THE SPORT OF PRESIDENTS At the White House, baseball holds a place of honor


WASHINGTON -- As a kid in Arkansas, Bill Clinton played music, not center field. As an adult, he developed a passion for college basketball.

On Monday, though, none of that matters. By virtue of being president, Mr. Clinton gets the honor of taking part in one of America's most enduring rituals. When the president throws out the first ball at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, he will inaugurate major league baseball's Opening Day and become part of a tradition that stretches back to the sport's earliest roots.

Unlike some other combinations, politics and baseball do mix. And presidents and baseball go together like hot dogs and beer, like Babe Ruth and cigars, like, well, Brooks and Frank Robinson.

"They feed off each other, baseball and presidents," presidential See historian Richard Norton Smith said. "You have all these wonderful images over the years, and you don't know where baseball ends and the presidency begins."

Opening Day is as American a ritual as Inauguration Day -- and to some presidents, a lot more enjoyable.

Richard Nixon seemed painfully awkward at inaugural balls, but happy as a little boy while throwing out the first ball of a new season.

"Presidents, without interruption, have embraced this game -- and have been embraced back by it," says a real baseball writer, William B. Mead, co-author of a rich new book "Baseball: The President's Game."

"Not only no other sport, but no other activity or aspect of American life has this hold on the president, who, after all, is the symbol of America."

Baseball is our game; like democracy itself, taken from the British in some rudimentary form, but perfected here on these shores -- and then exported back to the world.

The first president to play baseball may have been George Washington, who played catch "for hours" while camped at Valley Forge. His men played "base," according to the diary of one soldier, a game that already was evolving away from the game of "rounders" played by British soldiers on the other side of the Atlantic.

"Let it be noted that Martin van Buren was president in 1839," wrote the authors of "Baseball: The President's Game," in debunking the claim that Abner Doubleday "invented" baseball that year, "and that he knew of baseball, but almost surely not of Abner Doubleday, who was a West Point plebe at the time. . . ."

Invoking patriotism, President Franklin Roosevelt kept baseball alive during World War II. He got little argument. Wendell Wilkie, who ran against FDR for president, backed him on baseball.

"If the American way of life is to survive, let baseball survive," Wilkie said. "And too, if the game should perish, then in my opinion, the larger part of what we are fighting to protect will end."

FDR loved baseball. He threw out the first ball on eight Opening Days, more than any other president. The president would enter Griffith Stadium in a convertible, a cigarette holder jutting out of that famous mouth, and raise both fists in the air to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd.

There are a thousand stories involving presidents and baseball -- and a remarkable number revolve around Babe Ruth.

In the mid-1920s, President Calvin Coolidge attended a Yankees-Senators game on a sweltering summer day in Washington. Some of the Yankees lined up to greet Coolidge.

"Mr. Ruth," Coolidge said.

"Hot as hell, ain't it, Prez?" the Babe replied.

Ruth bedeviled Coolidge's Depression-plagued successor, Herbert Hoover, even more. At one point, he told sportswriters that he deserved to earn more than the president because "I had a better year."

Hoover didn't let the slights from the Babe bother him. In fact, he used Ruth to poke fun at himself by telling a story about a little boy who asked the president for three autographs, says Richard Norton Smith, the librarian at the Hoover Museum in Iowa. Hoover was happy to oblige, but he asked the boy why he wanted three. "Because I want one of yours for myself, and it takes two of you to get one of Babe Ruth," the boy replied.

Virtually every president has had some sort of comeuppance at the hands of baseball.

John F. Kennedy was ragged on one day when he threw out the first ball in Washington April 10, 1961. JFK's toss was caught by White Sox outfielder Manuel Joseph Rivera, who brought the ball back to Kennedy for an autograph.

The president scrawled his illegible signature on the ball, which prompted a legendary outburst from Rivera. "What kind of garbage college is that Harvard where they don't even teach you to write?" Rivera fumed. Kennedy just laughed and signed the ball again.

Ronald Reagan, who portrayed Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander in the movies, had an embarrassing

baseball moment -- and didn't even know it.

Mr. Reagan was in the office of House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. one day. He complimented the speaker on the ornate desk in his office in the Capitol.

"Thank you, Mr. President," Mr. O'Neill replied. "That desk belonged to Grover Cleveland."

"Did you know?" Mr. Reagan replied. "I played him in a movie."

For an awkward moment, nobody in the crowded room spoke. Finally, Mr. O'Neill said gently: "Uh, Mr. President, that's Grover Cleveland Alexander."

"Yeah," Mr. Reagan answered, apparently not getting the distinction between the pitcher and the president. "Him."

