The encroaching clouds burst open, pounding Washington with tremendous rain, thunder and lightning, foreshadowing the electric and devastating months ahead for Congress. But just prior, in the few moments of calm before the storm, Congress participated for the first time in one of its greatest—and perhaps only—displays of camaraderie, the Congressional baseball game. Organized by a former professional baseballer, the game perfectly injected some much-needed humor into the stormy Congressional summer of 1909.
In the spring of that year, Congress found itself deeply divided on the issue of tariffs, with the Republican party on the verge of fracturing. Shortly after his March 4 inauguration, President Taft called Congress into special session to pass tariff legislation for the first time since 1897. The overwhelming Republican majority in the House quickly passed a bill reducing many tariffs, while Senate Republicans introduced legislation that lowered some tariffs and raised many others. The sweltering heat of the summer filled Congress, leading to vocal confrontations between the supporters of each bill.
Missing baseball and wanting to rescue his party from the brink of destruction, John Tener, a Republican representative from Pennsylvania,organized a Congressional baseball game between the Republicans and the Democrats. Tener played two seasons with the Chicago White Stockings and one with the newly formed Pittsburgh Burghers, serving as a mediocre-to-poor pitcher and outfielder. When the Players League folded after one season, Tener left baseball to pursue a banking career. In 1908, after 10 years of serving as president of the First National Bank of Charleroi, Pa., Tener ran for Congress at the behest of a large number of friends and family members. He won his district by 13,000 votes, the largest victory margin in the state.
On June 23, several Republicans—including Tener—attended an International League Baltimore Orioles game as guests of former player and manager Ned Hanlon. The group used the public outing as a platform to espouse the virtues of the proposed tariff bill, with Tener stating it would be “in accord with the principles of the Republican Party.” Tener frequently spoke in this manner, stressing the unity of the Republican party as well as tying it to President Taft, perhaps as a message to the American people and the party itself, which was on the verge of splitting. Several days after this event, Tener seized another opportunity to tie together party unity and baseball when he and Democrat Eugene Kinkead jokingly floated the idea of a Congressional game.
The event was advertised by local and national papers on July 14 as “a mighty struggle for the honors of the diamond” on the part of the two parties, who had set aside the tariff question in the name of baseball and charity. The Democrats agreed to the game on the condition Tener would not pitch and there would be no “ringers,” and the lineups were set thusly:
|C||WIlliam Oldfield||Ark.||C||James Burke||Pa.|
|P||Edwin Webb||N.C.||P||Joseph Gaines||W. Va.|
|1B||WIlliam Hughes||N.J.||2B||Albert Dawson||Iowa|
|2B||Eugene Kinkead||N.J.||CF||Nicholas Longworth||Ohio|
|RF||Finis Garrett||Tenn.||RF||Ralph Cole||Ohio|
|SS||Joseph O’Connell||Mass.||LF||Butler Ames||Mass.|
|3B||Dan Driscoll||N.Y.||SS||John Tener||Pa.|
|LF||J. Thomas Heflin||Ala.||1B||Paul Howland||Ohio|
|CF||James Cox||Ohio||3B||Aubrey Thomas||Ohio|
Taking place on July 16 at American League Park, the original home of the Washington Senators, the game drew over 1,000 fans who paid 25 to 75 cents apiece, depending on seats. The raucous crowd raised over $320 for the Playground Association, an organization dedicated to building safe play areas for inner-city children.
Each player was smartly outfitted in proper uniforms aside from Ollie James of Kentucky, who “because of his immense stature…will be compelled to wear a pair of old trousers, with suspenders of extra strength,” and Nick Longworth of Ohio, who insisted on sporting a silk shirt with checkered trousers tucked into his socks. The game itself was less proper, as a hodgepodge of aggressive play and apprehensive fielding led to an official combined total of 36 runs, 43 hits, and 14 errors.
Indeed, the calamities began several days prior, when Republican Rep. Edward Vreeland of New York broke his collarbone and dislocated his shoulder blade while playing a game of catch in preparation for the actual game. Though he could have played in the game, the Republicans wisely decided he was more in need of rest than they were in need of his services in the outfield. He was replaced by Butler Ames of Massachusetts.
The first inning went relatively smoothly for both sides as they each put up two runs and avoided major gaffes. The errors soon piled up, though, beginning with the Democrats cracking the game open with a 10-run second inning. The Republicans responded with a 10-run fifth inning that featured one of the most bizarre plays of the game not involving an error. Rep. Howland hit a soft liner to left that looked like an easy catch for anyone other than to whom it was hit. In an effort to preserve life and limb, Democratic left fielder Thomas Heflin ducked, letting the ball land softly and roll to the left field wall, giving Howland an opportunity to round the bases. However, the out-of-shape congressman barely made it to second base before collapsing and asking for a replacement runner.
Not to be outdone, Heflin himself collapsed on second after hitting a double, but to the relief of the Democrats relying on his stellar fielding, he required only a drink of water and remained in the game.
The Republicans upped the ante in the sixth inning when pitcher Burke and catcher Gaines collided while trying to field a pop-up. The pair then spent several moments apologizing to each other and attempting to corral the ball while three Democrats scored, clearing the bases on a pop-up mere feet from home plate. Though this was but one of nine errors the Republicans made, it proved the most costly, making the score 19-13 Dems with an inning and a half left in the game.
