by Marty Appel
Next to religion, baseball has had a greater impact on our American way of life than any other American institution.
-President Herbert Hoover
Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
Politicians in modern America know that being introduced at a sports event comes with some risk. Sports fans, especially after a beer or two, are pretty uninhibited about letting their feelings known for elected officials. As fans have discovered, stadium security will not throw them out onto the street if they boo.
It’s pretty much open season, and if you are an office holder, you would be wise to check your poll numbers before agreeing to an introduction.
Herbert Hoover, the nation’s 31st president, must have felt pretty confident when he decided to take in a World Series game in 1931. There really were no poll numbers to refer to at the time, nor was there much history of a president being poorly treated at large gatherings. (Let’s call Ford’s Theater in Washington a medium gathering.) It was still a time when respect for the office tended to win the day.
Hoover had been to a number of games before, maintaining the tradition of throwing out the first pitch of the season and also going to Philadelphia for games in both the 1929 and 1930 World Series.
The 1929 baseball season officially began as President Hoover tossed out the first pitch of the Washington Senators home opener against the Philadelphia Athletics.
Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog
Game 5 of the 1929 World Series was a particularly good memory for him, for he got to see the Athletics win the world championship. The Athletics rallied for three runs in the last of the ninth with Mule Haas hitting a two-run homer and Bing Miller hitting a World Series–winning double off Pat Malone to send the Cubs down to defeat, 3–2. Hoover wasn’t necessarily an Athletics fan (although most baseball fans loved their manager, Connie Mack), he just happened to see a terrific game, and a title-deciding one at that. He basked in the cheers of the fans as he entered Shibe Park, as well as at stations along the train route from Washington and back.
Of course, that was before the stock market crashed 15 days later, leading to the start of the Great Depression. Suddenly, he was tops on the list of people to blame, and things would never be as good for him as they were on that sunny day in Philadelphia when he was just a fan, taking in the game with his wife.
The woes of the following year might have felt all-consuming when Hoover decided to attend the first game of the 1930 World Series in Philadelphia, accompanied by five of his nine cabinet members. He saw the Athletics win 5–2 as Lefty Grove beat Burleigh Grimes of the St. Louis Cardinals. There was no indication of a hostile fan reaction, and John Drebinger of the New York Times reported, “The President remained to the end of the game to receive a final farewell salute from the crowd which, acting upon a request megaphoned by an announcer, remained standing at attention until the Presidential party had filed out on the playing field and then out through an exit gate.”
It was a good day.
The Depression was on, “Hoovervilles” for the homeless were sprouting up across America, there were bread lines and despair, but by the time the 1931 World Series came around, the president had attended four more games—in Washington and in Philadelphia—and hadn’t been pelted with verbal abuse at all. Like the 1930 World Series appearance, all had gone well.
So, seeking another respite from the daily woes of his office, he set off for Philadelphia again on October 5, 1931, to witness Game 3. The Series, a rematch between the A’s and the Cardinals, was tied 1–1. He took a special Baltimore & Ohio Railroad train from Union Station in Washington to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, as he had before. What could go wrong?
As coincidence would have it, Hoover would again see a pitching matchup of Grove vs. Grimes. The morning papers had reported that the president was going to be in attendance with Mrs. Hoover, and the two pitchers paused in their warmups as the party reached their seats next to the A’s dugout. Hoover threw out the first pitch, directing his throw to A’s catcher Mickey Cochrane.
President Hoover traveled to Philadelphia for Game 3 of the 1931 World Series.
Source: Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum
There was some small applause for them. Then, as Joe Williams reported in the New York World-Telegram,
Someone boos. Or it may be a whole section which surrenders to this spontaneous, angry impulse. In any event, the boos rise from the stands and break with unmistakable vehemence around your ears. They grow in volume and pretty soon it seems almost everybody in the park is booing.
They are booing the President of the United States.
By now the boos have changed to a chant. From thousands of voices come the cry, “We want beer. We want beer. We want beer.”
This must be the first time a President ever has been booed in public, and at a ball game of all places. There is something about a ball game that is supposed to make everybody kin and it’s a high honor to sit in on a ball game where the President becomes a fan, just as you and I.
The beer chant, of course, reflected the nation being fed up with Prohibition. The foolish amendment, which created a national culture of law-breaking (everyone knew how to get a drink), was in its 12th year. And the baseball crowd that day decided to let Hoover (who supported the amendment) have it.
At least to Joe Williams’ memory, this not only was the first time a president had been booed in public, but maybe it was also the start of something in the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia has come to be known as a tough town—one where they booed Santa Claus—and it may well have begun that day.
The Hoovers didn’t stay for the whole game. At the end of the eighth inning, with St. Louis ahead 4–0, they rose to leave. (The Cardinals would win 5–2.) The new public address system announced, “Silence, silence, please,” and asked for everyone to show courtesy and remain seated.
Good luck with that.
“We want beer! We want beer!” went the crowd as the Hoovers departed. (As he left, he was informed of the death of U.S. Senator Dwight Morrow of New Jersey, just 53, Charles Lindbergh’s father-in-law.)
Neither the New York Times nor the Associated Press mentioned the crowd reaction. “All in all, it was a great day for the President,” the Times reported, perhaps finding the booing too unseemly for print, or determining that it was “just a handful of people.”
It wasn’t Hoover’s last game. He threw out the Opening Day pitch in 1932 for the fourth year in a row—he loved the tradition—and somehow a Washington crowd, largely full of federal employees who got regular paychecks—respected their boss and cheered him.
But the cheers of elected officials at baseball games would forever be a matter of uncertainty from that era on.