Williams went to bat for first Bush's win

Power: The Boston Red Sox all-star followed other athletes in putting his popularity to work in politics.

July 14, 2002|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Most of the reminiscences about Ted Williams, the great Boston Red Sox home run hitter who died July 5, have been reverential and baseball-related: Seeing him risk his .400 batting average on the last day of the 1941 season and getting six hits in a doubleheader, or watching him in his last time at bat before retiring in 1960 at the over-the-hill age of 42 - and hitting it out of the park.

Here is another sort of recollection, about something Williams did well off the diamond. It was important in its own way and may have had an effect on the nation's political history.

In 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush invited Williams up to New Hampshire to campaign for him in the state's fabled first-in-the-nation presidential primary. Bush was seeking a nomination he had failed miserably to win in 1980. His supporters had their fingers crossed in 1988.

The main preliminary to the New Hampshire primary is the Iowa Caucus. Bush flopped there in 1988. He came in third behind Sen. Bob Dole and the Rev. Pat Robertson. He was humiliated. He knew he had to win in New Hampshire or support for him in the next, and probably conclusive, Southern primaries could evaporate.

He campaigned feverishly, desperately, in the snow and ice of New Hampshire, accompanied by some icons of New England and conservatism, the most prominent of whom was Ted Williams. Ted was still revered by young and old in the state. That was obvious whether the campaign involved youthful audiences or old-timers who had seen Williams play in Fenway Park.

Bush defeated Dole and other Republican hopefuls fairly handily, in part because of his endorsement by Williams. "The employment of celebrities clearly works," a Boston Globe reporter wrote, noting Williams in particular.

Could Bush have won anyway? Possibly. Maybe probably. But Williams sure helped. It wasn't a home run kind of thing. But it was sort of his last run batted in.

I was born and raised in a small town with a Class D baseball team. So I could pick my major league "home team." Williams was my baseball hero, so I picked the Red Sox. But I never saw him play. So I was thrilled finally to see him in the flesh in 1988.

He was an impressive man, with a down-to-earth John Wayne-ish aura. More people wanted to shake his hand than George Bush's. Many in the crowd apparently came out to see Ted as much as, if not more than, the vice president.

You hear people ask if a man so popular, with such presence and hero status, wouldn't have an easy time winning elective office. Of course, the answer to that is "no." Major league athletes seldom shine in major league politics.

Jim Bunning of Kentucky is, according to the Senate Historical Office, the only Major League Baseball player to be elected a U.S. senator. The Hall of Fame pitcher didn't do it just on his baseball fame, either. He was elected to local, then state offices, then the U.S. House, then the Senate in 1998.

The only other senator-pro athlete of note was pro basketball player Bill Bradley of New Jersey. (Two other senators played minor league ball.) The House is a little more professional athlete-friendly than the Senate. Pro football's Jack Kemp, Steve Largent and J.C. Watts made it there. So did pro basketball's Morris Udall and Tom McMillen.

Except in the cases of the very brightest ones like Rhodes Scholars Bradley and McMillen, a lot of voters think of athletes as dumb jocks. When President Gerald Ford, a star football center at the University of Michigan who could have played pro ball but chose not to, was Republican minority leader in the House, President Lyndon Johnson used it to make fun of Ford: "He spent too much time playing football without a helmet."

Athletes, especially great ones, are almost always better at endorsing a candidate and drawing a crowd than at running. Not the least reason for Republican Spiro Agnew's victory in the Maryland governor's race in 1966 was that Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson very publicly supported him. That was the year the Orioles won their first World Series. Brooks was a big hero. (And 32 Colts also endorsed Agnew.)

My Class D hometown can boast that one of the members of its team later went far in politics. Almost to the presidency, according to some observers. Mario Cuomo was a pitcher for the Brunswick Pirates in the Georgia-Florida League.

But at the time of his greatest popularity, he backed out of running in the 1992 New Hampshire Democratic primary, saying, "What does my heart tell me? `Mario, take your best shot.' But my head is telling me, `How do you do that?'"

That caution in his head may have had something to do with his having been beaned in 1952, which led him out of baseball and eventually into the New York Governor's Mansion.

Theo Lippman is a retired editorial writer and columnist for The Sun. Jean Packard, a Sun research assistant, contributed to this article.

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