The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House draws on Curt Smith’s unique background as a former White House presidential speechwriter and as what USA Today calls “the voice of authority on baseball broadcasting” to chronicle—as no one has previously—the historic relationship between baseball and the U. S. presidency (University of Nebraska Press, 2018, 466 pages, $29.95).
The author begins in the Revolutionary War, each side playing a form of baseball, then charts how it became America’s pastime in the nineteenth century, such presidents as Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson playing “town ball” or giving employees time off to watch. Next, Smith tracks every U.S. president from Theodore Roosevelt, who disliked baseball but kept mute due to its appeal, to Donald Trump, a big-league prospect who declined to sign a professional contract, spurning “baseball money” for “real [business] money.”
Each chapter depicts a president’s relationship to the pastime. Among others, William Howard Taft coined the presidential rite of throwing the Opening Day “first pitch” in 1910. For successor Woodrow Wilson, baseball supplied a refuge from strokes that ultimately took his life. Warren Harding drank bourbon with Babe Ruth while backing Prohibition. A heroic Franklin D. Roosevelt, who adorns the book’s cover, saved baseball in World War II. The Presidents and the Pastime urges the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum to posthumously induct him. Ambidextrous Harry Truman threw the first ball left-, right-, and both-handed; wife Bess, “the real fan,” said Harry, hearing baseball by radio on the Truman Balcony.
Dwight Eisenhower sent a poignant letter to pitcher Don Newcombe after Yogi Berra thrashed him in the 1956 World Series. Ike left office in 1961, at 70. In 1960 John F. Kennedy, 42, met Stan Musial, 39. “They tell me you’re too old to play baseball and I’m too young to be president, but maybe we’ll fool ’em,” said JFK. Richard Nixon inhaled baseball as would a lifelong Walter Mitty, in 1965 offered the posts of both baseball commissioner and director, players union. Jimmy Carter lovingly learned the game from his mother and baseball savant, “Miss Lillian,” who with her husband drove each year to a different city to see up to a 10-day big-league homestand. Ronald Reagan aired baseball on radio that he never saw—by “re-creation”—later playing Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander on film.
George H. W. Bush idolized Lou Gehrig, befriended Ted Williams, and played, coached, and lifelong watched the game. Bill Clinton grew up in Arkansas listening to Cardinals voice Harry Caray; George W. Bush’s sweet spot came the night he threw a perfect strike in the World Series at Yankee Stadium in the wake of 9/11; Barack Obama took the mound at the Nationals’ D.C. park to throw out the first ball, revealing in his glove a hometown White Sox cap he put on to show how all politics is local. Before becoming president, Donald Trump often performed the first-pitch rite. He has not done so on Opening Day in office.
George H. W. Bush, for whom Smith wrote, explains, “Baseball has everything.” It was a thought, he added, that came to him not long after he first picked up a bat. Throughout, The Presidents and the Pastime provides a riveting narrative of how America’s leaders have felt toward baseball—and what baseball must do today to thrive in the larger culture. From Taft as the first president to throw the “first pitch” on Opening Day to Obama’s “Go [White] Sox!” scrawled in the guest register at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 2014, our presidents have deemed it the quintessentially American sport, enriching both their office and the nation.