(George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch before Game 3 of the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium)
In honor of President’s Day and the start of baseball’s spring training, enjoy this review of a book on the relationship between the sport and the Presidency.
The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House
By Curt Smith
Nebraska University Press, 504 pages, $29.95
Curt Smith draws on his extensive background as a former White House presidential speechwriter to chronicle the historic relationship between baseball, the “most American” sport, and the U.S. presidency in The Presidents and the Pastime.
Smith, who USA Today calls “America’s voice of authority on baseball broadcasting,” starts before America’s birth, when would‑be presidents played baseball antecedents. He charts how baseball cemented its reputation as America’s pastime in the nineteenth century when such presidents as Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson playing town ball or giving employees time off to watch.
Each chapter is filled with fascinating anecdotes, such as Woodrow Wilson being buoyed by baseball after suffering disability; a heroic FDR saving baseball in World War II; Jimmy Carter, taught the game by his mother, Lillian; Ronald Reagan, airing baseball on radio that he never saw—by “re-creation.” George H. W. Bush, for whom Smith wrote, explains, “Baseball has everything.”
Smith interviewed a majority of presidents since Richard Nixon, and tracks every U.S. president from Theodore Roosevelt to Donald Trump.
Smith shares personal stories on each, such as this about the 45th president: “Trump resembled Pete Rose via Dustin Pedroia by way of Enos Slaughter – the most never-say-die kid in town. The Washington Post wrote, ‘Trump’s uniform was often the dirtiest on the field, and he shrugged off foul balls clanging off his mask.’…According to two boyhood neighbors, the Post continued, when making an out he could erupt, hitting another boy or smashing a baseball bat, without apology. By sixth grade Trump was such a feared right-hand pull hitter that rival teams shifted to left field. ‘If he had hit the ball to right, he could’ve had a home run because no one was there.’ said schoolmate Nicholas Kass. ‘But he always wanted to hit the ball through people. He wanted to overpower them.’
“All the traits that in 2016 made Trump loved or loathed loomed early: defiance, work, study, rage. So did his love of ball. In sixth grade he wrote a poem, published in his yearbook:
“‘I like to hear the crowd give cheers,
so loud and noisy to my ears.
When the score is 5-5, I feel like I could cry.
And when they get another run, I feel like I could die.
Then the catcher makes an error,
not a bit like Yogi Berra.
The game is over and we say
tomorrow is another day.’
“Rhyming ‘error’ with ‘Berra’ suggests that Trump preferred action to reflection, an attitude that by 2016 made his net worth between $10 billion (his estimate) and $3.0 billion (Bloomberg’s). In 1987 Trump released his first book, The Art of the Deal, which topped the best-seller list, built name recognition, and became the philosophy that led to the White House door.
“In 1964 the Red Sox visited the New York Military Academy to talk with Trump about delaying college. Again he chose ‘real money’ over baseball money, spending the next two years at Fordham University in the Bronx.”
The Presidents and the Pastime provides a riveting narrative of how America’s leaders have treated baseball. From William Howard Taft as the first president to throw the “first pitch” on Opening Day in 1910 to Barack Obama’s “Go Sox!” scrawled in the guest register at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014, our presidents have deemed it the quintessentially American sport, enriching both their office and the nation.