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Thursday, June 14, 2007
Bush Sr. recalls his days at first College World Series

Associated Press

Long before George H.W. Bush stepped foot in the Oval Office, he strolled to the plate at the first College World Series.

Bush was a slick-fielding first baseman for Yale 60 years ago, when college baseball's national championship was played at Hyames Field on the campus of Western Michigan. It was a small ballpark on a picturesque hillside in Kalamazoo, Mich. -- a real-life field of dreams for college players in 1947.

"I remember going out there and thinking, 'Well, we're pretty darned lucky as an Ivy League team to be in the big time here,"' the former president recently told The Associated Press by telephone. "But there we were."

Bush said the experience is something he and his teammates carried with them long after they put down their bats and gloves.

"I think competitive sports is good for anybody in any practice in life," said Bush, still a big baseball fan who follows the Houston Astros and the Texas A&M women's softball team. "I know in politics, it helps to be competitive and it helps to learn about sportsmanship and practice sportsmanship. So I found that my modest baseball career at Yale was extraordinarily helpful to me, and when I got into politics or got out into life in business."

Eight teams are in Omaha this weekend, hoping to win a national title in the Nebraska city that has been home to the College World Series since 1950.

"But it all started in Kalamazoo," said Norm Felske, who was Yale's catcher. "There's no doubt about it."

California coach Clint Evans is often credited with the concept of a College World Series, and his Jackie Jensen-led Bears team swept Ethan Allen's Yale squad in a best-of-three series for the first national title.

"It was a landmark situation to have the first one and to be on the team that won it, especially with Clint being instrumental in putting it together," said former Cal outfielder Lyle Palmer, now 82 and living in Pleasant Hills, Calif.

Baseball commissioner Happy Chandler threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and major league umpires Ed Hurley and Bill McKinley worked the two games.

"It made you feel kind of important," Palmer said.

Bush, who recently celebrated his 83rd birthday, remembers the excitement of playing for a national title.

"We thought about it a lot and talked about it in the locker room," he said. "A lot of us on the team were veterans and we had come back from the war, so maybe that made it a little less apprehensive. On the other hand, it didn't deduct from our enthusiasm and our desire to win, which we did not do."

Instead, the title went to the California team led by Jensen, the Bears' ace pitcher who starred as an outfielder in the majors. The Bears won the first game in which the first few innings were played in a steady rain. Yale led 4-2 before some strategy by Allen, a former major leaguer, backfired in the seventh inning.

"We walked the eighth hitter to get to the pitcher, and it was Jackie Jensen," Bush said. "He hit one that's still rolling out there in Kalamazoo."

That big hit tied the game, and the Bears scored twice more in the eighth before breaking it open with an 11-run ninth.

"That was a real shame because it was a close game up until that point," Felske said, the disappointment in his voice still evident.

Jensen went 2-for-2 with two RBIs in the series and started the second game on the mound. He was the 1958 AL MVP and a three-time All-Star for the Boston Red Sox before retiring after the 1961 season. He died in 1982.

"We knew that Jensen played football at Cal," said Felske, 83, and living in Montauk, N.Y. "I don't think he was that well known as a baseball player. But after that series, we all sure knew him."

Yale rallied in the second game from a 7-2 deficit and tied it in the sixth inning, but Cal went ahead to stay the following inning. Felske tried to throw out Palmer at second base, but the ball got away from shortstop Art Moher. John Ramos scored from third with what ended up the winning run in an 8-7 victory.

"We'll get together every now and then and it still comes up, even though there aren't too many of us left," Palmer said.

Yale found its way back to Kalamazoo the next year. Southern California came out on top in three games, with the final game ending on a triple play -- with Bush on deck.

"It was a traumatic experience and letdown for Yale," said Bush, the team captain. "All of us felt that way. You learn to go with the flow and get on with your life, and that's what all of us did."

After he became president in 1989, Bush kept his baseball memories close by. Tucked in his Oval Office desk was his Yale first baseman's mitt.

"He was a good teammate and he was even a sort of politician then," Felske said with a laugh.

Allen regarded Bush as one of the best defensive first basemen he had seen. But he was quick to point out to scouts that Bush was "all glove and no hit" -- a label Bush disputes.

"I think it was grossly unfair because I think my average was about .240 or .250," he said with a chuckle. "And I think if I were playing today in the bigs, I'd probably get about 8 million bucks a year for that."

When asked if he might have had the bat to go with the glove had he used aluminum like today's college players, Bush said: "Hey, I might have. I hadn't thought about that."

Palmer didn't realize he played against Bush until several years later when a former teammate showed him the box scores.

"He didn't do very well," Palmer said, pointing out Bush went 0-for-7 against Cal. "That's all right with me because I'm not a Republican."

Politics aside, the players in that first series share a bond.

"When you go to the Yale Club, you go in the bar and you'll see pictures of the 1947 and 1948 Yale baseball teams," Felske said. "With a few breaks, we probably would've won at least one of those years. But, when you think about it, our first baseman became president. Wow, how about that?"