I was sitting at my desk in the newsroom during the spring of 1991 when a clerk told me I had letter from the White House. My colleagues and I began chuckling. “Yeah, right,” I guffawed, figuring the clerk was pulling my leg. Lo and behold, he handed me an envelope with the White House logo on it, and I opened it to find a letter from George H.W. Bush thanking me for writing about Jim Duffus, a Rochesterian who had been a teammate of his on the Yale University baseball team in the late 1940s. Later that day, I called Duffus.
“That’s Poppy for ya,’’ he said, referencing Bush’s college nickname. “Man with the most important and busiest job on the planet, but never too important or too busy to take time to say thank you to someone.”
I’ve read and heard hundreds of similar tributes—some quite poignant—in the days following Bush’s death last Friday at age 94. One of the enduring legacies of the 41st President of the United States is that of a kind, humble, family man who always attempted to put others above self.
What an exemplary life he led. And sports in general, and baseball in particular, were among his favorite pastimes and influences. Friend and former presidential speechwriter Curt Smith revels in telling how Bush made it perfectly clear in one of his first meetings as president that he wanted to pepper his speeches with the wit and wisdom of a man best known for World Series championships and Mother Tongue defeats.
“At one point he looks at me, and says, ‘I’d rather quote Yogi Berra than Thomas Jefferson,’’’ recalled Smith, a Caledonia native and University of Rochester senior lecturer who four years ago published a book about his former boss titled, “George H.W. Bush: Character at the Core.”
“That was very fine with me, until I found out, if anything, that he knew more Berra-isms than I did … The president was so well-versed in Berra-isms that if I didn’t insert one, he might take it upon himself to ad lib one during the course of a speech.”
While Bush appreciated Berra’s unique use of the English language—“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” and “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”—he was even more influenced by another Yankee legend: Lou Gehrig. It wasn’t surprising that Bush would choose the man known as the “Iron Horse” over the more flamboyant and famous Babe Ruth.
“I think his choice was telling because there was so much about Gehrig that 41 could relate to and admire,’’ Smith said. “Unlike the boisterous, larger-than-life Ruth, Gehrig was not an exhibitionist. He was very private, understated, modest. Like the president, Gehrig had a very strong mother who had a great influence on him. Both men believed in playing by the rules, not doing anything underhanded. I think Gehrig and Bush are people we’ve come to admire even more with each passing year.”
The left-handed throwing and hitting Bush attempted to emulate his idol on the diamond by becoming a first baseman, too. He was up to the task defensively, later drawing comparisons to slick-fielding New York Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez. But at the plate, he was no Teddy Roosevelt. He did not carry a big stick, hitting just .251 with two home runs in 175 at-bats in two varsity seasons at Yale. Duffus, who died a few years ago, told me a funny story about an April 1948 game against North Carolina State in which Bush smashed a single, double and triple in five at-bats. After that performance, several Major League Baseball scouts gathered around Bush’s locker, prompting Yale coach Ethan Allen to shake his head.
“Coach got a big kick out of that scene because he knew that game was the exception rather than the rule for Poppy,’’ Duffus said. “I remember Coach saying, ‘Look at those fools. The guy gets three hits for the first time in his life, and they think he’s a major-league prospect. Shows you what they know.’ Coach had a great relationship with Poppy, so he needled him pretty good after that game.”
Duffus, a star pitcher, would be one of four players from that Eli team to play professionally. Bush, meanwhile, would hang up his spikes after Yale lost to the University of Southern California, two games to one, in the 1948 College World Series, and move on to more important things. That his journey would take him from captaining a baseball team to running the free world didn’t surprise Duffus, who saw strong leadership qualities in Bush back in the day. In addition to being one of the team’s oldest players, Bush brought the life-and-death perspective of someone who had survived his plane being shot down in World War II.
“I knew the first time I met him there was something special about him,’’ recalled Duffus, a long-time insurance executive. “I’m not saying I had this feeling he would one day become president of the United States, but it was apparent he was destined for greatness of some sort.”
Bush’s other notable baseball connections would include Babe Ruth, whom he met on the Yale diamond in 1948 when the Sultan of Swat donated the manuscript from his life story to the university; Ted Williams, who trained him to become the youngest bomber pilot in U.S. Navy history, and son George W. Bush, who owned the Texas Rangers before following his father into the Oval Office as President No. 43 in 2001.
During his White House years, the elder Bush occasionally would pull his old first baseman’s mitt from his desk drawer, and pound a ball into it. He also enjoyed the tradition of delivering ceremonial first pitches at major league games. The old ballplayer was known to bounce a throw or two, but true to his self-deprecating nature, he jokingly blamed his restrictive, “girdle-like” bullet-proof vest.
“That’s Poppy, too,’’ Duffus said. “He was never too big to laugh at himself.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.