Winning ticket: politics, sports

Ehrlich association with O's latest in a long tradition

September 30, 2005|By BILL ORDINE | BILL ORDINE,SUN REPORTER

Since the early 20th century, politicians and sports have had a relationship as close as, say, hot dogs and mustard.

Tossing out the ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game, inviting the championship team to the White House and even sending plays to the head coach have long been part of elected officials' game plan to win fans themselves.

So when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took his cuts in the batting cage before the Orioles' game against the New York Yankees on Tuesday night and spent a few innings in the broadcast booth, he was merely following a political tradition - albeit a bit more expansively - that crosses party lines.

"Politicians have so many things pulling at them, and every decision discriminates - there's a winner and a loser," said Bob Leffler, who owns a Baltimore advertising firm with nearly 20 sports clients. "But when you're around a sports team, the team is the essence of popular culture, so it's a positive for you .... and it shows the human side of the politician."

Calvin Coolidge's handlers recognized that their candidate - taciturn to a fault - could benefit from the goodwill of the World Series-bound Washington Senators in the fall of 1924 when Coolidge was running for election, according to Bill Mead, author of Baseball: The Presidents' Game.

"Coolidge actually wasn't a fan at all," said Mead, a retired journalist who lives in Bethesda. "But they brought the team by motorcade to the backyard of the White House, where the president waited for them on a platform with bunting."

In a speech of florid praise, Coolidge hailed pitcher Walter Johnson and his teammates as "armored knights of the bat and ball."

The Senators and Coolidge went on to finish the year as winners.

"It's glory by association," Mead said.

The list of Ehrlich's predecessors who understood the benefits of being associated with sports could fill a history book.

Benjamin Harrison was the first president to attend a major league game, in 1892, Cincinnati vs. Washington.

Franklin Roosevelt tossed out a record eight Opening Day balls and made an important morale-boosting decision that the game should go on during World War II.

And both Bill Clinton and Al Gore watched Cal Ripken break Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played 10 years ago.

Sometimes, though, the unpredictable nature of a sports crowd can generate the type of attention politicians would rather avoid.

Harry Truman, shortly after removing Gen. Douglas MacArthur from command during the Korean War, appeared at a Senators Opening Day game and was roundly booed. And Herbert Hover, at a 1931 game during Prohibition, was taunted by fans chanting, "We want beer!"

Today, the nexus of sports and politics is far more complex than tossing out a baseball. With teams seen as civic assets and the stadiums that house those teams frequently financed by public dollars, a politician's ties to sports can involve substantial issues of policy. That means careers and reputations can be on the line.

State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who served as Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor, felt both the sting and glow of sports association. The then-NBA Baltimore Bullets (now Washington Wizards) left the city in 1973 while he was mayor.

Schaefer also stood by mortified as former Baltimore Colts owner Robert Irsay went on an infamous airport rant declaring he had no plans to move the franchise, and the then-mayor was powerless to stop Irsay when the team soon dashed off to Indianapolis in 1984.

But as governor, Schaefer was instrumental in getting Oriole Park built and for laying the groundwork for the football stadium that was the key to bringing the Cleveland Browns here, where they were renamed the Ravens.

Paul Swangard, director of the Warsaw Center for Sports Marketing at the University of Oregon, said the stakes are higher these days for politicians involving themselves in sports-related issues, such as stadium construction.

"Politicians will make that part of their platform, and then it leaves a sour taste with voters if the economic development that comes about doesn't turn out to be the great deal that the politician touted," Swangard said.

Still, elected officials are always eager to show their fan loyalties, sometimes with comic effect.

When New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton declared she was a Yankees fan, it was pointed out that she had long declared herself a Chicago Cubs follower. Her comeback was that the Cubbies were her favorite National League team.

Meanwhile, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, forced to decide between the Yankees and Mets in the 2000 World Series, was unwavering in his lifelong devotion and wore a Yankees cap.

Richard Nixon, perhaps the most rabid sports fan to occupy the White House, once suggested a play to Washington Redskins coach George Allen - a reverse that lost 13 yards and that some newspaper reporters blamed for a playoff defeat to the San Francisco 49ers.

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