History of the 108-year-old Congressional Baseball Game linked to Virginia shooting

(WASHINGTON) — Rep. Steve Scalise was shot Wednesday morning practicing for a charity event in Washington, D.C., that’s more than a baseball game: The 108-year tradition has become a lasting symbol of congressional bipartisanship and camaraderie even when the nation has endured conflict and change.

The annual Congressional Baseball Game is scheduled for Thursday evening at Nationals Park with the first pitch thrown shortly after 7 p.m. ET, a day after an attack on some of the players at a Virginia park Wednesday morning.

John Tener, the Pennsylvania representative who founded the event, was a former Major League Baseball player for the Baltimore Orioles, Chicago White Stockings and Pittsburgh Burghers before becoming elected to Congress in 1908 and eventually serving as the 25th governor of Pennsylvania.

The Boston Daily Globe described the inaugural game in 1909 as “brewing for weeks,” according to the History, Art & Archives for the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Deep, dark rumors were in circulation that ‘ringers’ would be introduced, but when they lined up at 4 o’clock, the nine Republicans were stalwart, Grand Old Party men, while the Democrats were of the pure Jeffersonian strain,” the Globe said.

The Democrats won that first game –- and the next five. The Republicans wouldn’t clinch a win until 1916. By 1928, the game had grown so popular that it began to be broadcast over the radio.

But not everyone was a fan of the new tradition.

In 1914, Speaker James Beauchamp “Champ” Clark (D-Mo.) complained that the game was interfering with Congress’ work. An appropriations bill on Civil War cotton damage was set to be debated on the House floor, but because of the baseball game, there wasn’t a quorum or enough members present for legislative work to be conducted.

The speaker sent the Sergeant at Arms to the field to gather the members, but rain had already canceled the game, sending the congressman back to Capitol Hill. According to the historical records, the House “eventually achieved a quorum, but adjourned without making progress on the bill because members remained preoccupied with their unfinished work on the baseball diamond.”

That year was not the only time the game was canceled. It was interrupted during the Great Depression and World War II, as well as when House leadership occasionally objected.

In 1958, Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) argued the game had become too physical and should be abandoned. But, four years later, Speaker John McCormack (D-Mass.) resurrected the game with the support of Roll Call, a political newspaper founded years earlier.

Occasionally, U.S. presidents have attended the game, including Barack Obama, who watched the 2015 game from the sidelines.

Now in its 108th year, the game continues to be a favorite event for Congress members and a place where Republicans and Democrats come together.

Thursday night will be the 80th meeting. Democrats and Republican teams are deadlocked with 39 wins each, with one tie, according to the game’s website. But the 2017 matchup will take on an added significance after the shooting at the Virginia practice field that left the alleged assailant dead and five injured, including Rep. Scalise of Louisiana.

Members cheered on Wednesday as Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) announced the game would continue as scheduled, perhaps for the same reason then-Rep. James Richards (D-S.C.) also loved the Congressional Baseball Game 69 years ago. Richards described the game’s importance during a speech on the House floor in 1948.

“Mister Speaker, in all seriousness, I want to say that it is a fine thing when two great parties of a great nation — the greatest nation on the face of the earth — can drop the care and worries of Capitol Hill, forget about the heat and temporary animosities of debate, and go out at night to a baseball field where the great American game is played,” he said. “It is a wonderful thing to get together and show the people of the United States that regardless of the fact that we sometimes differ on party matters, that after all we love our country and our flag, and like every boy in America, we love our great national game.”

General admission tickets for Thursday’s game can be purchased here for $10.

The organizations that benefit include the Washington Literacy Center, the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington and the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation.

Copyright © 2017, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up