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Barack Obama and Baseball: The President's (Other) Game

5 years ago
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Baseball's place as the "National Pastime" was always a bit of an exaggeration -- even in the days of Joe DiMaggio many sports fans preferred college football, boxing, horse racing or basketball. But baseball's place in the nation's psyche was no myth, either, and from our country's earliest days U.S. presidents kept abreast of the nation's pulse by embracing the uniquely American game.

And I do mean the earliest days. According to a French officer attached to the Continental Army, George Washington played catch with aides de camp for hours at a time while bivouacked at Valley Forge. There, General Washington also watched his troops play an early version of the sport that they called "fives." (No, the game was not "invented" by a Civil War officer named Abner Doubleday.) In fact, during that awful war, Abraham Lincoln would go out into the fields we now know as the South Lawn to take his turn at bat with the boys who played there. It was said that Lincoln could hit the ball a mile.

Wartime commanders-in-chief from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush have insisted that major league baseball continue apace. And according to baseball historians William B. Mead and Paul Dickson, every chief executive with the exception of Rutherford B. Hayes has had some encounter with baseball. By throwing out the first ball at the Washington Nationals opener on Monday, Barack Obama takes his place in this pantheon. Surely, Obama would rather throw the basketball in the air for the opening tip-off of the NCAA championship game Monday night than take the mound for the ceremonial first pitch. No such round ball tradition exists, however, and the man who ruled the Honolulu hardwood as "Barry Obama" agreed to do his duty on the pitching mound. This is as it should be.

In 2009, Obama threw out the first pitch at the home opener for his beloved Chicago White Sox. He did the same thing at the All-Star game last summer in St. Louis, sporting a White Sox jacket and an easy left-handed delivery. This year, his trip to the Nats' park is a historic one: The first presidential pitch was tossed (from the stands) by William Howard Taft on April 14, 1910 -- 100 years ago this season -- the ball being caught by the Washington Senators' Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson.

At the same time, there is an inherent quality of accountability in baseball that even presidents cannot escape. Most people know that a major leaguer who succeeds only one-third of the times he comes to the plate is a hitting star. Likewise, when it comes to fielding, old baseball people have a saying, "The ball will find you," which means that a weak link in the field will be discovered at some point in a game. So it is for American presidents: Once they decide to interact with baseball, they step into a world that reveals something of their character.

Understanding intuitively that there must be some emotional distance between himself and the men he was leading in battle, George Washington would decline his troops' invitation to join in their games. At the same time, his men would pause their play out of respect when Washington appeared. The impasse meant that Washington could neither play nor watch the games. Hence, the endless games of catch outside his own tent.

So it's not their own playing ability that is of most interest; the most skilled baseball players were not necessarily the most successful presidents. True, Dwight D. Eisenhower was the best baseball player to hold the job, and he left the White House in 1961 with high approval ratings after two terms in office. But the second-best ballplayer ever to work out of the Oval Office may have been Gerald Ford, who couldn't hold his job in the starting rotation, so to speak, for even one season: Jerry Ford lost his election bid to a slow-pitch softball player from Plains, Ga., whose dealings with organized baseball foreshadowed (and even helped explain) his aloof and ineffectual dealings with Congress.

As president, Jimmy Carter couldn't be bothered to even attend a major league game for his first three years in office -- and he was the only president in the past century not to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. Not surprisingly, though, Carter has been an enthusiastic (and successful) ex-first fan, just as he's considered a successful ex-president. Carter was a regular at Atlanta Braves home games throughout the 1990s, and as the Braves became a powerhouse, Jimmy could be seen on television doing the contagious, if politically incorrect, "tomahawk chop."

And so it goes. It's likely that Harry Truman wasn't as good a player as his wife, Bess, who had a reputation as a pretty good third base woman. Not that it bothered "Little Harry." Woodrow Wilson and Edith Bolling Galt made their first public appearance as an engaged couple at the second game of the 1915 World Series in Philadelphia. The following spring, Edith Wilson was at her husband's side as he threw out the first ball on Opening Day. By the end of Wilson's second term, Mrs. Wilson was managing her incapacitated husband's affairs -- and many of the affairs of state.

The legend that William Howard Taft started the tradition of the seventh inning stretch is not true -- there are references to it that predate his presidency -- but he certainly popularized it. Taft was known for his genial, outgoing nature (Teddy Roosevelt once remarked, "One loves him at first sight"), and this was nowhere truer than in the stands of the ballpark. It is a matter of record that on April 19, 1909, when Taft plopped his large frame down in National Park for his first Washington Senators game as president, the game was interrupted by the crowd's applause.

By contrast, when baseball aficionados think about Herbert Hoover and baseball, they tend to remember two things. One is an apocryphal tale that Babe Ruth once quipped -- when told he made more money than the president -- "Why not? I had a better year." The second is when Hoover attended a World Series game in Philadelphia on October 4, 1931. While there, the president was handed a telegram informing him that Sen. Dwight Whitney Morrow of New Jersey had died suddenly. In the eighth inning, the president and the first lady left the ballpark. When the Prohibition-era crowd noticed this -- and with the home team losing, 4-0 -- a chant broke out: "We want beer! We want beer!"

