The Presidents and the Pastime draws on Curt Smith’s extensive background as a former White House presidential speechwriter to chronicle the historic relationship between baseball, the “most American” sport, and the U.S. presidency. Smith, who USA TODAY calls “America’s voice of authority on baseball broadcasting,” starts before America’s birth, when would‑be presidents played baseball antecedents. He charts how baseball cemented its reputation as America’s pastime in the nineteenth century, such presidents as Lincoln and Johnson playing town ball or giving employees time off to watch. Smith tracks every U.S. president from Theodore Roosevelt to Donald Trump, each chapter filled with anecdotes: Wilson buoyed by baseball after suffering disability; a heroic FDR saving baseball in World War II; Carter, taught the game by his mother, Lillian; Reagan, airing baseball on radio that he never saw—by “re-creation.” George H. W. Bush, for whom Smith wrote, explains, “Baseball has everything.” Smith, having interviewed a majority of presidents since Richard Nixon, shares personal stories on each. Throughout, The Presidents and the Pastime provides a riveting narrative of how America’s leaders have treated baseball. From Taft as the first president to throw the “first pitch” on Opening Day in 1910 to Obama’s “Go Sox!” scrawled in the guest register at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014, our presidents have deemed it the quintessentially American sport, enriching both their office and the nation.
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About the Author
Curt Smith is the author of seventeen books, including the classic history of baseball broadcasting, Voices of The Game. His other books include: Pull Up a Chair: The Vin Scully Story (Potomac Books, 2009), Mercy! A Celebration of Fenway Park’s Centennial (Potomac Books, 2012), and most recently, George H. W. Bush: Character at the Core (Potomac Books, 2014). Smith is a senior lecturer of English at the University of Rochester, a Gate House Media columnist, and a contributor to publications from Newsweek to the New York Times. The host of the “Voices of The Game” series at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, he has been named to the Judson Welliver Society of former presidential speechwriters.
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1700s to Theodore Roosevelt, 1901–1909
Envision American presidents as friends around a table — giants, mediocrities, each a household word. Depending on your choice, their lives trace defeat and even tragedy — also triumph and statecraft, evoking a sort of childlike faith. Each dons hats worn in and beyond the Oval Office: politician, captain, chaplain, commander in chief. Harry Truman called the White House a prison. Most have liked it. "I have a nice job," said John F. Kennedy. "The office is close by" — fifty yards from the residence — "and the pay is good."
"Presidents, like great French restaurants," said the writer and educator S. Douglass Cater, "have an ambiance all their own." Like a Rorschach test, their image depends on us. Presidents have been elitist, redolent of the middle class, and/or pitchfork populist. What they have in common is that even before Paradise Found — Dodger Stadium, its original 1962 address 1000 Elysian Park Avenue, "Elysian" being Greek for "paradise" — most presidents have found in baseball joy. (In 2016, the address was renamed for retiring announcer Vin Scully, whose genius behind a microphone had brought joy to America for sixty-seven years.)
Growing up in mid-eighteenth-century Massachusetts, one Founding Father, John Adams, played "one old cat," a variant of baseball played in England and numerous other nations. Adams described a typical boyhood day, in a letter written to Dr. Benjamin West of Phil adelphia, as "mornings, noons and nights, making and sailing boats, in swimming, in skating, flying kites and shooting, in marbles, ninepins, bat and ball, football, quoits, and wrestling." How did he have time to fit in a revolution?
Before the terrible winter of 1777–78 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, troops of General George Washington, the most famous Founding Father, are thought to have played "rounders," another baseball antecedent from Great Britain. On April 7, 1778, a Revolutionary War soldier, George Ewing, wrote that during free time he "played base" — the first written reference in the colonies to the sport. Of Washington himself, another American soldier wrote, "He sometimes throws and catches a ball for hours with his aide-de-camp"— again, baseball as an import. Not all liked the game's blue-collar cast. Princeton College banned "baste ball," popular among students, saying that it was "in itself low and unbecoming."
From "one old cat" to "rounders," the balance between offense and defense could change as quickly as a move from a pitcher's canyon to a hitter's bandbox now. Basics, though, endured. Each variant involved a ball "pitched by one player and hit by another, who ran to or around bases," wrote William B. Mead and Paul Dickson in Baseball: The Presidents' Game, "while the pitcher's teammates tried to catch the ball or otherwise put the batter out." Four bases moored a diamond, as in baseball. A "feeder" tossed a ball to a "striker," who "tried to hit the ball to score runs." The striker could be out by missing three pitches, having his batted ball caught, or being "hit by a thrown ball while running the bases," the latter a feature of "the so-called Massachusetts game."
