Bush couldn't keep mitts off baseball, even while working at Oval Office desk

John Steadman

January 21, 1993|By John Steadman

Historians in the years and decades to come will make the eventual political assessment of George Bush on matters of leadership and contributions to humanity. But from the pure athletic perspective, the United States never had a more sports-oriented president.

He was the first president to have an old baseball glove, a "George McQuinn Trapper Model" first baseman's mitt, in his desk at the White House. It was a keepsake of his youth and obviously was retained for sentimental reasons.

This was the same first baseman's mitt he used in 1947 and 1948 when he was a regular player on the outstanding Yale University team that went to the final game of the NCAA championship and won the title in successive years against California, led by Jackie Jensen, and Southern California.

As a senior in 1948, he was captain, batted .264 and made only two errors in 190 chances at first base. Four teammates -- Artie Moher, Frank Quinn, Dick Manville and Dick Tettlebach -- were signed by major-league teams.

As president, Bush was as active in sports as any senior citizen has a right to be. He was a frequent doubles partner and rival in tennis with Bjorn Borg and Pam Shriver, the touring professional from Lutherville, who would readily accommodate his request for a set, or two, or three, or even more.

Otherwise, he engaged in jogging, golf and the honorable old game of pitching horseshoes. Even though he also had been a soccer player at Yale, baseball was his foremost interest when it came to organized sports.

He looked the part of a former athlete when he attended major-league games and made the ceremonial opening pitch, even though he was restricted in his delivery by the bullet-proof vest he wore around his upper torso.

"I warmed him up in the locker room one year and he had all the mannerisms of a man who had played the game," said former Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey. "Style is one thing a former player never loses."

As for Bush, the spectator, he was the first president to make it a practice to attend minor-league games, showing up with friends and family members to watch the Orioles' farm clubs in Frederick and Hagerstown. Usually, a president completes the ritual of going to the major-league opener and that constitutes his entire season -- a mere one game.

Historically, Bush has a strong personal link to golf. His grandfather, George Herbert Walker, created the Walker Cup that is presented to the winner of the alternate-year matches between Europe and the United States. There was a time when Bush was flying to the presidential retreat at Camp David, near Thurmont, and looked down to see the pristine setting of a golf course in Ijamsville, Md.

It was the Holly Hills Country Club and he mentioned he would like to play there. He did that afternoon and came back for a return engagement with the head professional, Mike McGinnis. Then last summer, he heard about the spectacular new Caves Valley Golf in Owings Mills, and arranged to play a round with host professional Dennis Satyshur, Arnold Palmer and Reg Murphy, former publisher of The Sunpapers who is vice president of the U.S. Golf Association.

Meanwhile, a call to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and a talk with Bill Gilfoyle, the vice president of public relations, confirmed the fact the museum would "be thrilled" if former President Bush considered presenting his first baseman's mitt for permanent display. Again, it would be the first glove that traveled from Yale to the White House to Cooperstown.

The way Bush handed the ball to President Bill Clinton at inauguration ceremonies was remindful of a pitcher leaving the mound. He knew he had been beaten, but there was no spite as he hid his disappointment in a manly and sporting way.

Bush had been the youngest officer commissioned by the Navy in World War II at age 18 and flew 58 combat missions. He returned to play baseball at Yale and carried his first baseman's mitt, manufactured by the Rawlings Co., all the way to the presidency of the United States.

Baseball and the world of sports never had a better friend nor a more knowledgeable fan.

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