Every baseball fan knows the significance of the year 1908, especially this week. The Chicago Cubs are currently trailing 3-2 in the World Series, which they have not won in the last 108 years. An untold number of Cubs fans lived their entire lives without seeing the team win a championship.
Baseball fans have good reason to associate 1908 with the World Series played that year, but a rapidly changing United States saw plenty more than Chicago’s final championship. Just 20 days after baseball’s final game that year, Americans went to the polls to elect a new president, and that election looked remarkably similar to 2016’s.
Following Theodore Roosevelt’s second term in the White House, Republican William Howard Taft faced off in the general election against Democratic Senator William Jennings Bryan. Taft won, of course, continuing half a century of Republican domination of the federal government, a legacy of the Civil War.
Hillary Clinton’s candidacy today cannot be separated from the legacy that President Barack Obama will leave after his two terms in office. Clinton, of course, served as a Secretary of State under the current president. Both Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are campaigning across the country for Clinton.
William Howard Taft’s 1908 campaign shared many features with Clinton’s. Taft had served as the Secretary of War during Roosevelt’s second term, and Roosevelt actively supported Taft throughout the election. While primaries played a role in the nomination process in both elections, the presumptive favorites both followed in the footsteps of a popular outgoing president.
This passing of the baton has become a liability for Clinton as much as a benefit. Supporters of Donald Trump decry what they see as the “Washington Establishment,” mock Clinton’s experience in government and often virulently oppose anything President Obama says or does. The campaign has become one of “insiders” and “outsiders.”
Likewise, Taft’s connections to Washington became a rallying cry for his opponents. Much of the Democratic Party’s platform dealt with the idea of bringing the people back into government and taking power away from the elites. As a long time member of the federal government, Taft was solidly a member of that elite.
The populism that has become a hallmark of the 2016 election was also front and center in the 1908 Democratic platform. Jennings Bryan ran on promises increase popular say in government by allowing for the direct election of senators. He also pledged to represent the interests of the working class, specifically the industrial and mining workers that so heavily support Trump today.
Campaign finance reform also made an appearance in 1908, with the Democrats seeking to establish limits on individual contributions, to make donations public and transparent and to prevent corporations from donating to candidates. Senator Bernie Sanders will find this debate familiar.
The populist Democrats even managed to mirror the racist undertones of Donald Trump’s immigration policy, with the 1908 platform vowing to “keep Asiatic immigrants out of this country.”
Much like today, little of the 1908 election had anything to do with sport. As important as they may be, athletic competitions are very rarely a matter of government. Nevertheless, the election of Taft impacted baseball in ways still seen to this day.
Taft was an avid fan of the game. He frequently attended games in Washington and across the country while in office, including several Opening Days. At one of those season openers, in 1910, Taft threw out the first pitch of the game from his seat in the stands.
That day started a long tradition of presidential first pitches. Presidents have taken part in ceremonial first pitches at All-Star Games, Opening Days and World Series nearly every year since 1910. George W. Bush’s emotional strike down the middle at Yankee Stadium just weeks after the 9/11 attacks may never have happened without Taft.
An average American from the turn of the century would likely found the country today unrecognizable. The United States has changed in nearly every respect over the past 108 years. A look back to 1908 in baseball and politics, however, makes it seem like the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Andrew May is a senior in the School of Foreign Services. The Front Runners is a shared column and appears every Tuesday.
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