Jack Redding, 1968–82 National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum librarian, compared baseball's past styles of play: "New York's [triangular mode] reflected the rules of Alexander Cartwright," thought by many to be the real inventor of the modern game. "Massachusetts's was rectangular, like British cricket." Most early U.S. presidents played at least one alleged British progenitor, aware of America's decided English tilt in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Henry Chadwick, the inventor of the box score, led those saying that baseball's mother was born in the "mother country."
Later, baseball was judged to have been born in Cooperstown — the American fable goes yard. Pre–Civil War newspapers fused truth and myth to liven narrative and swell circulation. In 1861 Union general Abner Doubleday fired the war's first shot of defense at Fort Sumter. A later century revered him more for allegedly creating baseball. More truth and myth: Doubleday, twenty in 1839, somehow birthed baseball at West Point after stealing or borrowing a horse to ride to Cooperstown. The yarn was and is irresistible: baseball invented here, in this Rockwellian village, a 1939 centennial celebrating Doubleday for finding the first baseball in an attic in 1839!
To a crowd five times Cooperstown's population, baseball's first commissioner, Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, stated, "Since for a hundred years this game has lived and thrived and spread all over this country, I should like to dedicate this museum to all America." A parade soon sashayed from the nascent Hall of Fame to Doubleday Field, the supposed site of the original 1839 diamond where Doubleday is said to have marked out baselines with a walking stick. Thousands cheered. The New York Times ran a long story on page one.
As noted in the acknowledgments, in 1839 Martin Van Buren became the first president to visit Cooperstown, finding, as James Fenimore Cooper wrote in The Deerslayer, that "here all was unchanged." It is a feeling that almost all who frequent its bewitching Main Street share — a sense that here lies baseball's Brigadoon. As early as 1856 the game itself was commonly termed the "National Pastime," its lure spreading in the Civil War until the Blue and the Gray opposed each other as allegedly neutral sentries stood guard. Each team often played rudiments of the game behind its own line until action resumed against the other.
By 1859 amateur teams met on the White Lot, the area in the District of Columbia between the South Lawn of the White House and the then incomplete Washington Monument, which stood 152 of its current 555 feet tall. Now called the Ellipse or, officially, President's Park South, the site houses the National Christmas Tree, the highest in-play obstacle of any pitch-and-catch December exhibition. Baseball's growth had become exponential, a vehicle for the ordinary and towering, the self-assured and unself-confident, the devious and honest, and most of all, as any successor would attest, the great sixteenth president of the United States.
In 1860 Lincoln was among four leading Republican Party candidates contending for president. Founded on, above all, opposition to slavery, the Grand Old Party (gop) would choose its second nominee (John C. Frémont was first in 1856) in his political stronghold, Chicago. The new Sport magazine, a general-interest sports and political megaphone, printed a widely circulated story during the campaign about the Republican field. According to Sport, friends of Lincoln arrived at his home in Springfield, Illinois, to report that Abe had enough votes to be nominated. "I am glad to hear of their coming," he said while playing in a town game. "But they will have to wait a few minutes while I have another turn at bat." It should not surprise that many believed the tale. It seemed to etch Lincoln's core — humility, irony, and equality.
The day of his nomination, Lincoln camped at Springfield's Great Western Railway Station, ear cocked to voting on the telegraph line from Chicago. Nominated, he began a multi-party general election campaign. A Currier and Ives illustration, in which the four candidates hoist bats, uses baseball to illustrate the futility of the other three.
"It appears to me," says John Bell, the Union Club nominee, "very singular that we three should strike 'foul' and be 'put out' while old Abe made such a 'good lick.'"
"That's because he had that confounded rail, to strike with," the "Little Giant," Stephen Douglas, the Democratic Party choice, huffs. "I thought our fusion would be a 'short stop' to his career."
John Breckinridge, the National Democratic Club candidate, says, "I guess I'd better leave for Kentucky, for I smell something strong around here, and begin to think, that we're completely 'skunk'd.'"
