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Our Presidents and Their Baseball

Our Presidents and Their Baseball

 The only reason that George Washington did not play catch with one of his junior officers at Valley Forge was because it was just too cold. The next summer, according to a letter sent home by a private in the Continental Army, the general really got after it, spending many of his idle hours whipping the ball around the horn to everyone who produced a mitt. You didn’t know that, did you? Imagine Washington to Mad Anthony Wayne to Horacio Gates…The ultimate double-play combination of the day.

Firebrand John Adams wasn’t far behind. Known to engage in a game of rounders, an early interpretation of baseball, Adams loved the competition and became a damned fine shortstop in his later years. In addition, he was the scourge of the base paths, especially when a Tory team was in town.

As the reader can clearly see, baseball and the Presidency appeared hand in glove from the very beginning of the nation. Although verification is sketchy in the early days, by the mid-1800s the keystone phenomenon had more than reached Pennsylvania Avenue. Sadly, no chief executive ever played pro ball. Most were relegated to ribbon cutting at new stadiums or to throwing out the first pitch.

In 1862, the long-legged Abraham Lincoln, who reportedly could lope from first to second in three steps, built a small field out behind the White House so his sons and he could play. Lincoln struck quite a pose winding up for a curve in the top hat and tails of his dark days at the helm. He had quite a brush-back pitch. Just ask George McClellan (deceased too). His successor of sorts, the bad luck Andrew Johnson was the first chief executive to call baseball “our national game”. He actually gave federal employees the day off to watch a game in 1867 and again in 1868, before his impeachment at the hands of a butter fingered Congress, who thought the game to be a waste of time.

Soon after, General, now President Grant umpired his first game (Gothic, Colorado- June 30, 1878) between two teams of former Union soldiers. The former commander was never challenged on his calls by the adoring troops. He reportedly ordered a keg to be stationed at home plate so as to encourage competitive play.

However, baseball was new and all eyes looked West even though the Dodgers and Giants had yet to move to California. Benjamin Harrison was the first President to watch a live game. In 1892 he watched the Washington Senators lose to the Cincinnati Reds. William Howard Taft was first to see a game in his hometown, in attendance as the Philadelphia Phillies beat the Reds in 1912.

Teddy Roosevelt (a distant relative of this writer) had once called baseball a mollycoddle game. Historians say that it just wasn’t violent enough for his tastes. Woodrow Wilson played ball at Davidson before transferring to Princeton. He threw out the first pitch in the 1915 World Series and watched Philadelphia beat Boston. In 1913 he signed an autograph for the legendary Ty Cobb. The game was pretty much white bread in those days in perfect harmony with Wilson’s much-publicized ill feelings toward blacks and immigrants. Warren Harding owned a minor league team. Herbert Hoover was booed at the Series in 1931.

Franklin Roosevelt, partially handicapped due to polio, served the majority of four terms in the Oval Office. He was an avid fan once telling a friend, “If I didn’t have to hobble up the steps in front of all those people I’d be at the ballpark everyday.” To illustrate the length of his tenure: Jimmy Foxx hit 353 home runs during the Roosevelt Presidency. Joe DiMaggio performed magic while FDR was in office, posting his 56-game hitting streak during the summer of innocence, before the US entered World War II.     

In more modern times, the connection between the diamond and the White House became even more pronounced. In 1953 when Dwight Eisenhower took over the love affair went deeper. Ike, who had played semi-pro ball in the Kansas State League, once admitted to sportswriters “not making the baseball team at West Point was my biggest disappointment in life”. Besides personally presenting Mickey Vernon with his batting champion trophy, Ike invited the winners of the Mexican League championship to the White House.

“I wanted to be a real Major player, a genuine professional like Honus Wagner,” Ike told a Gettysburg friend before his death in 1969.

Then came John Kennedy, a big Red Sox fan, who went so far as to appoint an under-secretary of baseball when he took office in 1961. Once, when talking to Cardinals’ great Stan Musial, Kennedy said,” A couple of years ago they told me I was too young to be President and that you were too old to play baseball. But we fooled them.”

Did Lyndon Johnson throw a high hard one at Barry Goldwater in 1964? Did Richard Nixon steal signs and change box scores after the embarrassment of Watergate? Did Jimmy “The Smile” Carter once jump the railing to congratulate the Braves after the team won the Series in 1992? Absolutely maybe. Rosalynn verified Jimmy’s enthusiastic feat while visiting Crested Butte in 1998. So did Hank Aaron.

Ronald Reagan began his career as a sports broadcaster. After his landslide election in 1980, while admiring portraits of former Presidents, Reagan told Senator Tip O’Neill that he had once played Grover Cleveland in the movies to which O’Neill retorted, “No Mr. President, that was Grover Cleveland Alexander. “I knew the nation was in tough shape from that moment on, O’Neill had later said. Win one for the Gipper and all.”

In the late 40s, George H Bush played standout first base as captain for Yale, hosted babe Ruth’s visit to the team’s New Haven field and even cracked a single off Milt Pappas during an old-timers game. Bill Clinton grew up a Cardinals’ fan but switched to the Cubs when he married Hillary. Like Jimmy Carter, Clinton favored a pardon for Pete Rose saying he “had paid the price”. Despite his best efforts, he could not end the baseball strike in 1994.

As most of us know George W Bush once owned part of the Texas Rangers and was the person responsible for trading Sammy Sosa to the White Sox (for Dick Cheney?). Many feel Bush was better suited for president of a baseball team than his later position. Longtime White Sox fan Barack Obama won 69 million votes in 2008 and is the only known Chief Executive to have a team named after him: The Class-A Brooklyn (NY) Cyclones renamed themselves the Baracklyn Cyclones in 2009 as a tribute to Obama. 

Donald Trump has never bankrupted a baseball franchise. He has yet to turn a double-play. Joe Biden once smacked a ground-rule double into Chesapeake Bay and the ball was returned some 20 years later. It rests in the Oval Office today, guarded by two German Shepherds.

– Gabby Haze