October 21, 2019

"The King's Game": The Story Behind a Unique Piece of Baseball (and Presidential) History

In Washington, D.C., home to The President Woodrow Wilson House, baseball fever has swept the city. The local team, the Washington Nationals, are advancing to the World Series for the first time in modern franchise history, and it’s the first World Series involving a Washington team since 1933.

Wilson House Executive Director Elizabeth Karcher, herself a Nationals fan, reached out to let us know of President Wilson’s surprising connections to baseball (he even nicknamed a room in his house “The Dugout”), and to talk about a one-of-a-kind item in the Wilson House collection.

President Woodrow Wilson House - George V baseball artifact

photo by: Todd A. Smith

So, tell me more about this object, Elizabeth.

This is a baseball signed by King George V of the United Kingdom. He attended a very special game played in London on July 4, 1918. Called “The King's Game,” in the stands were King George V, Queen Mary, Winston Churchill, and 40,000 others. This was during World War I, and some say the war stopped that day just to watch the King’s Game.

Who was playing? And more importantly, who won?

Members of the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy who were stationed in London at the time were playing a benefit baseball game. Navy ended up winning 2-1.

What does this baseball tell us about this time period?

In 1918, the United States was still a second-tier partner in its relationship with Great Britain and on the world stage. But World War I marked the switch of that relationship in the military sector, and the King's Game marked the switch in that relationship in the cultural arena. It’s worth noting that the King’s Game took place on U.S. Independence Day. It was the first time Great Britain recognized U.S. Independence Day, an indication of the movement of the balance of power.

On a lighter note, the Brits are known for playing cricket, not baseball, so it’s unusual to have a king attend ANY baseball game!

How did Wilson house end up with this baseball?

Following the game, King George signed one of the game balls, which he then sent to President Wilson. He signed it, “George R.I.” “R.I” stands for “Rex Imperator,” which is Latin for “King Emperor.” Wilson put the baseball in a glass case and kept it as a beloved memento for the rest of his life. When Edith Wilson gifted the home to the National Trust as a Historic Site, the baseball was part of the collection.

Can visitors come by and see the baseball?

Funny you should ask! We have a symposium coming up on Oct. 30, 2019, called Centennial Perspectives on the Treaty of Versailles and the End of WWI, and there will be a special exhibit featuring the baseball and several other rare objects from WWI and the Paris Peace Conference. In addition to reflecting on the last 100 years, symposium panelists will share their perspectives on prospects for peace in the next century. The discussion will be followed by questions from the audience. Space is limited, so we encourage you to register soon.

Anything else you’d like to tell us about this interesting connection?

Woodrow Wilson had a strong lifelong interest in baseball, both as a player and as a fan. Curt Smith, author of the recently released book The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House said: “Woodrow Wilson absorbed baseball more deeply than almost anyone in the Oval Office who preceded or succeeded him.” A page from a Wilson boyhood geometry notebook, titled ‘Base Ball Ground,’ shows a hand-scribbled diagram of a baseball diamond. The future president was later Davidson College’s varsity center fielder and Princeton’s assistant manager.

One other fun fact: President Wilson was the first President to throw the ceremonial first pitch at a World Series game, in 1915, between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Boston Red Sox, in Philadelphia, a series which the Red Sox won in five games.

It seems so fitting to me that the baseball from King George is labelled as a “National League” baseball, and the Nats are representing the National League in this year’s World Series. Go Nats!

Ed. note: Additional fun fact... The Nationals' World Series competitor, the Houston Astros, takes its name from the Astrodome, which it claimed as home field from 1965 to 1999. Today, the Astrodome is one of our National Treasures. Talk about a home run for history!

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