Jimmy Carter stayed away from ballparks.

He is, in fact, the only president since William Howard Taft began the tradition in 1910 not to throw out a ball on Opening Day.

When Mr. Carter finally did show up at a major league game, it was the seventh game of the 1979 World Series at Memorial Stadium, where the Orioles were in the process of blowing a 3-games-to-1 lead over Pittsburgh.

"Next time," growled superstitious Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey no one in particular, "get your a here before the seventh game!"

More often than a source of embarrassment, however, baseball has been a refuge for presidents.

In his darkest days, when he was fighting impeachment, Andrew Johnson had some supporters to the White House, where they watched baseball out back and heard the president talk nostalgically about playing the game as a boy.

More than 100 years later, when the Watergate scandal broke, Richard Nixon retreated to Camp David with his son-in-law, David Eisenhower, to draw up their all-time, all-star teams.

David Eisenhower's grandfather, of course, had been president -- and a ballplayer. As a young man, Dwight D. Eisenhower was so poor that he played professional baseball in the minor leagues under an assumed name during the summers he attended West Point.

At the time, this would have made him ineligible for football at Army, where he was a star halfback. It was also an honors code violation that, if discovered, could have led to Eisenhower's dismissal from the academy -- and changed the course of history.

"When I was a small boy in Kansas, a friend of mine and I went fishing and, as we sat there in the warmth of the summer afternoon on a river bank, we talk about what we wanted to do when we grew up," Ike recalled many years later.

"I told him that I wanted to be a real major league baseball player, a genuine professional like [Hall of Fame shortstop] Honus Wagner. My friend said that he'd like to be president of the United States.

"Neither of us got our wish."



Who was the first president to attend an opening day?

2. The first president to be booed at a ballpark?

3. This president said, "Good ballplayers make good citizens."

4. First (and only) president to publicly disdain the game?

5. This president regularly hunted during the off-season with Ty Cobb.

6. This president once owned a minor league team, was the first to invite Babe Ruth to the White House, placed small wagers on games -- and lived and died with the Washington Senators.

7. This president, by contrast, always rooted for the home team, wherever he was.

8. Only president to play in an Old-Timers game.

9. This future president walked up to Stan Musial and said, "They say you're too old to be a ballplayer and I'm too young to be president. Maybe we'll fool them."

10. Which president was the best ballplayer?


1. According to the Society for American Baseball Research, the first was Benjamin Harrison, who attended a game between Washington and Cincinnati on June 6, 1892. The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., however, gives this distinction to James A. Garfield, who attended the opening game in Washington in 1881. (The baseball exhibit put together by the Nixon Library credits Ulysses S. Grant with being the first to see a professional game, in 1869.)

2. This dubious distinction belongs to Herbert Hoover, who in 1931 was booed -- where else -- in Philadelphia by a Depression-era, Prohibition-weary crowd that upon seeing Hoover, chanted, "We want beer! We want beer!"

3. Chester A. Arthur. He was also the first to invite a team of professional ballplayers to the White House.

4. Theodore Roosevelt. TR preferred more "manly" pursuits such as boxing, riding, shooting, football and big-game hunting. Baseball was a "mollycoddle game," he said. Of course, Teddy Roosevelt never had to face Nolan Ryan.

5. William Howard Taft. Upon meeting Cobb in the White House, Taft quipped that down in Georgia, people "think you're a bigger man than I am."

6. Warren G. Harding. "Mr. Harding was a genuine fan," wrote Thomas Rice in the Sporting News. "He was the sort that gloomed and did not enjoy his supper at the White House if he had seen the Washington team lose."

7. Richard Nixon. Although when the hometown newspaper, the Washington Post, asked Mr. Nixon to intercede and prevent the Senators from leaving town, the president declined to get involved. Could this be a hidden reason for Watergate?

8. As a vice president, George Bush made a diving stop in the infield and threw to former Orioles pitcher Milt Pappas for the out at a game in Denver. "The place was thrilled for me," a tickled Bush later recalled.

9. John F. Kennedy. Three years later, the two men met at the All-Star Game. JFK was president -- and Stan the Man was still playing. "I guess we fooled 'em, Mr. President," Musial said.

10. This one is for arguing over in a sports bar. Most baseball buffs would answer either Eisenhower or Bush. But it may well have been the president whom Chevy Chase made famous as a klutz, but who was actually probably the best athlete ever to live in the White House: Gerald Ford.

SOURCES: "Baseball: The President's Game,"

by William B. Mead and Paul Dickson;

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, N.Y.;

MA The Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, Yorba Linda, Calif.

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