Looking Back: LBJ Tosses First Pitch at Sulpher Dell

By Bill Traughber / Nashville Sounds | June 22, 2016 12:01 PM

  The Nashville Vols were honored to have Vice-President Lyndon Johnson throw out the ceremonial first pitch of its April 8, 1961 Opening Day at Sulphur Dell. Newspaper accounts indicated the Sulphur Dell toss was the first by a vice-president on an opening day at a minor league park.

   Johnson, in office less than three months under President John F. Kennedy, arrived in Nashville from Washington D.C., after an extended trip to Europe and Africa. The vice-president was the invited guest speaker at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner at the Nashville Fairgrounds Coliseum.

   Other dignitaries to accompany Johnson were Sen. Albert Gore Sr., Sen. Estes Kefauver, Rep. J. Carlton Loser, Governor Buford Ellington and Mayor Ben West. After arriving at the airport on an American Airlines commercial flight, Johnson was provided with a police escort to downtown Nashville for the starting point of a parade.

   Leading the parade to the final destination at the Sulphur Dell ballpark was the Isaac Litton High School's 130-piece marching band. Also appearing in the parade were certain units of the Al Menah Shrine, former Nashville major league baseball players Johnny Beazley and Clydell Castleman and members of the Nashville Vols.

   Prior to the 2:30 afternoon game, Ellington presented to Johnson as a gift a four-year-old Tennessee Walking Horse. The horse was purchased by several Walking Horse enthusiasts and renamed "The Vice-President's Lady."

   Johnson later changed the name of the former show horse to "Lady B" after his wife. The horse died in the mid-1980s and is buried on the LBJ ranch. The horse survived LBJ who died in 1973.

   "I am an enthusiastic sports fan," Johnson said upon his arrival at the ballpark. "Baseball is my favorite game."

   Showing his political skills in not offending any baseball fans, Johnson refused to reveal his favorite major league baseball team when asked. He did say that the Austin Senators were probably his favorite baseball team. The Texan also said his favorite baseball players were Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson and Pete Runnels.

   "I was just an average player," Johnson said about playing high school baseball in Austin, Texas. "They had me at first base since I was the tallest on the team, but you might say that I was good field, no hit, and not even too good in the field."

   When Johnson approached the pitching mound for the ceremonial first pitch, waiting for him at home plate were West, Loser, Ellington and clowns. Loser was positioned behind the plate as a catcher; Ellington was acting as umpire while West stood up to the plate with a bat in hand. Al Menah Shrine clowns were cheerleaders.

   The fans greeted Johnson and Ellington with a warm welcome, but it was reported that West and Loser were met with a few boos.

   Johnson's throw was wild as West had to do a little dance to get out of the way. The Vice-President said his arm was not in shape to pitch a game. Johnson then addressed the 5,200 fans in the stands.

   "I learned early in my political career never to make a speech at a country dance or sports event, and I don't intend to make one here," Johnson said. "I am proud to be in a state that has produced such great statesmen, and beautiful horses. Your Governor Ellington is one of the finest statesmen in the land. I would like to thank you all from the bottom of a grateful heart."

   Just as Johnson spoke his final word, a spectator in the stands shouted, "Play ball!" The game between Nashville and Chattanooga began with Johnson leaving the ballpark after the Lookouts batted in the first inning. The Vols would eventually lose to the Lookouts, 5-3.

   The Johnson party was then led to the State Capitol Building for a news conference where he answered political questions. Johnson was presented with a pair of cowboy boots monogrammed with "LBJ," a gift that was manufactured at the Cookeville Acme Boot Co.

   Later that evening, Johnson gave his speech at the fairgrounds dinner. A few days later, Johnson was in Washington where he joined Kennedy, who opened the major league season with his first pitch at Griffith Stadium.

   Johnson became president in November 1963 with the death of Kennedy. He would be elected on his own right the following year.

   In 1965, Johnson became the first president to dedicate a new ballpark. During an exhibition game he opened the Astrodome in his home state. Johnson was scheduled to throw out the first pitch, but he arrived late.

   Other major league games in which Johnson threw out the first pitch were all in Washington. These games were also on opening day in 1964, 1965 and 1967.

   The first president to attend a major league game was Benjamin Harrison. On June 6, 1892, he witnessed Cincinnati defeat Washington, 7-4. Harrison served as president from 1889 to 1893.

   William Howard Taft was the first president to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game in 1910. The game was on opening day of the season with the Philadelphia Athletics playing at Washington. It was also at this game that during the seventh inning Taft stood to stretch. This is where the "seventh inning stretch" was to have originated.

   A meeting between President Calvin Coolidge and Babe Ruth occurred when the New York Yankees arrived in Washington one day to play the Senators. The weather was on Ruth's mind as he extended his hand to the president and said, "Hot as hell, ain't it, Prez?"

    If you have any comments or suggestions contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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