It was another 20 years before Americans sent another Republican to the White House. He was known affectionately as "Ike," and while at West Point he played professional ball one summer in the Kansas minor leagues under an assumed name. Like Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower loved baseball all his life.

"When I was a small boy in Kansas," Ike once recalled, "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 that 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."

The boyhood wishes of a baseball announcer out of Des Moines (by way of Illinois) called "Dutch" Reagan all came true -- and then some. Reagan broadcast Cubs games, got a screen test while in California during spring training, and played Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander in the movies. Once during small talk before a State of the Union address, President Reagan complimented House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr., about his desk. This desk belonged to Grover Cleveland, the speaker said. "Yes, I played him in a movie," Reagan replied, at least in the telling of the Democrats present.

But here's another Reagan story from someone who was there, this one during the 1952 filming of "The Winning Team," the sanitized biography of Grover Cleveland Alexander. Bob Lemon, a pitcher for the Cleveland Indians and a future Hall of Famer himself, served as Reagan's stand-in during scenes requiring actual pitching. At one point the script called for Alexander's character to hit a catcher's mitt nailed to the side of a barn.

"Piece of cake," Lemon said. Maybe it was the cameras, but Lemon proceeded to hit everything except the mitt.

"Mind if I try it?" Reagan asked unaffectedly.

"One pitch, smack in the middle of that mitt," Lemon later recalled. "I've never been so embarrassed in all my life."

It's all there with the presidents. Eisenhower's great confidence, and also his fatalism. Taft's geniality. Hoover's horrible luck. Reagan's good luck -- and innocence. Bill Clinton's hubris and his political antenna. Yes, the 42nd president of the United States, understanding neither the ethos nor the economics of organized baseball, thought he could single-handedly settle the 1994-95 baseball strike. He failed. (On the other hand, Clinton revealed his unflagging instincts for being in the same place as the American public: He made sure to attend the game in which Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's "ironman" record for consecutive games played. And at that game, Clinton became genuinely excited when he heard who else was in the house. "You know," he told me in a boyish whisper that magical night, "DiMaggio's here!")

George H.W. Bush was the captain of the Yale baseball team in 1948, an honor he was given out of deference to his war record and his slick fielding ability -- he hit only .264 his senior year -- and is forever linked in baseball history as the student who received the autobiography of The Babe, who was dying of cancer. His son was not good enough to make the varsity at Yale, although he was a better politician that Poppy -- he won statewide election in Texas twice (his father lost twice) and got himself re-elected president as well.

Before going into politics George W. Bush was a managing partner -- effectively, the owner -- of the Texas Rangers. In that job, Bush earned a reputation as a baseball purist, one who had an easy rapport with the players, especially the Latino players with whom he would converse in Spanish. He was the first president to have played Little League, the first to have had a role in the major leagues, and the first to my knowledge to draw on baseball for his theme music on the campaign trail (John Fogerty's "Centerfield").

And the first who, while waiting to go on stage for his first debate with Al Gore, heard one of his campaign advisers (Mark McKinnon) help him focus by softly whispering in his ear the mantra: "Willie Mays, Willie Mays" -- the name of Bush's all-time favorite baseball player. That same year, when asked during a 2000 primary debate what his biggest mistake had been, Bush deftly replied with a self-deprecating joke about his days with the Rangers: "I signed off on that wonderful transaction -- Sammy Sosa for Harold Baines." But Sammy Sosa, we found out later, may have been one of the many players from baseball's steroid era whose feats might not have been on the up-and-up. Bush, alone among the Lords of Baseball, later atoned for this by speaking courageously against performance enhancing drugs in a State of the Union address.

When George W. Bush moved into the White House, he took the collection of autographed baseballs he had displayed in his Austin office -- some 250, far more than the number of books displayed. But this may have been a clue. Bush was keenly aware that Franklin Roosevelt had kept baseball going during World War II, even though many of the players had gone into military service, arguing that doing so was in the national interest. FDR pointed out in a letter to Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, "There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before . . . that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before."

Yes, Bush knew this story and in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, he admirably told Americans how important it was for us to resume the rhythms of our daily lives. Once, Bush urged his fellow citizens to drive to Disney World. On three occasions, he encouraged Americans to go see a baseball game. Having said that, the 43rd president only had it half-right: He didn't, as Roosevelt had done, couple the attempt at normalcy by calling on Americans to simultaneously make wartime sacrifices.

Now it's Obama's turn at bat. Will baseball reveal things about him as well? It probably is already doing that. In the run-up to Monday's home opener, the Washington Nationals players sounded excited. This was especially true of the African-American players, to whom Obama is sort of the Jackie Robinson of politics. "Being an African-American person, I'm excited just to meet him," enthused Nats centerfielder Nyjer Morgan. "He basically broke down the barrier. It's . . . gratifying just to meet him and be in the same room with the man."

"I'm the ultimate flag-waving American," Nats manager Jim Riggleman added this week. "I love all that stuff. I love the fact that the president is going to be there on Opening Day. It's baseball, it's America. It's our national pastime and it's the president of the United States. It's the way it should be."

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