OUR PRESIDENTS, OURSELVES
“American Presidents, like great French restaurants,” said the writer and educator S. Douglass Cater, “have an ambiance all their own.” This is especially true of U.S. presidents’ attitude toward sports. Today continues a multi-part series by noted writer Curt Smith, who wrote more speeches than anyone else for former President George H.W. Bush and has authored 17 books. Some of the below appeared in original form in his widely praised The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House. (University of Nebraska Press, 2018, $29.95). This year the Gatehouse Media columnist and Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Rochester, will etch presidents from Washington to Trump—how they assessed Sports USA, and it appraised them. Historian Allan Nevins referenced “an America now so far lost in time and change that it is hard to believe it ever existed. But it did exist, and some memory of it … ought to be cherished by the Nation.” This series tries.
GEORGE W. BUSH: THE FIRST PITCH HEARD ROUND THE WORLD
In 2000 George W. Bush was elected president, perhaps thinking it a consolation prize. The Texas Rangers head had once hoped to become baseball commissioner, having called Willie Mays his favorite player and deemed ESPN’s Baseball Tonight his favorite TV show. He brought to the White House what even many cool to W. politically termed his “Everyman kind of vibe.” He knew the pastime’s politics and history, its inner workings and strategy.
Bush grew up in Texas equating baseball cards with liturgy. More than a half-century later he still linked the game to a post-war glow, “We’d play each other, go to barbecues, help each other out,” W. said. In 1989, memory led him to form a group to buy 54 percent of the Rangers—and in 1994 as co-owner to build The Ballpark at Arlington. He was “protecting his investment,” said political guru Karl Rove—also W.’s tie to the ’50s culture of his youth.
Like politics, baseball bred nicknames. To some, W.’s became “Shrub,” a snide derivative of “Bush.” Still, George believed it could aid the “kinder, gentler” tone of his father’s 1989 presidential inaugural address. That year, W. committed what tongue-in-cheek he called his “worst mistake” ever—trading slugger Sammy Sosa to the White Sox. Bush was most attractive when he shelved jock sarcasm to recall such history—also to forge a new face of an historic franchise, the former Washington Senators.
By 1994 W. had reinforced his resume—buoy the Rangers’ health, then build a Texas-worthy park. (The Ballpark closed this week, sans roof to foreclose humidity.) “Baseball,” wrote the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, let W. “continue a family tradition” and shed Dad’s shadow. At the time, he considered running for commissioner till acting occupant Bud Selig decided he liked the job. Instead, twice elected Texas governor, Bush faced Al Gore for president in 2000, neither getting a majority of the electoral college. For 36 days, a recount continued till the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore.
The night of the Supreme Court edict, Gore conceded in a gallant speech. Later Bush recalled his presidency’s start—in particular, his private fantasy camp, where W.’s huge-size baseball interest stoked the creation at the White House of a junior-size baseball field. Bush’s
“Field of Dreams Day” invited largely 5-to-8-year-olds from around the country. CNN-TV showed children in caps and pants and jerseys, trading bats and gloves and playing catch, and a baseball diamond in and outside on the South Lawn with T-ball games.
The day also included a Baseball Hall of Fame White House luncheon aired live, former players honored from Bob Feller to Dave Winfield. CNN White House correspondent Major Garrett asked about Willie Mays. “I always thought I was going to be Mays,” said W., “but I couldn’t hit the curveball.” CNN co-anchor Stephen Frazier asked, “Major, are you in just total Nirvana right now?” Garrett: “Oh, yes, this is the best photo-op I’ve ever seen.”
Slightly more than five months later America entered neither photo-op nor Nirvana.
On September 11, 2001, terrorists seized and crashed four planes into the Pentagon, rural Pennsylvania, and Manhattan’s Twin Towers, W. becoming a wartime president. On October 30, he visited Yankee Stadium for Game Three of the World Series. The Yankees’ Derek Jeter asked if Bush wanted to loosen up before tossing the first pitch. W. said whatever he thought was fine.
Minutes passed. The crowd started chanting “USA”—to Bush, “a very emotional, pulsating experience.” The 9/11 attack of the prior month still ran rawer in New York than anywhere else. Memory freeze-framed the three-tiered colossus; security; and tattered 9/11 flag, carried from the Twin Towers—above all the presidency and baseball fused tautly, tightly. The Republican Bush was to throw out the pregame ball in this overwhelmingly Democratic city. How would he be greeted? How would he do?
The first question answered itself. Bush met a roaring ovation as he left the Yankees dugout, blue and red states vanishing. W. approached the mound and set to throw from the rubber, unlike most first-ball hurlers. Add the fury in every seat—the emotion overwhelmed. Bush wound up and threw a strike to the Yankees catcher, as if 43 had placed the ball lovingly in the mitt. The crowd exploded, its cry for simple justice piercing the cool Bronx air.
Slowly, Bush left the field, Gary Cooper in High Noon, a hero more than he had ever been or ever would be again for firing a perfect strike— America’s signpost to the world.
NEXT: BARACK OBAMA