When it comes to the U.S. Congress, a politically split institution located in an increasingly divided town, baseball is one of the few, surefire ways to make friends fast.
After he was elected to the U.S. House in 2008, Steve Scalise took to America’s pastime, joining the Republican baseball team. He quickly recognized its value in a place where members, even within the same party, rarely socialize.
“It’s a good way to meet colleagues in a short period of time,” said Scalise, who had just replaced Bobby Jindal in Congress after his fellow Republican was elected Louisiana governor. “You see guys on the floor and you really know them rather than just walking by them.”
Scalise was at second base Wednesday morning in Alexandria, Virginia, practicing with his teammates, when he was struck by a gunman’s bullet. Organizers are pledging to go on with the annual charitable game that is scheduled for Thursday night.
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Three years after Scalise arrived in Washington, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond joined him on the ball field. Newly elected in Louisiana’s 2nd District, which adjoins Scalise’s district of suburban parishes around New Orleans, Richmond joined the rival Democratic team and quickly became its star. Richmond pitched Scalise’s squad to defeat several years in a row.
“If there was any way we could have disqualified Cedric, we would have done it,” joked Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who played on the Republican team when he served in Congress from 2011 to 2013.
Scalise and Richmond had previously forged a friendship while playing a different sport, basketball. They both spent years in the trenches of the Louisiana Legislature before moving on to Congress.
“We would fight during the day in the Legislature, and then in the evening, we would go play basketball and we would have drinks together,” Richmond said.
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Republican congressman and baseball player John Shimkus, of Illinois, told Roll Call magazine in 2011 that across-the-aisle friendships sprout from ball field rivalry.
“I’m not into this kissy, Kumbaya bipartisanship that will make the whole world better, but we are friends,” Shimkus said.
Landry said Scalise recruited him to play for the GOP team right after his 2010 election. Landry said his days playing baseball have led to some of his strongest friendships — Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who was practicing with the GOP team Wednesday morning, is an example — and they are among his fondest memories of his time in Washington, D.C.
“It was one the few times that there seemed to be a festive, enjoyable atmosphere around the Capitol,” Landry said. “You got guys who have to work late, late, late in the evening, yet they’ll get up 6 to 6:30 a.m. each morning to get to the practice field.”
That ritual has not changed. Just Monday night, Landry said he was in D.C. eating dinner with Republican representatives when Scalise cut the evening short.
“We gotta go,” Landry recalled Scalise saying. “We have to get up and go to practice.’”
Landry said he’s saddened that violence has befallen such a wonderful tradition.
“Really, a baseball game? That strikes at the heart of things,” Landry said with incredulity. “It happened on a baseball field, the American sport.”
Chris John, who served in the House from 1997 to 2006, said hearing the news Wednesday took him back to the summer mornings years ago when he’d practice with the Democrats’ baseball team.
“No one would really know that those were a bunch of members of Congress practicing,” he said. “We just looked like a bunch of men in uniforms. So this had to be a planned event.”
He said he and his colleagues played hard and sometimes got hurt in the process. He recalled once getting overheated and passing out, requiring help from medical staff who were present.
“It was serious baseball. It was fast-pitched style,” John said. “It was not softball in any way.”
John said he keeps a picture of him in uniform in his office at Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, where he serves as president. He likes to tell people that the picture from his days playing baseball at LSU. He never played for the Tigers, though LSU did give him a uniform to play in, he said.
LSU is expected to be represented Thursday when the game goes forward, as the university has shipped an assortment of gear — hats, T-shirts and other items — for members to wear. “We are grateful to Congress for thinking of Rep. Steve Scalise during this difficult time and recognizing him by wearing LSU gear in support of his recovery. Rep. Scalise is a proud LSU alumnus and great supporter of the university, and we are proud to help out even in this small way," said LSU President F. King Alexander in a statement.
The congressional baseball game was first played in 1909, but did not become a consist annual affair until 1962. Through the years, it has consistently drawn big crowds and raised hundreds of thousands for charity.
Former U.S. Rep. Bob Livingston said the annual baseball game is an increasingly rare way for lawmakers to get to know each other in an atmosphere with much less cross-party socializing than there used to be.
“It’s just fun, like a picnic,” said Livingston, who served from 1977 to 1999 in the seat Scalise now holds. “It’s a way for people who have political differences to get together and have a good time.”
Some games have been close, while others were blowouts and the occasional pitcher might bean an opposing hitter, but it’s always been good time, he said.
“The last thing they think of is some jerk to come up and start shooting people,” Livingston added.