“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 summer 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.
RICHARD NIXON: IN BASEBALL AND FOOTBALL, NIXON WAS THE ONE!
Growing up in Yorba Linda and nearby Whittier, California, Richard Nixon hoped “to be an orchestra leader and conduct a great symphony.” Later, he said, having it “to do over again I’d love to write or announce sports.” As 1969-74 president, Nixon revealed his heart, touting the boyhood “American sports” of baseball and football over “frilly sports” like squash and crew.
Many recall his Whittier College football team taking him only because he was the last man available. Famously, he was a close friend of many coaches, especially the football Redskins’ George Allen, a 1972 presidential campaign near-surrogate, and Ohio State coach Woody Hayes. “I’d want to talk football. Woody’d want to talk foreign policy,” Nixon said. “We’d compromise. We’d talk foreign policy.” In 1987, he gave his friend’s eulogy.
Yet Nixon’s favorite sport was baseball. As a boy he found time to play among school, homework, piano, church, and driving daily to Los Angeles at 4 a.m. to buy vegetables for the family store. Nixon saw his first professional game by taking a trolley to see the 1920s AAA PCL Angels-Stars. In 1936, he began law school in the East, seeing his “first-league game” in DC at 23. “I don’t remember much,” Nixon mused, “except it was July 4, the Senators lost a double-header at Griffith Stadium to the Yankees, 4–3 and 5–0, and a rookie named DiMaggio put one in the bleachers.”.
His ardor never ebbed. In 1959, the VP talked baseball for two hours at the All-Star Game with Casey Stengel. Planning to vote for a Democrat in 1960, the Ol’ Perfessor finally left, saying of Nixon’s knowledge, “I had to get out of there before that boy made me a Republican.” Barely losing to John F. Kennedy, Nixon was offered the post of baseball commissioner in 1965. He declined, later saying “I had other plans”—winning the presidency in 1968.
Prior to the 1969 All-Star Game in Washington, Nixon hosted an All-Star Gala hailing baseball’s centennial at the White House, greeting each guest with facts and/or stories that moved a writer to note, “The players, the old-timers, and the press all were astounded at Nixon’s memory and his interest.” Mused Henry Aaron: “Nixon knows more about baseball than some of the people in the game.” Meanwhile, like baseball’s vines around a trellis, the other “American sport” intersected Nixon’s life as well.
In 1969, Nixon got the football letter he never won at Whittier from coach Wallace “Chief” Newman, who had used him as “cannon fodder” during scrimmages with the varsity. Nixon reciprocated by thanking Chief for creating a “full-time spectator.” At the same time, Nixon had a trophy made prior to the game between unbeaten Texas and Arkansas, then named the Longhorns 1969 national college titlist, not endearing himself to unbeaten Penn State.
In 1971, he spoke at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, lauding the induction of seven players and coaches, including Jim Brown, Y.A. Tittle, and Vince Lombardi, the Redskins coach whom Nixon admired and who died of cancer in 1970. In 1972, the long-losing ’Skins, backed by Nixon as early as 1947, finally vied. In November, the president visited their team camp, as the Washington Post bannered, “Nixon Pays a Surprise Visit to Redskins and Gives Them a Pep Talk for Playoff Drive.” Next month he invited Redskins and ex-Whittier coach George Allen and family to the White House after DC beat Dallas, 26–3, to make Super Bowl V. Miami won, 14-7.
The prior year Nixon, with a home in Florida, had prescribed a play for Miami coach Don Shula for Super Bowl IV. (It didn’t work.) Weekly he exuberantly watched sports on TV, telephoning players and coaches afterward. Some thought his mania overdone. It was real, Nixon as Walter Mitty. Shy, even asocial, he used sports as a point of reference, his vehicle to seem one of the boys. Perhaps inevitably, baseball reasserted itself. It was intellectual, like foreign policy, at one with his more cerebral side.
In 1992, two years before his death, Nixon mused, “The essence of diplomacy is to confuse the opposition. The opposition never knew what Casey Stengel was talking about. Casey always knew. If I had it to do over again, I’d name Casey Secretary of State.” The thought staggers. When Roberto Clemente died on a New Year’s Eve 1973 mercy mission, Nixon helped forge a memorial fund. About that time, asked to pick his all-time team, he filled each position for both an early- and modern-era team, naming Jackie Robinson best athlete, Ted Williams hitter, Joe DiMaggio outfielder, Brooks Robinson infielder, and Sandy Koufax, pitcher.
In the 1980s, Nixon moved back to New York, wrote a slew of best-selling books, and became a Yankees and Mets regular. We last saw him in the early ’90s, when he and young grandson Christopher, living a few miles apart, would talk by phone, critiquing the same game on each’s own TV. “We’d discuss who was pitching, should a runner steal second,” the ex-president said. This unique way to watch sports let grandpa and grandson share unspoken love by sharing what each truly loved—a fetching way to bond.
NEXT: GERALD FORD, ALL-AMERICAN