February 28th, 2014
Let’s resume our racehorse run through America’s baseball Presidents. When last we left our heroes, William McKinley had just promised to throw out the first pitch at the Washington home opener in April 1897 (http://goo.gl/ogDGrb). Although more than a hundred Senators and Congressmen showed up, and the club constructed a Presidential box complete with bunting, the honoree did not appear. Six months into his second term, an assassin’s bullet and ensuing medical malpractice brought us a new man in the White House: Theodore Roosevelt, who advocated a strenuous life and vigorous sport but detested baseball. His sons Kermit and Quentin played baseball but their exploits elicited little interest from Dad. Daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth said, “Father and all of us regarded baseball as a mollycoddle game. Tennis, football, lacrosse, boxing, polo, yes: they are violent, which appealed to us. But baseball? Father wouldn’t even watch it, not even at Harvard!”
All the same, Teddy was the first President to receive a gold lifetime pass to all professional baseball games (every President since has received one). In his final full year in office, 1908, he reluctantly welcomed three American League clubs to the White House–the hometown Senators, the New York Highlanders, and the Cleveland Naps. He then handed off to William Howard Taft, who had served him as Secretary of War and was his hand-picked successor. Taft was something of a fan and had played ball as a youth. It was his brother Charles P. Taft, however, who was truly bitten by the baseball bug–owning pieces of the Cubs and Phillies simultaneously, in contravention of baseball law, while his brother sat in the White House. President Taft’s enduring contribution took place on April 14, 1910, when he fulfilled the expectations placed on McKinley by throwing out the first pitch prior to Washington’s 3-0 victory over Philadelphia, behind the mighty arm of young Walter Johnson.
Woodrow Wilson‘s boyhood attachment to baseball was intense indeed, as discussed earlier this week (http://goo.gl/W2LJU4). As President, in 1917 he became the first to throw out the first pitch at a World Series opener. Prior to that he had attended many ballgames, eschewing the use of his golden pass and paying his own way.
Warren G. Harding was the first President to have owned a stake in a professional baseball club, the Marion Diggers of the Class D Ohio State League. He had played ball as a boy and may have fancied himself a prospective big leaguer. In September 1920, while campaigning for the Presidency, he took part in an exhibition game with the Chicago Cubs, throwing three pitches on behalf of the semipro Kerrigan Tailors.
Calvin Coolidge was not in the least bit sporty but his wife was. Grace Coolidge availed herself of the Presidential lifetime pass more than any First Lady before or since. When the Senators and old Walter Johnson finally went to the World Series in 1924, and then improbably won it when a ground ball hit a pebble and bounded over the head of Giants’ third baseman Freddie Lindstrom, all Washington went wild. It is said that even Silent Cal’s eyebrow twitched. He had attended three of the Senators’ four home games, establishing a new Presidential record.
Herbert Hoover was a huge baseball fan and took in as many regular-season games as any President. Perhaps the most memorable line attaching to Hoover and baseball spoke to the tenor of the times, as the failure of Prohibition made the Great Depression harder to bear.
I was not able to work up much enthusiasm over the ball game, and in the midst of it I was handed a note informing me of the sudden death of Senator Dwight Morrow. He had proved a great pillar of strength in the senate and his death was a great loss to the country and to me. I left the ballpark with the chant of the crowd ringing in my ears, “We Want Beer!”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been secretary of the baseball team at Groton. He loved the game but never played it well, even before his body betrayed his spirit. According to Gerald Bazer and Steven Culbertson in Prologue Magazine (Spring 2002), “as a young attorney in New York City, he almost lost his job because he would sneak off to Giants games at the Polo Grounds. As assistant secretary of the navy during the Wilson administration, he substituted for the President in throwing out the first ball for the 1917 season. As President, he made a record eight opening day appearances,” even though his physical infirmity made visits to the ballpark difficult. His great contribution to the game as President may have been his “green-light” letter that kept baseball going after America’s entrance into World War II. Writing to Commissioner Landis, who was prepared to shut down the game, FDR replied in part:
I honestly feel it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everyone will be working longer hours and harder than ever before. Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half, and which can be got for very little cost.
