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 sport. Yesterday, May 29th, avid spectator and participant John F. Kennedy would have turned 102. Our look at JFK begins a 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 material 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 summer, Smith, 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.” Starting with JFK, we will try.
by Curt Smith
John F. Kennedy saw humor almost everywhere, World War II an exception. Once Time Magazine’s Hugh Sidey asked what he recalled of the Depression. “Really nothing,” said Kennedy, whose estimated family worth ran north of $200 million. “It didn’t have an effect. But ask me about the war—that’s what I remember,” JFK having saved his crew after the Japanese knifed his patrol boat PT-109.
The upper-class war hero had a middlebrow bent, liking Sinatra, Armstrong, Crosby. In public, he tied irony and perspective. “Last year more Americans went to symphonies than went to baseball games,” JFK once said. “This may be viewed as an alarming statistic, but I think that baseball and the country will endure.”
Born in Brookline, a part of Greater Boston, Kennedy grew up enjoying baseball’s comity and strategy. The tie dated to his maternal grandfather, John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, an early-century congressman, chairman of the Royal Rooters, the Red Sox’ most fanatic sect, and Boston Mayor who in 1912 threw out the first pitch at Fenway Park’s inaugural. “Honey Fitz” also helped plot JFK’s first campaign (congressional) in 1946.
Victorious, JFK served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1947–53) and Senate (1953–61) and as 35th president (1961–63). At Harvard ’40, he played junior varsity football, though back trouble kept him from making varsity like brothers Joe Jr., Robert, and Edward. He also was a j.v. golfer and swimmer, later aptly becoming the first president to award a sports figure (Yale swim coach Robert J.H. Kiphuth) the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.
To become America’s youngest elected president, JFK had to use age in a wise self-deprecatory way. Early in 1960, then-National League batting titan Stan Musial, 40, was waiting for the Cardinals team bus in Milwaukee when the 42-year-old candidate approached him and said, “I’m Jack Kennedy. They tell me you’re too old to play baseball and I’m too young to be President, but maybe we’ll fool them.” In 1962, Musial, hitting .330, was named to the All-Star Game in Washington. Kennedy was delighted to see Stan, who recalled 1960 and said, “Mr. President, I guess we fooled ’em.”
Prizing self-improvement, Kennedy practiced throwing 30 minutes a day the last week before the 1961 season. “I want to do it [tossing the season-opening pitch] well,” he told aide Dave Powers. “People expect it in a President.” JFK that day became the first president interviewed on TV at a baseball game. Today, the president tosses the first ball to a single player. In Kennedy’s age, he threw it over the heads of players en masse, who raced to nab the quarry. One 1962 fling was snared by Jim Rivera, a troubled soul who asked JFK to sign the ball. Rivera styled the signature illegible: “What kind of garbage college is that Harvard, where they don’t even teach you how to write?”
Nearby, aide Powers seethed. Unfazed, Kennedy again signed, Rivera saying, “You’re all right.” A 22-minute first-inning rain delay gave JFK a chance to parlay with umpires. “He talked baseball and football. He really knows his stuff,” said Charlie Berry, shortly to retire as an American League umpire and National Football League official. The 1962 opener included Willie Tasby’s popup, denting the dugout roof three feet from JFK’s attempted catch, and a decision Kennedy made in the eighth inning to postpone a meeting with Laos’s ambassador to the U.S. It let him stay to the end, as the president did whenever he saw a big-league game. The Senators winning, 4-1, JFK told team brass that he was leaving them in first place. They did not stay there long.
Beyond his job—politics, the economy, foreign policy—Kennedy’s persona tied seeming hatless, coatless health; an accent made for mimicry; and the natural athlete, with a picture swing, playing golf at the Hyannis Golf Club, Palm Beach Golf Club, and the Burning Tree Club, among others, as often as time and his back allowed. Like Franklin Roosevelt, sailing was the outdoor activity JFK most enjoyed. He was part of Harvard’s sailing crew that won the Eastern Collegiate title. As president, he conducted business on a 62-foot-yacht named the Manitou formatted for bad weather. His 26-foot sloop, the Victura, was named for a Greek word meaning “bound to win.” Forever, the Young Man and the Sea.
At the family home in Hyannis Port, Kennedy famously played touch football as if Saint Peter’s verdict on admittance depended on the score. From 1961-63, he revived the President’s Council on Physical Fitness to embody his “New Frontier.” JFK was president as sports on network TV waxed, partaking in the early 1960s pro football craze. At one Army-Navy college game he sat on the Army side in the first half, crossing the field at halftime. The entire naval section rose to cheer, a chant erupting: “Welcome home!” The former Navy Lieutenant beamed.
The last athletic event Kennedy saw in person was Harvard-Columbia football at Harvard Stadium on October 19, 1963, the same night he keynoted a Democratic Party dinner in Boston. “What a perfect day for Jack,” said Dave Powers. “His two loves—politics and sports.” In this, as elsewhere, he was at one with the America he led.
NEXT: PRESIDENTS FROM WASHINGTON THROUGH LINCOLN