star officially sponsored it from 1946 to 1958.
At one point in 1914, Members spent so much time practicing for the game instead of attending to their legislative duties that Speaker James Beauchamp “Champ” Clark of Missouri dispatched the Sergeant-at-Arms to round up the players and bring them back to the House. Champ Clark was not the last Speaker to grow frustrated with the game. In 1958 Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas called a halt to the annual tradition saying that players had become too physical. But when John McCormack ascended to the Speakership in 1962, he quickly revived the game under the sponsorship of the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. Members have taken to the field every year since.
In addition to raising money for charity, the game carried bragging rights for the victors. As Illinois Democrat Martin Russo good-naturedly put it after the 2001 game, “You might lose an election, but you didn’t want to lose the baseball game.”
John Tener of Pennsylvania
Born in County Tyrone, Ireland, on July 25, 1863, John Tener immigrated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1872 with his family. At age 22, Tener started pitching for Haverhill, a minor league team in New England. He soon came to the attention of the National League and signed a contract with the Chicago White Stockings, pitching and doing much of the administrative work for the team while off the mound. Tener seemingly left baseball behind in 1890, turning to business and politics instead. But in 1909, during his first and only term in the House, Tener organized the initial Congressional Baseball Game. Unfortunately for baseball fans in the nation’s capital, Tener ran for governor of Pennsylvania in 1910 and was too busy with the campaign to organize a game that year—though the tradition continued in 1911. In 1914, after serving four years as governor, Tener returned to professional baseball and served as president of the National League until 1918.
Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell of North Carolina
John Tener was not the last professional baseball player to play in the Congressional Baseball Game. Wilmer Mizell, who went by the nickname “Vinegar Bend,” pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, and New York Mets before winning election from North Carolina in 1968. Vinegar Bend’s pitching sustained a Republican winning streak in the early 1970s. Representative Mizell combined his baseball past with his legislative present in Congress. In 1973, he cosponsored a resolution posthumously awarding fellow professional player Robert Walker Clemente the Congressional Gold Medal following his death while delivering disaster relief aid to Nicaragua.
As the makeup of Congress has changed over the years so too have the game-day rosters. The Congressional Baseball Game started as a House-only tradition; the first Senator didn’t pick up a bat until 1950. The first African-American players debuted in 1971 when District of Columbia Delegate Walter Fauntroy and California Representative Ronald Dellums joined the Democratic roster. Though Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, was selected to throw out the first pitch in 1917, she deferred to President Woodrow Wilson. Women didn’t take the field until 1993, when a bipartisan trio of women Members entered the starting lineup.
Congressional Softball Game
Sixteen years after women Representatives first played in the Congressional Baseball Game, Representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri organized the first Congressional Softball Game to benefit breast cancer charities. The new game pitted women Representatives and Senators against women members of the Capitol Hill press corps. Jean Schmidt of Ohio reflected on the spirit of the contest, “Many times we disagree on the aisle about issues, but we are here on the battlefield trying to beat the press corps, but most importantly to raise money to help women beat their disease of breast cancer.”
Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen talks about playing in the Congressional Softball Game over the years.
Red Cross Workers Sell Flowers at Congressional Baseball Game
The Congressional Baseball Game has long been a charity event, and contributions over the years have led to the foundation of a charitable society called Congressional Sports for Charity. In this photo, women with the Red Cross sell flowers at the 1917 Congressional Baseball Game, in which the Democrats squeaked out a victory over the Republicans, 22-21. All proceeds from ticket and souvenir sales benefited the Red Cross.
Congressional Baseball Game Ticket
The holder of this ticket to the 1953 Congressional Baseball Game attended the outing alongside several celebrities, including President Dwight Eisenhower, New York Yankee Joe DiMaggio, and heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano. Like other games, ticket proceeds went towards various charitable causes.
Representatives first took the field at American League Park in northwest Washington, DC, in 1909. Since then, the game has been played throughout the region, with Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia each having hosted the event. Since 2008, the game has been played at Nationals Park, the home of the Washington Nationals.
Congressional Baseball Game Cheerleaders
Many games have featured cheerleaders for the Members at bat. In this photo, the Democratic and Republican cheerleaders made a bipartisan showing, but there was no such comity on the diamond at the 1965 Congressional Baseball Game, which ended after only four innings with an unfortunate collision between two Members at second base.
Watching Game between Capitol Scribes and Congressmen
In this 1935 photo, Oklahoma Representative Percy Gassaway shares a bench with Vice President John Nance Garner of Texas as they watch Representatives and Senators take on members of the Capitol Hill press corps.
Wins & Losses Through the Years
With the exception of a few games in the 1930s and ‘40s, the game has traditionally pitted Democrats against Republicans. Friendly rivalries develop, and winning streaks become real points of pride in the halls of the Capitol.
“As the Game Goes So Goes the Election” . . . or Not
Proceeds from the 1932 Congressional Baseball Game, the first held during the Depression, went to the District of Columbia’s unemployed, assisting local families with rent, food, clothing, and medicine. It was also said that the outcome of the game would predict which party would take the majority of House seats during the election in November. Republicans won the game that year, but the Democrats hammered a grand slam of House seats in a landslide election to increase their majority.
The Trophy Game
Representative Michael Oxley of Ohio talks about the joy of a game well played and well won.
Baseball Firsts & Notables
Vice President Gerald Ford hit the first known grand slam in the series while serving as a Representative from Michigan back in 1957. For those looking to strike out your friends with Congressional Baseball trivia, look no further.
The Congressional Baseball Game has forged bonds across partisan divides and between Members and the press. Staff showed up to cheer on the players, and House Pages often served as batboys.
George Andrews III talks about his memories of the game from his time serving as a batboy while a House Page in the 1950s.
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