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100 Years of Congressional Baseball

 

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) was never supposed to pitch in 2005. He had endured invasive open-heart surgery just three months before, and his body was weak from a required post-operational rest period. But sometimes, as Shimkus knows well, the Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game inspires some pretty unbelievable things.

After five solid innings, starting pitcher Sen. John Ensign (Nev.) and his band of Republicans were out in front of their Democratic rivals, 12-8. The series sweep was in sight, but not yet in hand.

Then Ensign and teammate Rick Santorum (Pa.) were called into an evening Senate session to vote on an energy bill. The mound was vacant with two all-important innings to go. Enter Shimkus.

“It probably wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done, he admitted in a recent interview. After a long pause, he added, “I really do love the game of baseball.

Shimkus only pitched one inning that day, but it was the key to what eventually became a Republican blowout. The GOP lit up Democratic reliever Rep. Bart Stupak (Mich.) for five runs in the top of the sixth, and Shimkus closed out the frame by holding his opponents to just two. When Shimkus handed the ball back to Ensign, the lead was an insurmountable seven runs. The Republicans cruised through the seventh to a 19-11 rout.

The GOP walked off the field that day with a decisive victory and a sweep of the best-of-five series. But all of the players walked off with the latest addition to the trophy room of remarkable memories that give vibrant life to the history of Congressional baseball, which celebrates its 100th birthday this year.

The Congressional Baseball Game the 48th annual Roll Call game is set to be played tonight at Nationals Park was born in 1909 with Rep. John Tener (R-Pa.), an immigrant from Ireland. Tener was a hurler for the Chicago White Stockings in the late 1880s. Refusing to bid his baseball days farewell even after he entered Congress, he organized a pickup game between the Democrats and the Republicans at American League Park, then located at the corner of Florida Avenue and Trinidad Avenue Northeast.

The tradition began as any bipartisan event would with lots of arguing. The Democrats didn’t think it was fair for Tener to play for the Republicans, given his experience, and the Republicans, for lack of a better argument, wanted to win. The two sides reached an accord allowing Tener to play, but not atop the mound. He’d stand between second and third instead. Without their star pitcher, the Republicans lost the inaugural game, 26-16.

When Tener left Washington to serve as governor of Pennsylvania in 1910, the game took a year off and it wouldn’t be the last hiatus. From 1927 to 1932, the players took the field only once, in 1928. The tradition gained steam after World War II, when the Washington Evening Star agreed to sponsor the event.

In the late 1950s, injuries and sparse funding put the annual game back on the bench. From 1958 to 1961, no games were played. But like so many of baseball’s great legends, the Congressional game wouldn’t die. It would be saved in 1962 by Sid Yudain and his 7-year-old newspaper, Roll Call, which covered and sponsored the game that year, and every year since.

If the game’s history is deep, the rivalry between its annual competitors is even deeper. The early era belongs to the Democrats, who took 10 of the first 15 games on record, through the end of World War II. They also took nine of the next 12 leading up to the game’s modern rebirth in 1962, according to the Office of the Clerk of the House.

But since then, Republicans have stormed back with a vengeance, winning a staggering 33 of 47 games. Since Roll Call began awarding a trophy to the winner of each best-of-five series in 1962, the Democrats have retired it just twice. (The winning manager of each game keeps the trophy for a year, and then permanently when a series is clinched. This year, they will play for the 13th coveted Roll Call trophy.) The Republicans currently lead the overall series 41 games to 32, with one game ending in a tie (apparently that can happen).

After 100 years, as both sides of the aisle gear up to battle for another tally in the W column and a year’s worth of bragging rights, the players on the 2009 rosters are certainly aware of the stakes. With a fresh best-of-five series beginning this year, both teams will be hungry to gain the edge and set the tone.

“There is a whole lot of competition in these games, said Rep. Mike Doyle (Pa.), two-time Democratic MVP and current team manager. “Both teams want to win this game very badly.

This sentiment applies to the Democrats especially, since they currently find themselves on an eight-year losing skid.

But as Members of Congress look back on this age-old tradition, and in some cases their own long years of contribution to it, they are quick to remember what truly makes this game immortal.

“Even though we play each other, I think it’s one of the most bipartisan events we still have on Capitol Hill. We really like each other, said Rep. Kevin Brady (Texas), second baseman for the Republicans. “I think it creates just great camaraderie and relationships with members of the other team.

Brady would know. He’s been playing ball with his colleagues for 12 years now, and he’s experienced everything from elating victory to painful injury to crushing defeat. Through it all, he says, the greatest honor has been to share with his friends his lifelong love of baseball, the unbreakable bond that keeps them all coming back to the diamond every year.

“I love this game, he said. “Each year, at my age, to still be practicing, to have a team with friends, to compete under the lights in my favorite team uniform is just it’s wonderful.

Doyle agreed, expressing pride about the fact that this is one arena where Democrats and Republicans not only get along, but forge unique and invaluable friendships with one another.

“When people say, Why can’t you guys just get along,’ I always tell them about the friendships I make in baseball, he said. “I had a chance to develop relationships with Republicans that I wouldn’t have had if I didn’t play baseball.

Rep. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.) also has his share of memories from the field, which he’s seen from behind the plate for six years. But when asked about their proudest moment, Barrett and Brady both pointed in the same direction at Shimkus and his unexpected pitching performance in 2005.

“He pitched that inning and saved the game for us, Barrett said. “He’s just such a competitor, the epitome of the United States Congressman.

When Shimkus was told of that praise, he was at a loss for words. After a moment, he said he was greatly moved by that incident, and he tried to describe what the admiration of his teammates meant to him. After a few broken sentences and long pauses, he said, “All I know is that I love to play the game of baseball, I love to practice and I love the camaraderie.

It’s all any of them have known, and all they have ever needed to know to build the history of this remarkable tradition together, from the shaky foundation of a pickup game into a towering spectacle 100 years strong. Tonight, Shimkus will pitch again, and all his friends will build it just a little bit higher.

Jeremy B. White contributed to this report.

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