Smith, Curt. The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball & the White House. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018. Pp. 469. Bibliography. $29.95 hardback.
Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo
Politics and baseball are a delicious mixture. Curt Smith knows how to create a satisfying recipe.
Smith, 67, a senior lecturer of English at the University of Rochester, explains why most presidents have viewed baseball as the Great American Game, forever tied to the Great American Dream. From George Washington (who allegedly played catch with an aide during the Revolutionary War), to Donald Trump (who played baseball at New York Military Academy), America’s chief executive has had some connection to the game.
Stories about presidents and well-known baseball anecdotes are part of the charm in The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball & the White House. Smith, who is a columnist for Gatehouse Media and has written pieces for in Newsweek and The New York Times, has been a baseball reader’s go-to guy in broadcasting history. He has written seventeen books, including memorable works about baseball broadcasters Vin Scully (Pull Up a Chair) and Mel Allen (The Voice), baseball broadcasters in general (Voices of the Game and The Storytellers) and football announcers (Of Mikes and Men). Smith also tapped his experiences as a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush to write a book about the forty-first president (Character at the Core).
Smith dusts off some old baseball chestnuts, but also adds some new information. He does not give presidents individual chapters until Franklin D. Roosevelt, and deservedly so, since chief executives before him were sporadic attendees at baseball games. And yet, he uncovers what might be the most interesting fact of the book. While baseball intrigued Abraham Lincoln, it surprisingly obsessed his successor, Andrew Johnson. Relegated in history as a dour and petulant politician who barely escaped an impeachment conviction, Johnson nevertheless made history on September 18, 1866, when he became the first president to attend an organized baseball game. Twenty-six years later, Benjamin Harrison became the first president to watch a major-league game as Washington lost to Cincinnati.
Calvin Coolidge sounded knowledgeable about the game, but it was his wife who was the true baseball fan, Smith writes. Grace Coolidge had loved the game as a youth, was the official scorekeeper for the University of Vermont baseball team and kept a “perfect scorecard” during the 1924 World Series when the Washington Senators played the New York Giants. Harry S Truman was the most versatile president to throw out the first ball on Opening Day, Smith writes, tossing it left-handed one season, right-handed in another, and using both arms in a third.
Smith hits his stride with the chapter on Roosevelt, who he calls “The Champ.” Longtime readers of Smith will notice his penchant for hanging nicknames on his subjects; in previous books he refers to Allen as “The Voice,” and Scully as “The Franchise.” The Roosevelt chapter introduces the reader to Smith’s experience working in the White House; he knows what went on and how aides inside and out of the presidential mansion affect policy. Roosevelt and baseball’s first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, loathed one another, but Senators owner Clark Griffith kept the feathers of both sworn enemies unruffled by his actions as baseball’s “unofficial DC lobbyist,” (p. 83).
The most interesting chapter involved the president who was truly a sports fan — not casually, but one with a deeply ingrained love for games, particularly baseball. Richard M. Nixon picked his own dream All-Star teams (American and National Leagues, 1925-1945 and 1945 to 1970) and once gave a baseball soliloquy on Air Force One that CBS White House correspondent Dan Rather called “one of the strange and memorable conversations to which I have been privy.” Instead of answering questions about Vietnam, Nixon talked about what kind of trade value Washington Senators first baseman Mike Epstein had, noting that his Jewish heritage would make him “a very good draw in New York.” Smith writes about the gala event Nixon hosted before the 1969 All-Star Game in Washington, D.C., noting that players, old-timers and guests “were astounded at Nixon’s memory and his interest” in baseball” (p. 214). Other chapters are just as compelling, as Smith blends his baseball knowledge with history. He also adds some perspective as a presidential speechwriter from 1989 to 1993, explaining what was expected of him in speeches Bush gave about Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio when he awarded them the President’s Award.
Ronald Reagan was another president who loved sports and had a history with it. He was the first president to invite the World Series champions to the White House; the first president to host a team in the White House was Chester Alan Arthur in 1883. Reagan also sat in the broadcast booth with Harry Caray in 1988, joking that “in a few months I’m going to be out of work and thought I might as well audition.” (p. 295). Other Smith observations: Reagan’s presidency wrote a long-playing score (p. 300) Bill Clinton was “the most masterly politician to take the oath since Lyndon Johnson.” (p. 350).
The elder Bush was “likely the most non-partisan president” since Dwight D. Eisenhower (p. 311), while Ike relished his role as baseball’s “avuncular and egalitarian host” (p. 136). And Truman saw the most games of any president (sixteen), while William Howard Taft visited ballparks fourteen times. Taft also is the only president to see a game from each league in the same city — on the same day. He did it in St. Louis on May 4, 1910, visiting the Cardinals to watch their first two innings, and then saw the Browns and Cleveland battle to a 3-3, fourteen-inning tie.
As is his custom, Smith does not use end notes, although he certainly draws his information from many sources, including three of his own books. The most endearing source in the book’s bibliography is the notation for C. Fred Bush, “Edited slightly by Barbara Bush.” Smith’s bibliography, as one might expect, provides a cross-section of sports and history sources. It is an interesting lineup that includes H.R. Haldeman, George Plimpton, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Bob Uecker and Robert Caro. Presidential works also dot the bibliography, including books written by George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and Truman.
The Presidents and the Pastime is smartly written, and while long at times, still a smooth read. Smith writes in a conversational tone that sports fans and historians can appreciate. The only time he breaks into reverence is when he talks about the elder Bush, his boss for four years. His prose is sometimes wry, at times sly, and even dry in places. But Smith has produced a balanced view of the presidents’ interaction with baseball that is easy to digest.
Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New Books Network.