The errors were not contained to the players, though. American League Park groundskeeper Mike O’Day, serving as home plate umpire, particularly incensed fiery Massachusetts Rep. Joseph O’Connell with one of his calls. After O’Connell scored from second on a passed ball, O’Day—for no apparent reason—sent him back to third base. O’Connell protested, nearly getting ejected. And Father Reynolds of Red Bank, in charge of the other three bases, made his share of poor calls, though none as egregious as O’Day’s.
The crowd loved the display, roaring with good-natured laughter at the players’ incompetency, and both sides got in on the act. One Democrat heckled Burke for his poor catching, advising him to “come on and catch one ball, any way.” Burke responded by turning an unassisted double play, chasing a dropped third strike halfway to first base, tagging out the batter, and running home in time to tag out presumably the slowest man in the world, Dan Driscoll, who was trying to score from third. Burke’s fielding triumph was short-lived: Later in the game he had another opportunity to turn a double play when two Democrats tried to score simultaneously on a base hit, but dropped the ball, allowing both to cross the plate.
The rest of the game featured plays “too intricate and devious to permit explanation,” as well as passed balls and wild pitches too numerous to count. Neither outfield caught a fly ball all game, and the only competent fielders among the bunch were team captains Tener and Kinkead. Per agreement, the Republicans kept the same lineup for the seven innings, but the Democrats switched out every player at some point when the originals became too exhausted from scoring so many runs to continue playing at such a high level.
The Democratic strategy proved fruitful, as by the end of the game the Republicans were so exhausted they barely made it off the field before collapsing. Although most of them, save Tener, could have benefited from substitution, Nick Longworth performed particularly poorly as the game progressed. Among a sea of mental and physical errors, his play stood out.
For unknown reasons, many Washington newspapers tabbed him as a “dark horse” capable of displaying middling skills. But he struck out twice with runners on second and third and then grounded into a double play, both the crowd and the writers turned on him. He was playfully booed, and the Washington Herald wrote that aside from some foul tips, “his only acquaintance with the ball was several long runs after two-baggers slammed out by the unterrified Democrats.”
Though the largest storm of the summer, complete with flash flooding, swept through Washington mere minutes after the game, obliterating the divots and footprints left on the field by the congressmen, it could not erase the impact of the game from the history books. It was so loved by congressmen that, save for extraneous circumstances brought on by the Great Depression and war times, the game has since been a tightly contested annual affair, with the Republicans leading the Democrats in victories, 42-39.
The inaugural game achieved great success both as a charity fundraiser and as an homage to the wonders of baseball itself. One Chicago Inter Ocean reporter who decried modern baseball as being a mutilation of the game that features—among an array of sins—the “pitcher deliberately delivering the ball from above the hip in defiance of the well-known Classical precedents” thought the Congressional game was an homage to the game about which Homer endlessly wrote.
Other reporters evoked the absurdity and fun of the game in their writing. Some, like another Inter Ocean writer, captured the game via sarcasm: “Congressman Burke, the Republican catcher, who almost caught a ball; Representative Heflin of Alabama, the effect of whose beautiful hit was only slightly marred by his falling exhausted on second base and calling for ice water; Representative Kinkead of New Jersey, who accidentally made a double play at the end of the seventh inning—all may be heard from later in the pink sheet.”
Others resorted to tariff metaphors and similes, such as “the Democrats…walloped all sorts of tariff schedules out of the Republicans,” “the official score looked like a House Tariff bill coming out of the Senate Committee on Finance,” and “Republicans and Democrats alike were free traders!” The only one who seemed not to partake in the humor was House Speaker Joe Cannon, who deadpanned, “we have had the Democrats on the run so long they can’t get over it,” before leaving in disgust after the Democrats put up five runs in the sixth inning.
Though the players and fans thoroughly enjoyed the game, the camaraderie did not extend to Capitol Hill. Congress resumed intense tariff debates the following Monday, and though the Republicans eventually passed a compromise in the form of the Payne–Aldrich Tariff Act, the damage to the Republican party was irreparable. Several months into 1910, the party split in two. The Old Guards sided with Taft and the tariff bill, and the Progressives followed Theodore Roosevelt and opposed the bill. The party’s fracture led to a sweeping victory by the Democrats in the 1910 Congressional election, its first in 16 years.
The newspapers called the game a rare victory for the Democrats, arguing it would be awhile before they saw another one, but the game handed them one major off-field victory. Once labeled the future of the Republican party and a potential future presidential candidate, John Tener left Congress after one term to become governor of Pennsylvania.
But the game helped reawaken his love for baseball, and two years into his four-year gubernatorial term, Tener became National League president. His preoccupation with baseball led him to neglect his office, ending his term poorly and pushing him out of the political world. The Republican’s attempt to create a light-hearted charity ballgame to distract from Congressional infighting resulted in a Democratic domination of both Congress and the Congressional Baseball Game for the next six years.
References & Resources
- The Baltimore Sun, June 24, 1909
- The Chicago Daily Tribune, July 14, 1909
- Muskogee Times-Democrat, July 16, 1909
- Arizona Republic, July 17, 1909
- The Indianapolis News, July 17, 1909
- The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 17, 1909
- The Washington Herald, July 17, 1909
- Chicago Inter Ocean, July 18, 1909