Baseball: the great political equalizer
By Nicholas Sarantakes
Special for ESPN.com
After Richard Nixon died in 1994, he was widely praised as a statesman. Eulogies and reminiscences recounted his accomplishments in the arena of foreign policy. This concentration on world affairs and the praise that went along with it was a last
The memory of Watergate obscures the fact that Nixon was always a brilliant political campaigner. He and Franklin D. Roosevelt share a record for the most major party nominations on a national ticket, with five. In part, he was so successful because he often was able to appeal to voters across party lines by seeming human rather than political.
One great example of this appeal came in the summer of 1972, in the midst of his run for re-election, when Nixon named a historical all-star baseball team. He cleverly used his love of sports and the social, and cultural leadership position of the presidency -- what Theodore Roosevelt called the "bully pulpit" -- to garner positive press attention that had little to do with politics.
Nixon achieved a decisive electoral victory over Senator George McGovern of South Dakota in the 1972 presidential election. He won 60.7 percent of the vote and carried 49 of the 50 states, including McGovern's home state. His percentage of the vote was third best in American history up to that time.
He ran the 1972 election not as a candidate but as The President. Nixon and his campaign staff saw this strategy as the best way to reach out to voters who normally voted for Democrats. A deliberate effort was made to show a side of Nixon that the public rarely saw. Campaign admen worked to make sure that advertising subtly presented his sense of humor, compassion and other positive traits.
Although it became part of the general effort to "humanize" Nixon, the historical all-star team was not planned as such. Cliff Evans, a reporter for RKO General Broadcasting, started the idea for a presidential all-star team at the end of a press conference held in the Oval Office on June 22, 1972. Evans asked the president to name his favorite ballplayers. Nixon, a life-long sports fanatic, responded quickly. He named New York Yankee legend Lou Gehrig as his first baseman and put Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers hero, at second base. Then an idea flashed into his head, and he began to meander. Instead of naming his shortstop, he said, "You must include Mickey Mantle." Then he added
In a follow-up question, Evans asked, "Mr. President, as the nation's No. 1 baseball fan, would you be willing to name your all-time baseball team?" An honorary member of the Baseball Writers' Association, Nixon quickly replied, "Yes."
The opportunity was too good for either the sports fan or the politician in Nixon to pass up. He would get to make a contribution to baseball, a pastime he loved, and the publicity associated with the sport would help his image with the potential Nixon-voting Democrats. The president started making his selections that Sunday at Camp David, and called on his son-in-law David Eisenhower, the namesake of the compound, for help.
David Eisenhower knew baseball. He had worked briefly for the Washington Senators, the National League franchise that had just relocated to the Dallas-Ft. Worth area and renamed itself the Texas Rangers. "We sat down together and began to study the record books for the purpose of compiling a list of stars," Nixon wrote, "which would stand up under the scrutiny such a selection would receive from the sports writers and baseball fans throughout the country." White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman found Nixon quite excited about the project, noting in his diary: "The P (is) all cranked up about his baseball all-time great story."
Nixon and Eisenhower did most of the work at Camp David, but the president continued to make revisions after returning to Washington. "The P got into quite a thing about his baseball piece," Haldeman recorded. "He's spending an incredible amount of time today on the whole thing. Working out all the little details. Kind of fascinating and not just a little amusing." After looking at the finished list, White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler told David and Julie Eisenhower, "I never cease to be amazed at the president's knowledge of both the color and detail of the sports world."
Instead of producing a single all-time, all-star team roster, Nixon decided to select a pre- and post-war team for each league. "I found it impossible to limit the team to nine men," he explained. He also decided to go no further back than 1925, the year he started following baseball. As a result, legendary players such as Ty Cobb, Cy Young, Grover Cleveland Alexander and "Shoeless" Joe Jackson failed to appear on his roll. He stopped with the 1970 season, so he could have a little distance in evaluating the performances of various players. His selections were:
Nixon also provided the Associated Press with seven pages of text, elaborating on his selections. His remarks included personal observations and experiences designed to show his first-hand knowledge and expertise in the sport. In one example, he wrote, "I was in Yankee Stadium for the first game of the World Series in 1963 when Sandy Koufax broke the World Series record when he struck out 15 Yankees. On that day no pitcher in baseball history could have surpassed him."
