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President Trump was once a top baseball prospect, the first President Bush was thought to be a Hall of Fame caliber fielder, and Bush may not have become commander-in-chief without critical support from a baseball legend.
These are just some of the nuggets in the new book from former presidential speechwriter and prolific baseball author Curt Smith in his new work, “The Presidents and the Pastime.”
Baseball roots in the U.S. go back to our founding, as colonists played “rounders.” By the 1860’s, President Lincoln was giving federal workers time off to attend games, and in 1910, President William Howard Taft began the long tradition of presidents throwing out the first pitch of the season in or near the nation’s capital.
So what’s behind the connection? Quoting George H.W. Bush, Smith says “baseball has everything.”
“He meant it was an honorable game, an honest game,a game that anyone could play, a game that anyone no matter how small or large nor any color (could play),” said Smith.
“He meant that it was an inherently American game, that it was ours, that we invented it. He meant that it was a game that he had been taught by his father and that he had taught his son, who of course would also become president,” he said.
That son would use baseball in one of the most important moments of American history. Just weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium for a World Series game between the New York Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Smith says his writing on that powerful moment might what he’s most proud of in “The Presidents and the Pastime.”
He shared some of it with us.
“He met a roaring ovation as he left the Yankees dugout, red and blue states vanishing. He passed the first base dugout and then moved towards the mound, ready to throw to a catcher behind the plate. Add the fury in every seat, every tear, the emotion overwhelmed.
“Bush wound up and threw a perfect strike to the Yankees’ Jorge Posada, exactly splitting the plate, precisely at the knees, as if he had lovingly placed the ball in the catcher’s glove. The crowd exploded. It’s cry for justice piercing the cool Bronx air.
“Slowly, Bush left the field. Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon,’ a hero now more than he had ever been or ever would be again,” read Smith.
Bush threw a perfect strike with the eyes of the world watching and while wearing a bullet-proof vest. However, the current occupant of the Oval Office was a great ballplayer too. Smith says Donald Trump had the tools to be a major league player, but turned it down in classic Trump style.
“Trump was a terrific prospect. In prep school, he was viewed as ‘can’t miss’ by the Phillies and the Red Sox, both of whom were primed to sign him. The only problem was that Trump didn’t want to sign a contract. The reason was, as he said, ‘I didn’t want baseball money. I wanted big money,'” said Smith.
Smith suspects the elder Bush was the best all-around player among our presidents. As captain of the Yale team, Smith reports that scouts thought Bush had hall of fame skills as a defender. It was the other part of the game where he struggled.
“The problem was that he wasn’t even a good field-no hit player. He was a great field-zero hit player almost. As a result, his chances for the bigs were zero,” said Smith.
Baseball also played a key role in the first President Bush winning the GOP nomination in 1988. After a third place finish in Iowa, Bush had to win in New Hampshire to keep his campaign alive.
Forty-six years earlier, as a young Naval aviator, Bush met Boston Red Sox star Ted Williams, who was training pilots for action in World War II. The two became lifelong friends and when Bush was on the political ropes, Williams stepped up to rally his friend among the New England fans who adored him at Fenway Park.
“Ted Williams, to Bush’s total surprise, flies his own plane from his home in Florida to New Hampshire, shocked Bush, and stumped the next three days with Bush and resurrected Bush’s presidential campaign,” said Smith.
Smith wrote the book in part to highlight the presidents’ love affair with baseball and in part to urge Major League Baseball to make the game more attractive to younger generations by speeding up the game through shorter intervals between pitches, not allowing batters to leave the batter’s box so much, and beefing up the strike zone.
He also urges President Trump to throw out a first pitch, even if the crowd does not receive him well. Smith says it is vital to save and strengthen the American pastime.
“These are serious times. This is a serious topic. Baseball has better wake up and realize that if you lose one generation or two generations, you never get them back,” said Smith.