Although he didn’t realize it at the time, Curt Smith began researching his latest book, “The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball & the White House,” about six decades ago. Perched on the front porch of his Caledonia home, 25 miles southwest of Rochester, the precocious youngster would while away the hours poring over biographies of U.S. presidents and baseball legends in encyclopedias.
That research would continue, up close and personal, when Smith worked as a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, a former Yale University baseball captain and the most accomplished ballplayer of the 45 commanders-in-chief. But it wasn’t until three years ago that the author of 17 books would take pen to paper and put that acquired knowledge to good use by writing about the two subjects with which he is most passionate and familiar.
“I was delighted and somewhat astounded to discover that no one had written an in-depth book about the kinship between the two institutions,’’ he was saying recently over a cup of coffee. “It’s a personal book. It’s a historical book. I think I’ve done ample research.”
That he has. The tome is chock-full of interesting anecdotes that get to the heart of this long-standing relationship between the White House and the emerald diamond.
We learn that the popularity of our national pastime among presidents may actually predate the presidency. Before becoming “the father of our country,” George Washington found relief from the stresses of the Revolutionary War by playing the British game of rounders, an antecedent to baseball.
“The British had him and his troops on the ropes at Valley Forge back in 1777 and ’78, and Washington would spend hours upon hours tossing a ball around with his aides, while strategizing the Continental Army’s next moves,” Smith says. “This was just another example of Washington being a leader ahead of his time.”
By the time Abraham Lincoln had developed a liking to the sport nearly a century later, the game had evolved from rounders to one more closely resembling modern-day baseball.
“There are stories of Honest Abe playing hooky from the White House to view games on the front lawn,’’ Smith says. “The lanky Lincoln occasionally would participate in those games, and people have memories of his long strides as he ran around the bases. They marveled at how far his coattails stuck out behind him.”
Although the 27th president and 10th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court never realized his boyhood dream of becoming a professional ballplayer, William Howard Taft would earn a permanent place in the game’s lore by delivering one of its most famous pitches. Before a Washington Senators home game on April 14, 1910, Taft hoisted his 300-pound body from a box seat that had been custom-made to accommodate his enormous girth and tossed a ceremonial first pitch to future Hall-of-Famer Walter Johnson.
“And, hence,’’ Smith says, “a great American ritual was born.’’
Interestingly, that tradition has been continued by virtually every president except the current one. Before being elected two years ago, Donald Trump had tossed the first pitch at Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, where he also took part in the Harry Caray-inspired ritual of leading Chicago Cubs fans in the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
“The only theory I can offer—and this is coming from one who regards himself as a populist conservative—is that he’s afraid he’ll get booed,’’ says Smith, who notes that several other presidents were jeered while performing the task, including his former boss. “I think Trump needs to man up, loosen up his arm and continue this most American of traditions. Yes, he would get booed. Vociferously. But that’s part of the job of being president.”
In another delicious tidbit, we discover that Trump was a player of note who turned down offers from the Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox in the mid-1960s because he wanted to make “real” money, not “baseball” money.
“It seems hilarious today to think you can’t make “real” money playing baseball, but that was the case back then,’’ Smith says. “Had they been offering the $30-million-a-year contracts that some receive now, he might have had a change of heart.”
Not all presidents loved the game. In fact, roughrider Teddy Roosevelt felt baseball was too gentle. But he chose not to express that dislike publically because of the game’s popularity. Such an opinion might have been political suicide.
Richard Nixon was the greatest baseball scholar among presidents. Within the span of a few months in 1965, he turned down offers to become the head of the players’ union and the commissioner of baseball.
“Hank Aaron said that Nixon knew more about the game than most baseball executives,’’ Smith says. “That’s how voluminous his baseball knowledge was.’’
Among the captivating tales is the one Smith tells about 43-year-old John F. Kennedy meeting 39-year-old Stan Musial before a game in Milwaukee in 1960.
“They tell me you’re too old to play baseball and I’m too young to be president, but maybe we’ll fool ’em,’’ Kennedy said. They did. Stan the Man played three more seasons, and JFK became the youngest person elected president.
Perhaps no president had a greater impact on the game than Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Smith argues that FDR’s decision to encourage Major League Baseball to continue operations during World War II not only boosted the morale of our country and our soldiers, but also saved the game.
“That’s not just me talking, but influential baseball people from that era talking,’’ Smith says. “And that is why there was a groundswell of opinion after the war that FDR should be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. But the old-timers’ committee and the conservative commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, felt otherwise. They essentially blackballed FDR because he was liberal.”
Smith believes the cause to get Roosevelt enshrined in Cooperstown should be revived.
“In my mind, this is a terrible omission,’’ Smith says. “There are 317 plaques hanging in the Hall and none of them include the words, ‘saved baseball,’ which is what FDR did. It’s never too late to right a wrong. The man who saved the game belongs.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.