The president admitted that some of these experiences affected his selections. He included Arky Vaughan on his prewar National League team because they had gone to high school together. Dick Groat found his way onto the league's post-war team because he had roomed with Nixon's younger brother, Ed, at Duke University. In the American League, Bobo Newsom ended up on the pre-war team, and Harmon Killebrew was on the post-war team in part for sentimental reasons. Nixon, however, argued that both made important but under-appreciated contributions to their teams that merited their inclusion. Newsom spent most of his career playing for mediocre teams, which obscured his talent, and Killebrew's strong hitting made up for his weak fielding skills.
The "First Fan" added some personal observations of the greatest performances he had ever witnessed. Ted Williams was his best hitter. For glove work, he said Brooks Robinson was the best in the infield, while Joe DiMaggio "made all the difficult plays look easy" in the outfield. For base running and pitching, he named Maury Wills and Sandy Koufax, respectively. He named Jackie Robinson as the "best all-round athlete" and Lou Gehrig as the "most courageous player," calling him, in an interesting choice of words, "baseball's Mr. Profile in Courage."
In making his selections, Nixon admitted that some sports fans might take exception with him for leaving one of their favorites off his list. He called picking and choosing between great players "one of the hardest assignments I have ever undertaken." In his concluding sentence, he declared, "If some smart reporter asks me to name an all-star football team, the answer will be a flat NO!"
The all-star picks earned Nixon significant positive publicity, although there was quite a bit of variation in coverage among cities that had Major League Baseball teams. The president's political hometown newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, ran the full article on the front page of the sports section below the fold, using the president's byline. The San Francisco Chronicle, Baltimore Sun, Kansas City Star, and New York Times also ran front-page sports stories with Nixon's byline. The New York paper added photos of nine selectees as well as an insert box of the all-star roster. Neither the Chicago Sun-Times nor the Boston Globe ran the story on the front page of their sports sections, but both committed major amounts of space to the article. The Chicago Sun-Times devoted a full page, while the Globe used roughly three-fourths of a page and illustrated the piece with photos of Nixon and Eisenhower, along with photos of Koufax, Wills, DiMaggio and Robinson.
A few publications chose not to print any of Nixon's selections. The most prominent was Sports Illustrated, which called the president's lists one of the "super all-time all-star publicity ploys."
Many of the families of deceased players expressed their thanks to Nixon privately. The widow of Robert Rolfe called her husband's selection a "wonderful addition" to his baseball honors. The daughter of Herb Pennock thanked Nixon for including her father, and excluding her father-in-law, Hall of Famer Eddie Collins. The omission gave her an advantage in a continuing debate with her husband over the ability of their fathers. White House staff members made sure Nixon saw this letter. He playfully wrote back, and leveled the playing field in the Collins household, saying he made a mistake in leaving the elder Collins off his list. Joe Medwick wrote to thank the president not only for naming him, but also his former teammate Arky Vaughan, calling him "a great team man." Nixon enjoyed these private correspondences and decided to build on them. He had the White House staff produce a special pamphlet, and sent a copy to every one of his selectees or their next-of-kin.
