Curt Smith is a journalist with a quirky but engaging writing style. He is a major league expert in baseball history. He also knows presidential history. He was on staff with both Bush Presidents. All of this is very good.
That being said, Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball & the White House, is not for the casual reader. It is for readers who are passionate and knowledgeable about either baseball or the presidency. Hopefully both.
Baseball used to be our national sport. Decades ago, the sports pages were filled with the glorious deeds of people like The Babe, The Man, The Yankee Clipper, The Duke, The Mick and The Say-Hey Kid. It was a very long list. Now, not so much.
Smith has ferreted out a few obscure details about baseball’s antecedents, questions the Abner Doubleday connection (that few people really care about, since his name is so good), and even dredges up some kind words that POTUS Andrew Johnson once said about the sport, or how Grover Cleveland exchanged mild pleasantries with Buffalo semi-pro players back in the 1880s. But the book belongs to the 20th century.
Our author is secretly (or maybe not so secretly) devastated by Theodore Roosevelt, who was about as interested in baseball as he was in ballet dancing. Not for him. Our national sport never caught on with one of our most national-minded and activity-driven leaders. Smith is hard pressed to forgive him.
But with very few exceptions, the rest of the POTUS-gang loved, enjoyed, attended, knew-about, and participated in baseball, whether they grew up playing the game in school or sandlots or merely threw out the first pitch of the season, a tradition started by TR’s successor, Big Bill Taft.
Wilson loved baseball, and managed his college team. Harding played it as a boy. During that first Golden Age of baseball, Calvin Coolidge learned to like it superficially; his wife Grace was a fan from the get-go, and could keep the box-scores like a pro. They even invited Babe Ruth to the White House. Herbert Hoover managed his Stanford team, and respected the game for what it was.
But the one Smith believes “saved” baseball for the generations, was Franklin Roosevelt. Crippled at 40 by polio, all sports became spectator sports for him. But FDR’s defining baseball moment was shortly after the US entered World War II. Baseball’s star players were enlisting. There was serious thought to cancelling the entire season, or perhaps season(s). According to Smith, despite momentous events and decisions, FDR immediately answered a letter from baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, urging that major league baseball be continued. Considered “The Green Light Letter,” FDR believed our national pastime was essential to the spirit/morale of the country. He was right. Everybody went to the games, and the men all wore suits and ties and hats! And they loved the B-team players as much as they had loved the stars now in military uniform. Had the season been cancelled, baseball might never have recovered.
Nearsighted Truman enjoyed the game, but his athletically-inclined wife Bess liked it almost as much as Grace Coolidge. Ike played baseball as a boy in Kansas, but sports injuries sidelined team sports, and he took up golf. Nevertheless, the second Golden Age of baseball was an “Ike event.” A whole decade of it!
Jack Kennedy enjoyed baseball. Both Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter were only interested in politics, but summoned up mild boyhood enthusiasm. Jerry Ford was an all-around athlete, who played baseball as a boy, and enjoyed all team sports.
But when he comes to Dick Nixon, who, with baseball as a channel to his more private side, becomes human, likable, and even a sympathetic man. He probably knew more about baseball than any POTUS. The 1969 Amazin’ Mets was a World Series capstone not only for Nixon, but for practically all baseball lovers. (I was living in NYC at the time; a bi-league Yankee/Mets fan, so I know!!!)
Then, of course, there was Reagan-The-Gipper. He loved baseball. He loved all things American, and baseball personified America. The author tells a cute story about Reagan, in his movie-days, starring as early baseball figure Grover Cleveland Alexander. When one “presidential” conversation led to a discussion of Grover Cleveland, Reagan commented that “he played him in the movie.” Wrong guy.
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama liked baseball well enough, and no doubt played it growing up. But Bush Leaguers 41 and 43 are core baseball guys, including “43” having been a major league owner.
So much for the POTUS side of the book. The baseball side is an i-dotter-t-crosser trove of baseball stats, stuff, nonsense and good trivia stories. A little heavy-handed on stadium details and numbers that few people really care about, but full of names like Goose and Ducky, Pepper and PeeWee, as well as the well known DiMag and Jackie, Ted and Yaz. Full of Babe-isms, Dizzy-isms, Casey-isms, Yogi-isms and all the tidbits that true aficionados go crazy for. They don’t make ‘em like that any more.
Bottom line. You really DO need to know BBall to get the real effect of POTUS/Baseball. Modern players don’t seem to inspire the devotion. Maybe too much money and too little fun. The new stadium names reflect the sponsors not the teams, and it is hard to remember who plays where. Baseball is no longer the sport we Boomers once knew. For all its attractions, LA can never replace Brooklyn. And for sure, not a Brooklyn fan.
Whether Curt Smith intended it as such or not, this really-delightful book is for us.
Thanks for the memories.
by Curt Smith
University of Nebraska Press, 2018