Democrats and Republicans will say that Congress is broken and toxic these days; this much they agree on. And both Democrats and Republicans will say, too, that the annual Congressional Baseball Game, which is to be held Thursday night, for the 80th time, offers a rare, coveted seven-inning respite from all of that. It allows members of Congress to meet and come to know their across-the-aisle counterparts under different lights, and it gives them the chance to compete (strenuously, they insist) in good fun. In the process they raise more than a half-million dollars for charities including the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington and the Washington Nationals’ Dream Foundation.
So when a gunman opened fire on the Republican team’s practice in Alexandria, Va., early Wednesday morning, wounding House Majority Whip Steve Scalise along with a staffer for Rep. Roger Williams and two Capitol police officers, he was attacking not only Republican members of Congress but a cherished and admirable D.C. institution.
It’s a contest so old that the first congressman who organized it, John Tener of Pennsylvania, had pitched for Cap Anson on the 1888 and 1889 Chicago White Stockings. (Tener also played for the immortal 1890 Pittsburgh Burghers alongside Pud Galvin and Jake Beckley.) And it’s a contest so serious that House speaker Sam Rayburn ordered it shut down in 1958 because it was too dangerous. (Skip Maraney, an unofficial historian of the game, says Republican Thomas Curtis and Democrat Mendel Rivers were injured at a play at the plate.) John McCormack, Rayburn’s successor, blessed a revival of the game four years later, and it’s been played annually ever since, everywhere from RFK Stadium to Memorial Stadium in Baltimore to its present home at Nationals Park. In 2015, President Obama even popped by with White House beer in search of votes for a trade bill.
“I’m old-school—I still believe baseball is America’s pastime,” says Rep. John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican who has served for more than 20 years. “And even though we’re competing, it brings us together.”
Democrat Bart Stupak, who represented Michigan’s first district from 1993 to 2011 and still coaches on the team, has similar praise for the camaraderie the game develops. “I’ve often said Congress would function much better with mandatory gym class.”
As with Congress itself, the balance of power shifts with time. From 1997 to 2008, the Republicans went 11–1. The Democrats won the next seven contests before losing in 2016. Such streaks of dominance have little to do with coaching or practice (though they spend weeks preparing) or scouting. No, teams win when a great pitcher gets elected to Congress.
Cedric Richmond, the Democrat from New Orleans, is the ranking ace now. Roll Call suggested he may be the game’s best ever. Stupak says Richmond, who pitched for Morehouse in college, throws so hard that the Republicans bought a pitching machine for batting practice. And he’s a workhorse; he threw 135 pitches in his start last year. (The Republican starter, Rep. Mark Walker of the North Carolina 6th, is by contrast a junkballer.)
Rep. Bob Michel, the former House Minority Leader and an Illinois Republican representative from 1957 to 1995, was the Republican ace for most of the ’60s. He was supplanted by Vinegar Bend Mizell, the former Cardinals pitcher, who represented northwestern North Carolina. Maraney, the historian, recalled the elation of Mo Udall, the Arizona Democrat who had played for the Denver Nuggets, when he fouled off a pitch against Mizell. Steve Largent, the Hall of Fame Seahawks receiver who represented Oklahoma’s 1st district, excelled for the Republicans until his retirement in 2002.
Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who catches for the team, says both parties are often angling to recruit a great pitcher: “There were whispers for years that the Republicans were going to get Jeff Suppan to run for Congress.” (Suppan’s 4.70 career ERA over 17 seasons doesn’t look so menacing, but ask the 2006 Mets whether he’s a treat to face in a big game.)
The Republicans did have a bona fide Hall of Famer, Jim Bunning, serving in their conference from the late 1980s until 2010. But former New Mexico congressman and governor Bill Richardson, who served from 1983 to 1997 and played baseball in college, says he wasn’t any good. “By the time he got into Congress, he was just throwing watermelons, and I was hitting the hell out of ‘em. I had my best hits against that guy.”
RELATED VIDEO: Congressman Shot in Mass Shooting at Baseball Practice for GOP House Members in Virginia
Even though a year’s worth of bragging rights are up for grabs each game, the losing side is typically gracious in defeat. Murphy remembers in his freshman term making a seventh-inning throwing error that cost the Democrats the game. “I was mortified, I was upset, and I flew back to Connecticut in a total funk.” Back at his district office, he got a call from Congressman Bill Shuster, a Republican from rural Pennsylvania. Shuster was calling to tell Murphy not to worry, that he had played a good game. “Bill was a casual acquaintance then; we’re good friends now.”
Shimkus expects an emotional night Thursday without the wounded Scalise, the Republicans’ usual second baseman. “We’ll miss him in the field, and we’ll miss his emotion… We live in a dangerous world, a sinful world.”
Stupak, a former police officer, had worried a gunman might target representatives in this vulnerable setting. In 2010, he rode in an armored car to morning practices after receiving death threats for his vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act. (Two men were eventually arrested.) It calmed down for a while, he says, but for the last three years the Democrats have always had “at least eight” officers stationed at their morning practices. “We never had to worry about anything like this until seven years ago,” he says.
Thankfully, the game will go on—tainted, though, like too much else, by the bile of our modern political life.