Lincoln stands apart, holding a ball in his right hand and a giant stick in the left. "Gentlemen, if any of you should ever take a hand in another match at this game," he observes, "remember that you must have a 'good bat' and strike a 'fair ball' to make a 'clean score' and do a 'home run.'"
Inaugurated in 1861, Lincoln played hooky to view games on the Ellipse, even playing baseball in the White House. A friend, Francis Preston Blair, owned Blair House, a residence that now houses presidential guests across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Executive Mansion, as the White House was then named. He wrote a grandson: "We boys hailed his [Lincoln's] coming with delight because he would always join us ... on the lawn. I remember how vividly he ran, how long were his strides, how far his coattails stuck out behind."
Baseball intrigued Lincoln. It obsessed successor Andrew Johnson, once "so caught up with the prospect of a two-inter-city match between the Washington Nationals [official name: the National Club of Washington], Philadelphia Athletics, and Brooklyn Atlantics" that he gave government clerks and employees "time off to watch," wrote I. Kirk Sale of Sport. Joining the Washington Post at eighteen in 1923, future longtime sports editor Shirley Povich knew of nineteenth-century teams playing by Washington regional rules: "no outfield fences, and a batter could recircle the bases till the cows came home. A ball eludes the fielder, and you might get two home runs on a single hit." Batters loved being almost certain to stay permanently in the black.
Anxious to attend an August 1866 Nationals–A's game, Johnson was kept by business on Capitol Hill. Instead, on September 18, he became America's first president to even briefly attend a baseball game: "Brooklyn Excelsiors thirty-three, Washington Nationals twenty-eight," wrote the Washington National Republican. Another game that year on the White Lot totaled four hundred runs. Baseball groups yearned for Johnson's blessing. The Enterprise Baseball Club of Philadelphia wrote: "We hope you will not scorn this humble offer of a membership in our National Game, but accept it as a token of our esteem for you as a man, our generation as a patriot, and our admiration as a statesman" — premature, given that Johnson was impeached less than two years later by the House of Representatives and barely acquitted by the Senate.
Perhaps aptly, the District's teams — the National Association Olympians, Nationals, Unions, and Washingtons — were also impeached and convicted, out of business within proximity of postwar baseball's end. Especially bleak was the 1872 Nationals' same-year birth and burial. In 1876 dc vainly romanced the National League (nl). The 1884 American Association (AA) rented tiny Atlantic Park. In 1891 the renamed AA Senators opened National Park, also known as Boundary Field, at the Boundary at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue. A year later the entire league went kaput. In the nation's capital, nothing in baseball seemed to last.
Few presidents have matched Johnson's baseball zeal. Ulysses S. Grant, the Union's largest-than-life general in the Civil War, might have had he lived longer. The victor of, among other battles, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and the Overland Campaign rose from the U.S. Army to the Executive Mansion in 1869–77. In his two-term administration, Grant walked around the District, chanced on pickup games, and was "almost certainly the first president to witness a professional [as opposed to Johnson's amateur] game," said Hall of Fame historian Lee Allen.
"When the first professional team, the 1869 undefeated Cincinnati Red Stockings, visited Washington to play the Nationals, Grant's carriage made an appearance on the outfield grass," Allen said. "No one saw him, so his presence is not confirmed." What is: after leaving office, Grant often saw Giants home games at the original Polo Grounds in New York, his new home. On May 1, 1883, the National League's and Giants' first game there wooed the city's then largest baseball crowd — fifteen thousand. Grant "sat in the rear of the main grandstand," wrote the New York Times, "and enjoyed the game as he at times took part in the applause accorded the players" like Roger Connor, Mickey Welch, and John Montgomery Ward.
Fighting throat cancer, penury, and business fraud, Grant spent his last year valiantly writing arguably America's greatest presidential memoir: the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Publisher Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) was a close friend and baseball zealot. Grant's memoir scored, critically and financially, saving his family from bankruptcy. The ex-president never knew, dying near the book's 1885 release. By then Rutherford B. Hayes had won a contested 1876 election in the House of Representatives, part of the Oval Office's 1865–1901 Long Gray Line.
Thomas Wolfe called presidents between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt "the Lost Americans: their ... faces mixed, melted, swam together. Which had the whiskers, which the burnsides, which was which?" It was hard to tell. Cities swelled in the postwar industrial boom, national income quadrupling by 1901, the slickers' influx upping the value of a big-league team. Still, most people lived in rural America, the game's spiritual home, where prospects bloomed, like The Natural's fictive Roy Hobbs, hoping to be "the best there ever was."
