Out of all our presidents, not many are suspected of being indifferent to baseball. The most notable is probably Thomas Jefferson, who no doubt considered games that involve balls frivolous, and would distract him from his multiple intellectual pursuits.
Many of our presidents were big baseball “bugs,” the early 20th century word that meant fan. In their book, “Baseball: the President’s Game,” authors William Mead and Paul Dickson share presidential vignettes, and explain how the chief executives became hooked on baseball.
At Valley Forge, George Washington and his soldiers played an early form of baseball called British rounders. Andrew Jackson played one-old-cat, another baseball variation that John Adams also enjoyed. In 1860, a Currier and Ives drawing depicted Abraham Lincoln holding a baseball bat as he promised to hit a “home run” with voters in his reelection bid.
Warren G. Harding twice owned shares in the minor league team in his hometown of Marion, Ohio. Franklin Roosevelt famously allowed baseball to continue during World War II. In his green light letter to ML–Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Roosevelt said that the moral support baseball provided to wary Americans far outweighed any negatives.
Ambidextrous Harry Truman kept fans guessing which hand he would toss out the ceremonious Opening Day pitch. Dwight Eisenhower played semi-pro ball as a center fielder under the assumed name Wilson, because playing professionally would have cost Eisenhower a chance at his West Point scholarship. Lyndon Johnson, the Pride of the Pedernales, was a sandlot backstop at the tender age of 15.
In 1965, Hall of Fame pitchers Robin Roberts and All-Star pitcher Bob Friend urged Duke Law School graduate Richard Nixon to lead Major League Baseball Players Association. Nixon, sensing that the presidency might still be in his future, declined. Instead, the players picked Marvin Miller, and are today the wealthier for their choice. George H. W. Bush, a Yale first baseman and on the Eli’s College World Series team, kept his glove well-oiled in his Oval Office desk.
Of all the presidents who loved baseball, the one whose fandom lasted the longest, spanning 80 years, was Herbert Hoover, who served during, and was blamed for not ending, the Great Depression and for supporting prohibition. An undeterred Hoover attended ball games even though the cranks fiercely booed him, and yelled, “We want beer.” Hoover was so unpopular that the New York Yankees’ Babe Ruth, who voted for Democrat Al Smith in the 1928 election, chided the president. When told that his $100,000 salary was greater than the president’s, Ruth said, “I know but I had a better year than Hoover.”
Ruth may not have liked Hoover, but Ted Williams spoke glowingly of him. When Williams managed the Washington Senators from 1969 to 1971, play-by-play announcer Shelby Whitfield asked him who he considered the world’s greatest leader. Williams replied: “Not Lincoln, not Washington… not Jefferson, Wilson, and not even FDR… but Herbert – by God – Hoover!” Williams admired Hoover’s refusal to complain about being scorned for the depression and prohibition. Subconsciously, Williams may have been partial to Hoover because of the president’s speech to baseball writers where he suggested that batters get four strikes instead of three. Imagine Williams getting four strikes!
Hoover’s baseball romance began as a rural Iowa youngster. By 1895, Hoover had enrolled in Stanford University where he was part of the inaugural graduating class. Hoover played shortstop for the university. The mind struggles to conjure up an image of the conservative, staid Hoover scooping up smoking-hot grounders and making the double play pivot. Hoover is, after all, the president who went fishing dressed in a suit, vest and tie.
Still attending games late into his life, Hoover died at 90. When the Cincinnati Reds still played at Crosley Field, a plaque in center field featured a Hoover statement that ended with this sentence: “Baseball is the greatest of American sports.”
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at [email protected]