The Washington Nationals might have bitten off more than they can chew by naming William Howard Taft as their next racing mascot.
William Howard Taft. Source: Library of Congress (Wikimedia Commons).
If you aren’t familiar with the controversy, the baseball team features four mascots dressed as U.S. presidents that race around the Nationals’ stadium during home games to entertain fans.
The whole bit was lifted from another baseball team, the Milwaukee Brewers, whose famous Racing Sausages™ have entertained fans for years.
Since 2000, the sausages have caused a sensation in processed-meat-loving Wisconsin, and the squad got a huge boost in 2003, when an opposing player “whacked” a sausage on camera in a video that made international headlines.
The Milwaukee crew added a fifth sausage, a chorizo, several years later, which seems to have inspired the Nationals to add a fifth president to their race.
And for some reason, the team says its Theodore Roosevelt mascot was allowed to pick the next president to get a place of honor, and the TR character selected William Howard Taft.
If you’re not a history buff, Taft was Roosevelt’s vice president until they had a bitter election feud in 1912 that tore apart the Republican Party.
It was so bitter that Roosevelt survived an assassination attempt and made a 90-minute speech with a bullet in his chest, rather than quit his fight against his former vice president.
The smoking gun, in this case, is a quote given to The Washington Post on Friday from a team official.
“Teddy has handpicked the next president for the Presidents’ Race,” Nationals COO Andy Feffer told the newspaper on Friday, a day before the Taft mascot was rolled out. “There was a great amount of banter and discussion back and forth, but Teddy won out with his recommendation.”
On Saturday, the sanitized Taft mascot made its debut at a fan event, looking at least 100 pounds lighter than its real-life counterpart.
The reaction in the media, so far, is that even sportswriters who aren’t historians know the two men hated each other.
The Post’s Dan Steinberg asked a local historian how bad the blood was between TR and Taft.
Allan Lichtman, distinguished professor of history at American University, told Steinberg that each man considered the other a backstabber, and they had no qualms taking down each other in a presidential election.
“The rivalry was as bitter as it gets in politics,” said Lichtman. “There’s nothing like the feeling of betrayal, and both men felt betrayed by the other.”
NBC Sports also had a nice recap about why you wouldn’t invite Roosevelt and Taft to the same cocktail party, and definitely not to a competitive race where they’d have access to baseball bats.
Here are two trash-talking quotes highlighted by NBC:
TR on Taft: “(He) has not merely in thought, word, and deed been disloyal to our past friendship, but has been disloyal to every canon of ordinary decency and fair dealing.”
Taft on TR: “Since the time he began his personal attacks on me he has used all the epithets he could think of, and all the names in the calendar, such as no President has ever been subjected to by a man who has had two terms in that office.”
The two men publicly reconciled in 1918, just before Roosevelt passed away.
In explaining the Taft selection, the Nationals pointed to Taft’s love of baseball and his supposed role in creating the seventh-inning stretch during games.
In reality, if education and historical accuracy, and not souvenir sales, are the motivation behind picking a presidential mascot, the Nationals had other options.
Senator John McCain had lobbied for Ronald Reagan and joked he would settle for Chester Alan Arthur. Somehow, the problem of selling Chester Alan Arthur merchandise would be a showstopper.
But how about James Madison? Not only was Madison the father of the Constitution, you’d get Dolley Madison as an occasional bonus mascot who would add diversity to the event.
Or Andrew Jackson? The seventh president has a lifelong love of horse racing and would be very competitive. (For example, Jackson beat up his own would-be assassin with a cane in 1835.)
And if you look at the group of five mascots, there isn’t one Democrat in the bunch. Washington ran unopposed, Jefferson was a Democratic-Republican, and the other three presidents were Republicans.
To be fair, why didn’t the Nationals pick at least one Democrat?
Harry Truman would seem to be a natural, and he even had a Broadway play named after himself. Or there is Martin Van Buren, who is now a trendy Democrat due to a viral TV ad for Google featuring his facial hair.
Or if you have to pick a Republican, Reagan was a baseball announcer before he became an actor, and he played Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander in the movies.
A final option would be Dwight Eisenhower, who was a huge lifetime fan of the national pastime. President Eisenhower once said that one of the worst moments of his life was not making the varsity baseball team at West Point.
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