Hayes stepped on too many toes — his own, and the gop's — to run again in 1880, declaring himself "ineligible." James Garfield was elected, was shot, and died September 19, 1881, new president Chester A. Arthur becoming the first to greet a Major League team at the White House on April 13, 1883: the National League Cleveland Blues. A year later Grover Cleveland continued the post-Lincoln score of musical chairs, beating Republican James Blaine of Maine in a campaign soiled by bigotry (Blaine attacked Catholicism), illegitimacy (Cleveland was accused of fathering a child), and other 24/7 muck. Much later Cleveland greeted Cap Anson, skipper of 1885's great 87-25 Chicago White Stockings, asking "How's my old friend Jimmy ["Pud"] Galvin?" He continued, "You know, he and I were good friends when I was a sheriff and mayor of Buffalo," where all three had played or managed. Baseball was different then, more personal, players known by a first name or moniker, often paid per month. Millions could identify — and did.
Pud Galvin, also known as "the Little Steam Engine," managed twenty-four games for Buffalo in 1885, won 308 games pitching for its NL Bisons and Pittsburgh Pirates, and like another pitcher — Cleveland's namesake, Grover Cleveland Alexander — made the Hall of Fame. Years earlier Anson had told the president that Galvin was "doing great." Cleveland was too, until Cap's high-powered handshake made the 250-pounder feel like a 98-pound weakling. Mike "King" Kelly, like Galvin, at high noon of his Hall of Fame career, then approached the president, later writing, "There wasn't a man in the crowd that wasn't six feet in height and they were all in lovely condition. Their hands were as hard as iron. The president's hand was fat and soft." Sensing Cleveland's vulnerability, Kelly "squeezed so hard that he winced."
Speaker of the House Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill famously remarked that all politics are local. Usually Cleveland showed that all politics are individual — one by one. Now, though, Kelly wrote, Cleveland's right hand was so swollen that "he would rather shake hands with 1,000 people than a bad nine after that day," neglecting to shake players' hands when they left. Exiting, Anson asked if Cleveland would like to see a White Stockings game in person. "What do you imagine the American people would think of me if I wasted my time going to the ballgame?" the president barbed, knowing the stern age's emphasis on church work and Sunday sanctity and how the country would applaud him spurning pleasure. Victorian America liked Cleveland's commitment to duty. He also knew enough not to qualify the term "ballgame"; people knew that it meant baseball.
Cleveland is still the sole president to serve two nonconsecutive terms: 1885–89 and 1893–97. He is not, however, as some suggest, the only president to be the major subject of a sports motion picture. On January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan became America's fortieth president. After giving his inaugural address, the new chief executive used the speaker of the house's lounge and men's room to change from formal to business clothes. Speaker O'Neill told him that he was sitting near a desk that once belonged to President Cleveland. According to the Massachusetts Democrat, O'Neill's story made Reagan glow.
"Hey, Grover Cleveland!" the new president is said to have exclaimed. "I played him in the movies!" — 1952's The Winning Team.
Excerpted from "The Presidents and the Pastime"
Copyright © 2018 Curt Smith.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Acknowledgments 1. Beginnings: 1700s to Theodore Roosevelt, 1901–1909 2. Power of Two: William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, 1909–1921 3. Triple Play: Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover, 1921–1933 4. “The Champ”: Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933–1945 5. The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman, 1945–1953 6. “From the Heart of America”: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953–1961 7. “The First Irish Brahmin”: John F. Kennedy, 1961–1963 8. Larger Than Life: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963–1969 9. Nixon’s the One: Richard Nixon, 1969–1974 10. “Friendship, a Perfect Blendship!”: Gerald Ford, 1974–1977 11. From Softball to Hardball: Jimmy Carter, 1977–1981 12. The Gipper: Ronald Reagan, 1981–1989 13. The Baseball Lifer: George H. W. Bush, 1989–1993 14. Our Man Bill: William Jefferson Clinton, 1993–2001 15. W.: George W. Bush, 2001–2009 16. The Pioneer: Barack Obama, 2009–2017 17. The Donald and the Game: Donald Trump, 2017– Bibliography Index