At the White House, baseball holds a place of honor

THE SPORT OF PRESIDENTS

April 03, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

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."

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