A number of people disagreed with Nixon's picks, but these criticisms only served to give the president more publicity, enhancing the stature of the endeavor. Objections fell into three groups. One collection of sportswriters criticized the merits of the endeavor. "It is impossible and a waste of time to compare players of one era with another in any sport," wrote the sports editor of New Hampshire's Concord Monitor. "As times change, so does the game or sport." A columnist for the Boston Herald Traveler and Record American agreed, saying the exercise was "frivolous." Another group of reporters focused their attention on the creation of four all-star teams, rather than one. "If a segment of the electorate has been slighted, it's not much of a segment," the sports editor of Albany's Knickerbocker News-Union Star wryly observed. The final group chose to disagree with individual selections. These comments were inevitable. "Nobody can name all-stars who will be unanimous choices," Harold Kaese, a columnist for the Boston Globe, stated. With that in mind, Kaese went on to offer a number of alterations to the president's teams. Most of the objections focused on the selection of Nellie Fox, Bobo Newsom, Satchel Paige and Hack Wilson over Joe Medwick, a fact which appears to have bothered sportswriters more than Medwick.
The criticisms of New York Times sports columnist Red Smith had the widest circulation. He attacked the president's writing as lousy, "cliché-ridden," and wordy. Then he offered two contradictory objections. First, he questioned the merit of the entire effort. Then he went on to challenge a number of Nixon's selections, implying that the endeavor was worthwhile after all. Smith's column appeared in a number of papers, under headlines like: "The President Strikes Out" or "Nixon Flunked Badly in Picking His Stars."
The president had his defenders in the press, though the sports editor of the Birmingham News remarked, "Richard Milhous Nixon finally convinced me Sunday he's a baseball fan." His picks were "excellent." Kaese of the Boston Globe and Arthur Daley of the New York Times offered more subdued praise. Both men differed with Nixon on some selections, but approved of his overall effort. The president's picks were "quite acceptable," Kaese observed, and Daley said he "did a reasonably good job." Sports columnist Bob Broeg of The Sporting News approved of his decision to go no further back than 1925. No one could or should try to pass judgment on players they never saw in action. All sportswriters, Broeg observed, should heed Nixon's example.
The parodies and even the criticisms of the president's selections worked to his advantage. Disagreements about the merits of one player over another were less divisive than other issues in the election, such as the Vietnam War. More importantly, continued attention on the presidential baseball team furthered the larger campaign goal of "humanizing" Nixon. Differences over player selections or even on the merits of the entire endeavor were unlikely to cost the re-election campaign many votes, and continued to present interests of the president with which the public could relate. There were, of course, many voters who were never going to vote for Nixon, and the all-star selections mattered little to them.
The White House staff saw the advantage Nixon gained from being associated with sports, and planned other more baseball-related events. Arrangements were made for Nixon to meet Babe Ruth's widow, former New York Giants great Bobby Thomson, and legendary Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca. The two players were tied together in baseball history when Thomson hit a home run off Branca in a famous 1951 game to win the National League championship. White House documents make it clear that the meeting was arranged because all three supported Nixon's re-election. The president agreed to the meeting, but wanted to add Lou Gehrig's widow, whose political views were unknown. Efforts to track her down were to no avail, and the meeting went ahead as scheduled with the original three.
In addition to being an election year, 1972 was the 25th anniversary of the desegregation of Major League Baseball. Plans were under way to honor Jackie Robinson at the second game of the World Series, and the baseball commissioner's office contacted the White House, hoping the president would attend. There was real interest in this idea among White House staff members, and the NBC television network got a waiver from the Federal Communications Commission on equal time requirements for political candidates, so the event could be televised.
In 1972, the hurt between the two remained. Nixon decided against attending the ceremony honoring Robinson, saying his schedule was too busy. On Oct. 15, the Oakland A's defeated the Cincinnati Reds in the second game of the World Series in Cincinnati. Nixon spent the day at Camp David, relaxing and watching professional football games.
In November 1972, Nixon won re-election in a landslide. Sports fans are fond of arguing that a certain player is better than another, and often dream of seeing one legend play with or against another. When Nixon put together his all-star selections, he gave these fans a way to relate to him.
Nicholas Sarantakes is a history professor at Texas A&M University at Commerce. This essay first appeared in the Journal of Sport History.