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Bob McCarthy: Baseball and the presidency

Robert J. McCarthy

It’s time for a breather.

The Politics Column rests from its normal routine after Thursday’s primary elections, not ignoring politics, just combining it with baseball.

What could be more American?

A new book by University of Rochester senior lecturer Curt Smith prompts this detour, quite appropriate for the intersection of election season and approach of the playoffs. Smith, a veteran baseball author and political observer, has just produced “The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House.”

He delves into two of the nation’s most important institutions – the grand old game and the presidency – weaving them together in delightful stories. Baseball, Smith hypothesizes, reflects the nation.

Its earliest iterations involved George Washington’s troops in “rounders” at Valley Forge while John Adams is said to have played “one old cat” in another game imported from England. And it has woven itself into the American fabric, from its fanatical embrace by William Howard Taft to Bush 43’s down the middle strike during the post-9/11 World Series of 2001.

For Smith, lifting baseball to the same plane as the presidency is more than justified. And while he links the game to almost every president in history, he credits Franklin Delano Roosevelt more than any other with recognizing its ability to bind together a nation in its darkest days.

Roosevelt, Smith says, saved the game by insisting that it continue for a war-weary country even as many called for its suspension.

Roosevelt’s “Green Light Letter” to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis in early 1942, he argues, served a vital wartime interest.

“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” Roosevelt said, while Smith underscores what the president was really saying. “Startling is the mom-and-apple-pie niche that baseball filled in the sanctum of the nation,” he says, “accepted unquestionably, without a modicum of doubt.”

Smith drilled into every newspaper account of opening day and presidential first pitches as well as Cooperstown archives to produce this book. It is written in the same staccato, stream of consciousness delivery he used on the popular “Perspectives” show he formerly hosted on public radio in Buffalo and Rochester that examined – simply put – interesting things.

He tells us that Theodore Roosevelt, for all his heroics and man of action persona, detested baseball. For TR, the game was too slow, too staid, too devoid of the rough and tumble he loved – even though as a good pol he sang its praises as it grew in popularity.

His daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth: “Father and all of us regard[ed] baseball as a mollycoddle game. Tennis, football, lacrosse, boxing, polo, yes. They are violent, which appealed to us. But baseball? Father wouldn’t watch it, not even at Harvard!”

But others did. Harry Truman regularly attended Washington Senators, Kansas City A’s and later Kansas City Royals games, with wife, Bess, toting her score book. JFK was a baseball guy, too, adoring Ted Williams but never getting to see his Red Sox return to the World Series in 1967.

Smith recalls Richard Nixon’s White House celebration of baseball’s 1969 centennial and his encyclopedic knowledge of the game – right down to naming his all time “dream teams” in 1972.

Presidential connections to the game included Ronald Reagan “recreating” Cubs games in his early career; Jimmy Carter as softball devotee; and George H.W. Bush as a Yale first baseman.

Of course George W. Bush makes the cut as Texas Rangers owner, and even Donald Trump appears as a big-time Yankees fan and “good hitter, good field, good attitude” first baseman in high school.

Smith and his engaging writing style take us through these important aspects of American life, simultaneously offering a history of the presidency and baseball.

He recognizes that even presidents need to step back from the craziness of politics. And in the end, isn’t that what baseball is for?

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