How an Annual Ballgame Has Kept Congress Civil

During the Congressional Baseball Game in 1975, Marty Russo, a Democrat from Illinois, charged around third base late in a tied game. The Democrats hadn’t beaten the Republicans in 12 years and a determined Russo was intent on scoring from second on a single. He dove headlong toward home plate, bowling over the catcher, Republican Bill Frenzel, on his way to scoring the winning run.

Frenzel was banged up badly enough to be taken off the field on a stretcher, but the story had a happy ending. Russo and Frenzel struck up a friendship after the collision, and years later worked together on the Ways and Means Committee. “It’s funny because we would never have been as close without me breaking his collarbone in a baseball game,” Russo said.

The significance of the annual game resonated more deeply than normal on Wednesday after a gunman’s bullets wounded five people, including a prominent member of Republican leadership. What might seem like just a bunch of middle-aged men reliving their high school glory, has become in recent years a meaningful tribute to the painfully nostalgic notion of old-fashioned bipartisanship in an increasingly divided nation. And so while one baseball team—this one made up of Republican Congressmen and Senators—cowered behind fences and trees to save their lives, their ostensible opponents—a group of Democratic lawmakers—gathered in a dugout 10 miles away in Northeast Washington. They stood arm in arm, and prayed for their colleagues.

“There’s very few opportunities to get to know members that don’t involve debate on the floor or in the committee,” the Democrats’ manager and representative from Pennsylvania, Mike Doyle, said. “You get a chance to see someone in a different vein, and it sticks with you.” Or as Tim Bishop, a former Congressman from Long Island who played in the game for years, said, “The baseball game is one of the last remaining pieces of bipartisan comity that exists in Washington.”

***

The first Congressional baseball game was played in 1909, and Democrats roughed up the Republican team, 26-16. “(Democrats) ran around and around the bases until they were weary, and made so many scores that there wasn’t room on the scoreboard to tally them,” the Washington Post reported. The game has been mostly a rollicking good time since. In 1926, the two sides borrowed live mascots—an elephant and a donkey—from a circus and marched them in a pregame parade.

The game was so popular in the 1920s that it was broadcast on the radio, and decades later, when it was moved to Municipal Stadium, the home of the Orioles in Baltimore, it was once played as the nightcap of a doubleheader after the Orioles hosted the Detroit Tigers. Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, so impressed with the crowd the game drew, discussed playing Congressional exhibitions around the country.

Athletic competence has never been the game’s draw—Barry Goldwater was the Republicans’ catcher for several seasons—but bragging rights have always been on the line. Jim Bunning, a Hall of Fame pitcher and later a Congressman and Senator from Kentucky, took the mound for Republicans one year but, according to a still gleeful Russo, Democrats clobbered him. Democrats later fumed when Pro Football Hall of Famer Steve Largent and J.C. Watts, who quarterbacked Oklahoma to consecutive Orange Bowl wins, helped Republicans to an era of dominance in the 1980s and ‘90s. (The series is currently knotted at 39-39-1.)

At the heart of the game has long been charity. The 1917 game, in the midst of World War I, supported the Red Cross and during the Depression proceeds went to relief of the unemployed. In recent years, millions of dollars have been raised for a variety of organizations ranging from the Boys and Girls Club to the Washington Literacy Corps.

The game, though, has become more noteworthy—or at least more of a distinct occasion—as Washington has changed. The game brings families to Washington, a rarity; spouses meet and members of Congress spend time with each other away from the Capitol. In essence, the game offers a reprieve from the daily grind of politics. “They need that baseball game now more than we ever did,” Russo said.

Doyle told me that many of his friendships with Republicans have been built through baseball with players like Republican manager Joe Barton and Ryan Costello. Doyle described a collegiality that he said was often missing with other members of Congress. “I’m not talking about changing people’s views,” he said. “But just getting someone to speak on a committee or to vote on an amendment, there’s a comfort level if you’ve been on the field with them.” Bishop said that when Nancy Pelosi suggested Democrats sit with a Republican colleague at the State of the Union several years ago, he attended with a fellow baseball player, Republican John Shimkus.

Congresswomen have introduced their own twist, putting together a bipartisan softball team that takes on members of Washington’s press corps. Rep. Cheri Bustos, a Democrat from Illinois, has played catch with the son of Mia Love, a Republican from Utah, at the morning practices. “You see people in sweatpants, no makeup, your hair’s a little ratty,” she said. “It’s one of the healthier things we get to do in Congress.”

***

Patrick Meehan, a pitcher on the Republican team and a representative from Pennsylvania, was not at the field in Alexandria Wednesday. He was there Tuesday, however, to do some throwing in the bullpen located near third base, where the shooter approached the field. “I would have been right there,” Meehan said.

As the reports trickled out of the injuries, he thought of his friend, Representative Steve Scalise, who was shot in the hip near second base. Meehan has played on the Republican team since he was elected to Congress in 2010 and ever since Meehan was the winning pitcher in last year’s game, Scalise—in whip meetings and elsewhere—likes to introduce Meehan as the man who beat the Democrats. Scalise, a baseball nut and diehard Louisiana State fan, also gave members of the whip team custom baseball bats two years ago. “I’ve been on that field for seven years,” Meehan said. “I know it so intimately and I can just see Steve standing out there taking grounders.”

At a briefing Wednesday afternoon for members, Meehan noticed baseball players from both sides of the aisle making eye contact and seeking each other out. “There’s a sense that we’re part of something together,” he said. Afterward, Tim Ryan, a member of the Democratic team, found Meehan and wordlessly gave him a hug.

Meehan looks forward to the game, which remains on schedule for 7p.m. Thursday night. Usually the crowd is mostly a collection of staffers and family members. The fans are split up—Democrats on one side of the infield, Republicans on the other—and they deliver a chorus of friendly heckling. When President Barack Obama showed up to Nationals Park several years ago, Republican fans chanted, “TPA!” a reference to a trade deal many conservatives supported but Democrats did not.

Meehan said he expected players to receive long ovations and emotions to run high. “We will not be intimidated,” he said. Security, though, will likely be tighter and the air of lightness that attends the game will be replaced both by a sense of unity and vigilance.

As Jim Manley, Harry Reid’s former spokesman, wrote to POLITICO in an email: “I am not sure how much this will resonate with the country at large but for those inside the beltway this baseball game is a time honored tradition that has been shattered.”

Darren Samuelsohn contributed to this story.

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