Harry S. Truman was a lefty, and he threw like a ballplayer. And he was funny: “I couldn’t see well enough to play when I was a boy, so they gave me a special job–they made me an umpire.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower revealed, while he was President, that he played ball professionally, under the assumed name of “Wilson,” with Abilene in the Kansas State League. Researchers have long tried to identify him, without luck. This of course was a violation of amateur-eligibility rules, as Jim Thorpe learned to his chagrin after starring at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. (Because he had played summer ball with Rocky Point and Fayetteville in the East Carolina League in 1909-10–under his own name–he had to forfeit his medals.) Had Ike’s baseball fling become public knowledge while he was at West Point, he would have been unable to play for the Army football team. Like Truman, Ike has a great baseball quote to his everlasting credit. In later years he wrote:
A friend of mine and I went fishing and as we sat there in the warmth of a summer afternoon on a river bank we talked about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I told him I wanted to be a real major league baseball player, a genuine professional like Honus Wagner. My friend said that he’d like to be President of the United States. Neither of us got our wish.
John F. Kennedy liked football more than baseball, but in his sadly limited opportunities he threw out a mean first pitch. “Last year,” he once said, “more Americans went to symphonies than went to baseball games. This may be viewed as an alarming statistic, but I think that both baseball and the country will endure.”
Richard M. Nixon was–with the possible exception of Woodrow Wilson, as only recently revealed at Our Game–the most avid and astute baseball fan of all our Presidents. “I don’t know a lot about politics,” he once said, “but I know a lot about baseball.” In 1972 Nixon picked all-time All-Star teams from 1925 forward, by era. Twenty years later he revised his list to go up to 1991. Dick Young wrote, “This isn’t a guy that shows up at season openers to take bows and get his picture in the paper and has to have his secretary of state tell him where first base is. This man knows baseball.” Despite the cataclysmic circumstances of his departure from the White House, he was said afterward to have been offered the post of Commissioner of Major League Baseball.
Gerald Ford was an All American football player at Michigan and a solid baseball fan. About going to watch the Grand Rapids Chicks of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League he said, “I was single, practicing law. People said it was fun. Well, I went, and it sure was. The gals played hard and skillfully and put on a good show. Those ladies took it very seriously. They drew real well. Fans were very intense and partisan. They really had a flair. It was good competition.”
Jimmy Carter was an avid softball player but much of a baseball fan during his Presidency. Today he and wife Rosalynn are more or less fixtures at Atlanta Braves games.
Ronald Reagan was, before he threw out first pitches or welcomed Hall of Famers to the Rose Garden, a big-time baseball “player.” As an announcer broadcasting Cubs games for radio station WHO out of Des Moines, Iowa, he had the presence of mind to prolong an at bat via epically endless foul balls until his Western Union feed resumed.
There were several other stations broadcasting that game and I knew I’d lose my audience if I told them we’d lost our telegraph connections so I took a chance. I had [Billy] Jurges hit another foul. Then I had him foul one that only missed being a home run by a foot. I had him foul one back in the stands and took up some time describing the two lads that got in a fight over the ball. I kept on having him foul balls until I was setting a record for a ballplayer hitting successive foul balls and I was getting more than a little scared. Just then my operator started typing. When he passed me the paper I started to giggle–it said: “Jurges popped out on the first ball pitched.”
In 1952 Reagan portrayed Grover Cleveland Alexander in the the film The Winning Team, alongside Doris Day.
George H.W. Bush was a slick fielding first baseman with Andover and Yale, and he played in the 1947 College World Series. The photograph taken of him with Babe Ruth is a classic. Has there been a better player among all our Presidents? Only Eisenhower enters into the debate. Of the 1981 Cracker Jack Old Timers Game, then Vice President Bush recalled:
Milt Pappas grooved one and I hit it–I hadn’t swung a bat in God, how many years! I hit it crisp right through the middle for a single. People actually cheered and stuff when I got the single. It was more than fun.
Bill Clinton grew up a Cards fan, became a Cubs fan, appeared at baseball games with his typical gusto, and like Truman threw lefthanded with authority.
George W. Bush, growing up, never thought of being President. “I wanted to be Willie Mays,” he said. As managing general partner of the ownership group behind the Texas Rangers (1989-94), Bush attained the highest level in baseball’s professional ranks of any of our Presidents. He continues to make jokes at his own expense about trading Sammy Sosa before his talent emerged.
Barack Obama: Basketball was his game before attaining the White House and, along with golf, remains the game he likes to play. As a fan he has become more ecumenical in his appreciation of other sports, including baseball. Growing up in Hawaii, he attached to the Oakland A’s, but since moving to Illinois his favorite team has been the Chicago White Sox.