Review of Fan in Chief: Richard Nixon and American Sports, 1969-1974

Sarantakes, Nicholas Evans. Fan in Chief: Richard Nixon and American Sports, 1969-1974. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2019. ix+349. Appendix, notes, timeline, bibliographical essay, sources, and index.

Reviewed by Russ Crawford

Nicholas Evans Sarantakes has written a comprehensive analysis of President Richard M. Nixon’s interaction with the sporting world in Fan in Chief. It is a compelling read, and provides an interesting counterpoint to most histories of the thirty seventh president.

University of Kansas Press, 2019.

Sarantakes put in a great deal of research into this work, consulting Nixon’s papers at the National Archives, the White House tapes, the H.R. Haldeman diaries (on CD), and several other archival records that provide new insights into Nixon’s administration. What emerges from his research is a vision of Nixon that we rarely see. Instead of the socially awkward man who occupied the office, we see a Nixon who engaged in his love for the major American sports – football and baseball, primarily. According to the author, during the times that he was interacting with athletes, coaches, and owners, the president seemed to overcome his awkwardness, and he easily made personal connections with most of those he came into contact with. Nixon was not much of a basketball fan during the time studied, but did pay some attention to other sports such as car racing, Olympic track and field, bowling, and a few others.

Alongside the narrative discussing Nixon’s forays into the world of sports, Sarantakes also provides the reader with thumbnail sketches of many of the issues that affected sports during the period – the dispute between the NCAA and the AAU over control of Olympic sports, the Washington Senators leaving the capital, and the effort to end the NFL’s blackout of playoff games in the home area, to name only a few. These stories are interesting in their own right, and Sarantakes, an associate professor at the US Naval War College, writes with the pace of a sportswriter, creating an eminently readable narrative.

The work covers many of the well known events of the Nixon presidency; his visit to the Texas-Arkansas game in 1969, for instance, that is the topic of Horns and Hogs and Nixon Coming (2002) by Terry Frei. Sarantakes convincingly debunked the 1973 narrative that the president called a failed play for the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VII.

Cartoon from Nicholas Evan Sarantakes page, Nixon and Sports: Photos.

The story began when the president called Dolphins coach Don Shula to talk about the upcoming Super Bowl against the Dallas Cowboys. Somehow, word of the call reached the press, who were typically critical of the administration, and several reporters and columnists had a field day mocking the president’s presumption that he could call football plays for a professional coach. Sarantakes did not specify how the phone call reached the press, whether the administration alerted the papers or if Shula had mentioned it, but it became something of a national joke at the time. According to the author, Nixon did speak on the phone with Shula, but only mentioned the “down-and-in” (142) to Paul Warfield in the context of this being a play that the team had used all season. The play was largely unsuccessful in the game, but the one time it was successful, it set up the Dolphins’ only score in the 14-7 loss to the Cowboys (145).

The Nixon administration and the national press had a contentious relationship, but Sarantakes asserted, with a good deal of evidence, that the sporting press held a much more positive view of the president. That was not absolute, and one of the New York Times articles that mentioned the Warfield stratagem, also asserted that Nixon had also suggested a “flanker reverse to Roy Jefferson” that resulted in a 13 yard loss for his favorite team, the Washington Redskins. The source for this was Redskins defensive lineman Bill Brundige, who had made the statement on a television program. Sarantakes also debunked that story, and demonstrated that Redskins coach George Allen had told the president that he was going to try to inspire the team by telling them that the president had designed a play for them. When the play flopped, “Nixon, being the good fan that he was, kept quiet on the matter and never made any effort to correct the view that he had designed the play.” (142)

One of the remarkable results that one leaves the book with was just how good Nixon was at analyzing sports. He correctly predicted how the Longhorns would come back and defeat the Razorbacks in 1969 (38), and argued that the pitching duel that started the 1970 MLB All Star Game would not last, which turned out to be correct as the National League defeated the American League 5-4. It was also interesting to read how Nixon continually impressed athletes in a variety of sports with his intricate knowledge of their careers. Redskins’ players were clearly impressed when the president visited their practice after they lost a regular season game to the Cowboys. Nixon lifted the player’s spirits, and seemingly convinced them that they would still make the playoffs, which they did.

Despite the success that Nixon had mixing with crowds at sporting events (he typically sat with the fans, rather than in a luxury box), many of his staff thought he should avoid such trips. Patrick Buchanan, for instance, argued that a planned presidential trip to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to congratulate the team for being named national champion in one of the polls in 1970 would serve no good purpose (91). At a time when college students were protesting the Vietnam War, the visit to Lincoln turned out to be another triumph for the president, and makes one wonder about what Buchanan was thinking. (Full disclosure, I earned my PhD at Nebraska and am a lifelong Husker fan)

Some less well known highlights from Fan in Chief are also quite interesting. The number of calls that Nixon attempted to make that failed to go through was remarkable. I suppose that the ease of modern communication has made me forget that was not always the case, but one would hope that the communication channels with the Soviet Union worked better. I had never read that Nixon “held a special contempt” for NY Jets quarterback Joe Namath (27). I had also forgotten that Andrew McGregor had written about former Oklahoma Sooners’ coach Bud Wilkinson working in the administration. I did not realize that Nixon continued having influence in the sporting world even after resigning, mediating a dispute between MLB and their umpires in 1985, and working with MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn to have baseball temporarily added as an Olympic sport (221).

Sarantakes knows how to put the story in history, and it may be a tired cliché, but Fan in Chief was difficult to put down. Historians of the Nixon presidency would find this an interesting read to provide a more rounded view of the embattled president. This would also be a good read for undergraduates in a sport history course. Particularly interesting for that audience and for the purposes of their professor would be the Bibliographical Essay where Sarantakes discussed the opportunities he took advantage of to use more than documentary sources in writing the book. He also included a series of appendices that include all-time all star teams that Nixon and his son-in-law David Eisenhower created, as well as a brief sketch of what happened with many of the people that were discussed in the text.

While Richard Nixon’s use of, and enjoyment for, sports might not have a great appeal to the casual sport reader, I think if they started the book, they would be hooked. In addition to sport, Sarantakes briefly surveys many of the events that were once critical to the nation, but whose detail has now been obscured by the ending of Nixon’s presidency. That, along with the sports, makes Fan in Chief a compelling read.

 Russ Crawford is Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio.  His area of specialty is sport history, and he is currently writing a history of women playing football.  Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published two books.  Le Football: The History of American Football in France was published by the University of Nebraska Press in August of 2016.  His first book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963, was published by the Edwin Mellen Press in 2008.

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