Nixon the sports fan

May 03, 1994|By John Steadman

RICHARD M. Nixon knew baseball and football as no other president in history. When Baltimore returned to the major leagues in 1954, Mr. Nixon was elated to be the one to throw out the ceremonial first ball because his boss, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was off somewhere playing golf.

Mr. Nixon reveled in the role of sports fan. He attended the only world championship football game Baltimore hosted when the Colts beat the New York Giants in 1959 at Memorial Stadium.

I recall two other occasions when Mr. Nixon's familiarity with and love for sports were demonstrated impressively. The first occurred while he was serving as vice-president and had come to Chicago to address the meeting of the Football Writers Association of America right before the College All-Star Game.

He spoke extemporaneously to the gathered sports scribes, yet his remarks impressed his listeners with the vice president's shrewd appreciation of the fine points of the game.

Mr. Nixon had been a lineman at his alma mater, Whittier College; the school had a policy of using whatever students were available on campus to make up its teams rather than engage in the mad, off-the-field pursuit of varsity recruits.

Mr. Nixon never claimed to have been much of a football player -- a judgment history likely will ratify.

Actually, in any assessment of athletes in the White House, another Republican, George Bush, who was once captain and first baseman of an NCAA title-winning Yale baseball team as well as a devotee of tennis, golf, sailing, fishing and horse-shoe pitching, is generally considered the most accomplished athlete among chief executives past and present.

Mr. Nixon, though, was ecstatic to be in the stands watching the game, and at the Chicago sports writers meeting he even averred he would have enjoyed trading places with any of us. "I especially like those potpourri columns that give you varied information," he said. "You know, a lot of one-line items set apart with three dots . . ."

Perhaps it was just his way of flattering us. But Mr. Nixon talked about Rose Bowl games he had witnessed growing up, particularly the 1939 epic between Duke and Southern California. He recalled Eric Tipton, the Duke All-American halfback and brilliant kicker, and reminisced over the winning combination that won the game in the final minute for S.C.

And remember, Mr. Nixon was discussing all this non-stop for 40 minutes before an audience that was sure to be monitoring him for the slightest mistake. It was obvious he knew his subject and that he was discussing a topic that had offered him more than a temporary diversion.

No doubt Mr. Nixon's critics, then and later, would have preferred to see him chronicling the doings of baseball heroes than "quarterbacking" the U.S. government on the global playing field. History would have been quite different had Mr. Nixon been covering the sports beat for a newspaper instead of serving as leader of the free world.

I was present at another occasion when Nixon surrounded himself with sports writers. On the eve of the 1969 All-Star game in Washington he invited some 400 former players, club executives and sports writers to the White House.

The reporters went through the presidential receiving line and exchanged pleasantries with Nixon while having their pictures taken with the president as souvenirs of the visit.

The reception was attended by a glittering cross-section of the game's personalities, including Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Casey Stengel, Denny McLain, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, Earl Weaver, Lefty Grove, Paul Blair, Mrs. Babe Ruth, Mrs. Lou Gehrig, Bowie Kuhn, Frank Cashen and the Rev. Billy Graham.

In his remarks, Mr. Nixon again mentioned his fascination with sports writing. "I want you all to know I am proud to be in your company," he said. "For me, this is one of the most exciting receptions ever given in the White House. If I had my life to live over again I'd have liked to have been a sports writer."

He went on to talk about details of the 1929 World Series and even brought up the name Charley Root, a long-time pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. "I remember him when he was pitching in Los Angeles, when it was a farm club of the Cubs, in the Coast League," he reminisced.

Let the record show there was never a president who so graciously lent his presence to a gathering of sports writers and, when the occasion presented itself, invited them over to the White House for a festive evening of eating, drinking and great story-telling.

John Steadman is a sports writer for The Evening Sun.

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