The Oval Office and the Diamond

A selective survey of America's First Fans

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Last October, as George W. Bush waited nervously for his first debate with Al Gore, his adviser Mark McKinnon tried to help him focus by softly whispering in his ear what is something of a mantra for Bush: "Willie Mays, Willie Mays"—the name of Bush's all-time favorite baseball player. Whether or not McKinnon's chanting played a role, Bush went on to win the debate and—more or less—the election. A true baseball lifer is now President of the United States.

Every chief executive except Rutherford B. Hayes has had some encounter with baseball or its forerunners. "No other sport has been so graced by presidential attention," the baseball historians William B. Mead and Paul Dickson wrote in Baseball: The Presidents' Game (1993). But George W. Bush is in a league of his own. He is the first President to have played Little League (he was a catcher), the first to have owned a major-league team (he was the managing partner of the group that owned the Texas Rangers from 1989 to 1994), and the first to my knowledge to draw on baseball for his theme music on the campaign trail (John Fogerty's "Centerfield"). When asked, during a primary debate, what his biggest mistake had been, Bush deftly replied with a self-deprecating joke about his days with the Texas Rangers: "I signed off on that wonderful transaction—Sammy Sosa for Harold Baines." Last February, during his first address to a joint session of Congress, he explained his optimistic notion that the federal budget surplus can be used simultaneously to lower taxes, increase education spending, and retire much of the national debt in this way: "Yogi Berra once said, 'When you come to a fork in the road, take it.'" Bush's favorite movie is Field of Dreams, which made him cry, he once said, because it reminded him of playing catch in the back yard with his father—a pretty fair ballplayer himself once. When Bush Jr. moved into the White House, he took the collection of autographed baseballs he had displayed in his Austin office—some 250, far more than the number of books displayed.

It would be stretching matters, but not by much, to say that a President's affinity for America's national game necessarily translates into an understanding of America itself, and therefore into a knack for governing the country. After all, Bill Clinton doesn't really know baseball, but he left office with high job-approval ratings similar to those of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who surely did. This much, however, can be ventured: the ways in which a President interacts with baseball reveal something about the essential nature of the man.

Before he sabotaged his legacy by getting himself impeached and, on his last day in office, pardoning the fugitive financier Marc Rich, Clinton was known for his acute political instincts. Those instincts led him to associate himself with baseball, but his relationship with the game was never an authentic one (his true love, really, was college basketball). As a reporter I went with Clinton to see the Orioles play in Baltimore on opening day in 1993. A year earlier President Bush the elder had tossed the ceremonial first ball from the mound, only to have it bounce in the dirt before it reached home plate. Clinton, eager to avoid such embarrassment, and willing as always to do his homework, donned an Orioles warm-up jacket and cap and practiced for a while under the stands. Still, he lobbed the ball so softly that it sailed a bit high and outside. But he happily pronounced it a strike—and, for the most part, we writers let him get away with it.

However, he didn't get away with the hubris of trying to single-handedly settle the baseball strike that deprived America of the 1994 World Series. It was apparent that Clinton understood neither the intractability of the labor issues involved nor the culture of modern baseball. His aides took note of the fact that one of the players' representatives, the pitcher Tom Glavine, of the Atlanta Braves, failed to wear a necktie for a meeting with the President. What they should have focused on was the heat of Glavine's emotions: he hinted that any player who crossed the picket line would have trouble once the strike ended, and referred to Phil Niekro, a former teammate, as "greedy" and "a scab" for even considering pitching during the strike. With another strike looming next year, the sportscaster Bob Costas asked President Bush if he would try to intercede. The baseball-savvy Bush said no.

Jimmy Carter had even bigger problems than Clinton with the sport. "It was almost as if he was coached in baseball ineptitude," Mead and Dickson wrote. During his campaign Carter regularly inflicted on the public the sight of himself in shorts pitching slow-pitch softball. But after his election he couldn't be bothered to throw out the first ball on opening day (or at any other time), thus becoming the first President in nearly seventy years to eschew the tradition. As President, Carter didn't even attend a major-league game until three years into his term. In hindsight this is hardly surprising: Carter was also the President who thought he could ignore Congress. His inadequacies at baseball not only foreshadowed his insufficiencies as President but also help to explain them.

True to form, however, Carter has made an excellent ex-First Fan. As his hometown team, the Atlanta Braves, became a power in the 1990s, Carter was a fixture at their home games, and was caught on camera enthusiastically doing the "tomahawk chop," the extremely politically incorrect gesture of Braves fans. In the seventh game of the 1992 National League playoffs, after Francisco Cabrera, pinch-hitting, smacked an improbable ninth-inning two-out base hit to put the Braves in the World Series, Carter was in the throng that joyously rushed onto the field.

For some Presidents, a connection to baseball serves as an index of overall approachability. Troops under George Washington's command at Valley Forge played an early version of the game, and Washington himself liked to play catch with his aides-de-camp. But he never joined his troops in play: as a general and later as President, he believed that he needed to maintain a certain distance between himself and the people he led.

In contrast, William Howard Taft was known for his genial, outgoing nature (Teddy Roosevelt once remarked, "One loves him at first sight"), and this was nowhere truer than in the stands. On April 19, 1909, when Taft plopped his big, teddy-bear-like frame down in National Park for his first Washington Senators game as President, the game was interrupted by the crowd's applause.

In some cases a President's relationship to the game has proved a fair barometer of his ability to lead. Franklin Roosevelt kept baseball going during World War II, even though many of the players had gone into the service, arguing that doing so was in the national interest. As he pointed out in a letter to Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, "There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before ... that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before." Compare his public-spirited actions with the private eccentricity of Richard Nixon, who, shortly after the Watergate break-in that would envelop his Administration, holed up at Camp David writing down his all-time all-star teams. Naturally, Nixon evaded the toughest decisions, putting together teams for different leagues and eras rather than coming up with a single list of best players—thus avoiding, for example, having to choose from among Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle for center field.

Ronald Reagan may have owed his reputation as The Great Communicator to baseball: one of his first communicating jobs was as a long-distance announcer, re-creating Chicago Cubs games on the radio in Iowa. Later, during his Hollywood days, Reagan played a Hall of Famer in the 1952 film The Winning Team, a sanitized biography of the Phillies, Cubs, and Cardinals pitching great Grover Cleveland Alexander. Bob Lemon, a pitcher for the Cleveland Indians and a future Hall of Famer himself, served as Reagan's stand-in during scenes requiring play. At one point the script called for Alexander to hit a catcher's mitt nailed to the side of a barn. "Piece of cake," Lemon said. Maybe it was the cameras, but Lemon proceeded to hit everything except the mitt.

"Mind if I try it?" Reagan asked in an affable voice.

"One pitch, smack in the middle of that mitt," Lemon later told a reporter. "I've never been so embarrassed in all my life."

Although our current President may have unprecedented claims to the sport, Eisenhower is almost certainly the best ballplayer ever to occupy the Oval Office: while at West Point he played professional ball one summer in the Kansas minor leagues, under an assumed name. And baseball's hold on Eisenhower, as on Bush, never waned.

"When I was a small boy in Kansas," Eisenhower once recalled, "a friend of mine and I went fishing, and as we sat there in the warmth of a summer afternoon on a river bank, we talked about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I told him that I wanted to be a real major league baseball player, a genuine professional like Honus Wagner. My friend said that he'd like to be president of the United States. Neither of us got our wish."