If Donald Trump had accepted offers to play major league baseball, then today we might be talking about a different commander-in-chief.
Curt Smith’s latest book is “The Presidents and the Pastime” (University of Nebraska Press). The avid baseball historian and former speechwriter for both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush explores the links between what he calls “two uniquely American institutions: baseball and the office of the American President.”
In the case of President Trump, the ties were as both fan and player.
“He grew up in the 1960s as a great Yankees fan following the team that featured Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris,” Smith said.
Trump played baseball for the New York Military Academy, the prep school north of New York City.
“He was a terrific player. He had no speed, but he was very strong. He was a pull hitter from the right side of the plate. He played both first base and catcher. He was so good that both the Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox wanted to sign him. They foresaw him as a Major League prospect. The Red Sox in particular saw him as someone who could pummel the ball over the left field wall at Fenway Park. “
What stopped President Trump from taking a swing at the big leagues?
“Trump didn’t want to make, as he said, ‘baseball money, I want to make real money,’ and he did make real money. It seems hilarious today to think you can’t make ‘real money’ playing baseball, but that was true back then,” Smith said.
In “The Presidents and the Pastime,” Smith points out that several Presidents who were Ohio natives were avid fans of the game, perhaps most notably William Howard Taft.
“William Howard Taft, all 300 pounds of him, was a big act to follow in every sense of the word. Taft was an amateur baseball pitcher in the 1880s. He wanted to became a major league pitcher, but he settled instead to become President, and in fact later became the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. As Chief Justice, he scheduled his speaking engagements around the country in Major League cities, so that he could give a speech and then go out to a ballgame in the afternoon,” Smith said.
Smith explains that while two of the game’s most famous rituals are associated with our 27th commander-in-chief, he should only receive credit for one.
[photo courtesy: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, N.Y]
“In 1910, as President of the United States, Taft inaugurated the practice that we consider now to be a rite of spring of throwing out the first pitch. He did it because he loved the game. He went out to the forerunner of Griffith Stadium in Washington. They had to extricate two box seats and make it one gigantic seat, to accompany his frame. They gave Mrs. Taft a hard ball, which she handed to him and Taft threw out this first pitch to the catcher. He did it with a great flourish. Taft was quite the actor, with his top hat and tails. Even at 300 pounds he was graceful as a gazelle. What a silhouette he cut,” Smith said.
That began an institution, which almost every American President has participated in to inaugurate spring and the beginning of baseball season.
Smith said that the notion that Taft is responsible for the ritual known as “the 7th inning stretch “ is a myth.
“This is a German custom of the largely German populace in the state of Ohio. It is a custom that in the 7th inning, Rhinelanders would rise to their feet to get some exercise. Taft happened to be watching a ballgame that day and he got up. People said ‘my goodness, this must be another ritual,’ but it does not belong to him.
[author Curt Smith]
Hear Smith talk about which presidents actually hated baseball, but had the good sense to never admit it in public.