Did Teddy Roosevelt really watch Duke Ellington play baseball?

If you’re watching Season 3, Episode 7 of Netflix’s show “Big Mouth,” then you’re probably wondering if that story about Teddy Roosevelt and Duke Ellington is true. If you’re not watching that show and somehow end up on this article, then we’ll offer a brief summary of the show for you.

In the show, the ghost of Duke Ellington is a recurring character from Season 1. In Season 3, Ellington gets his own episode dedicated to his life. Early on in the episode, Ellington talks about how his early passion was playing baseball and he mentions former president Teddy Roosevelt used to watch him play.

Immediately after sharing this news, Ellington broke the fourth wall and told the audience to Google it. So here you are, probably.

And it turns out, this is actually true. 

In his memoir, The Duke Ellington Reader, Ellington recalled a moment from childhood:

“There were many open lots around Washington then, and we used to play baseball at an old tennis court on Sixteenth Street. President Roosevelt would come by on his horse sometimes, and stop and watch us play. When he got ready to go, he would wave and we would wave at him. That was Teddy Roosevelt – just him and his horse, nobody guarding him.”

In that same book, he discussed his passion for the sport:

“At this point, piano was not my recognized talent. Why, I thought, take it so seriously? After all, baseball, football, track, and athletics were what the real he-men were identified with, and so they were naturally the most important to me. Washington was in the American League and every day I had to see the game. The only way for me to do that was to get a job at the baseball park [Griffith Stadium]. I succeeded in getting one and had my first eperience of stage fright. I had to walk around, in and out and in front of all those people, yelling, ‘Peanuts, popcorn, chewing gum, candy, cigas, cigarettes, and score cards!’ I soon got over my nervousness, although the first day I missed a lot of the game hiding behind the stands. By the end of the season, I had been promoted to yelling, ‘Cold drinks, gents! Get ’em ice cold!’ I was so crazy about baseball, it’s a wonder I ever sold anything. The opportunity to walk around there, looking at all those baseball heroes, whose pictures were a premium in the cigarette packages, meant a lot to me.”

As for why he mostly quit his early passion? His mom was concerned about him playing the sport. And an incident on the field led to Ellington not playing baseball as a child.

From the New York Times:

Her anxieties about him were further exacerbated the following year when Ellington was hit on the head with a baseball bat during a game. She rushed out in the street and took him to Dr. Cuthbert, who closed the wound with stitches. Ellington said, “The mark is still there, but I soon got over it. With that, however, my mother decided I should take piano lessons.”

But Ellington wouldn’t stay away from baseball forever. As The Smithsonian points out, Ellington and other jazz musicians would often gather and play some games with each other. The New York Times explains Ellington’s band “fielded a competitive baseball team, which played against teams from other orchestras.”

“Duke Ellington couldn’t hit or throw, but he loved the game,” said jazz historian Phil Schaap to the Times.

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