Richard Nixon meeting with the 1989 Phillies Coaching Staff at Veteran’s Stadium.
In a 1990 interview on the Today Show, Bryant Gumbel asked President Nixon, “If you hadn’t have gone into politics what would you have done?” President Nixon responded, with a smile:
“Oh, I would have gone into your business. You have the best job of all when I think of the opportunity you had to cover the Olympics. You know I am sort of a sports buff. The opportunity to cover sports, generally. To be a commentator like this… particularly in the sports field… that’s really great. Of course, politics is simply an extension of sports. So, you’re covering the greatest sports of the world.”
When it came to baseball and politics, there is little doubt that President Richard Nixon held and continues to hold the title of number one fan-in-chief. Hall of Fame sports writer Dick Young acknowledged, “This isn’t a guy that shows up at season openers to take bows and get his picture in the paper and has to have his Secretary of State tell him where first base is. This man knows baseball.”
With the opening of the new Presidents and Baseball special exhibit at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, visitors can experience the Presidents’ love of the game for themselves.
While arbitrating the 1985 Umpire labor dispute, President Nixon recorded his thoughts on the first major league game he attended. On a hot July fourth in 1936, the young Duke law student travelled to Washington D.C. and caught a Senators-Yankees doubleheader at Griffiths stadium. Not only did he get his first taste of the big leagues but he watched rookie Joe Dimaggio homer and legend Lou Gerhig double home a run.
I saw my first Major League Baseball game about 50 years ago when I sat in the sundrenched bleachers at Griffith Stadium on July 4, 1936 and saw the New York Yankees clobber the Washington Senators in a doubleheader. Since then I have seen scores of games at the ballpark and on television. Sometimes I have agreed with the umpires and other times I have disagreed with them. But I have never questioned their integrity. As former baseball commissioner Happy Chandler observed in a recent letter to me, in the proud 115 year history of baseball_________.
His love of the game continued unabated during his Vice Presidential Years.
As an advocate for civil rights in the 1950s, Vice President Nixon became one of Jackie Robinson’s most venerable admirers. During the 1960 campaign, Robinson supported and campaigned for the Nixon-Lodge ticket on grounds that Vice President Nixon had a stronger record on civil rights than Senator John F. Kennedy.
Before the 1962 California gubernatorial election, Robinson reaffirmed his support for the Vice President, writing, “I say this because of my sincere belief that you would have lived up to all things I believed about you, and I am firmly convinced that the best thing that can happen to us as American negroes is a big negro vote for you in California and for Governor Rockefeller in New York.” The letter is on display as part of the Presidents’ and Baseball exhibit at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum:
After his narrow defeat in the 1960 Presidential election, the former Vice President carried his love of baseball with him into the 1960s. In an interview with Jonathan Aitken, gubernatorial campaign manager and future Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman recalled, “Nixon has a conceptual memory rather than a photographic memory. On the other hand, his grasp of baseball statistics is amazing. At Candle Stick Park in 1962, there was a major game and Nixon went down into the players’ room. He knew all the players, their batting records, their averages. It was amazing.”
Vice President Nixon with Willie Mays at the San Francisco Giants home opener in 1960.
In 1965, while the former Vice President worked as an attorney, Major League Baseball sent prominent players such as Robin Roberts, Jim Bunning, Bob Friend, and Rocky Colavito to convince Nixon to become the next commissioner. After Nixon turned down the offer, owners sent John Fetzer and John Galbreath to his law office to persuade him to reconsider. Nixon refused, stating he had “other things on his mind.”
After assuming office in 1969, the President attended eleven games and became the first President to throw out an opening pitch on the West coast at a California Angels game. During baseball’s centennial in 1969, National league President Warren Giles awarded the President a lifetime pass to games and Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn honored the President with a trophy reading “World’s Greatest Fan.” He frequently met with the game’s best players, including longtime friend Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, and Bob Feller. In fact, after Yastrzemski was named Most Valuable Player in the 1970 All-Star game, he presented the award to President Nixon.
At a June 22, 1972 press conference, reporter Cliff Evans asked the President, “”Mr. President, as the nation’s number-one baseball fan, would you be willing to name your all-time baseball team?” The President responded with a resounding yes and dutifully put together his team at Camp David. Instead of compiling a list of American League and National League greats, he created NL and AL rosters for the prewar and postwar period.
President Nixon’s explanation of his all-time baseball list is captured on the White House tapes:
During his post-Presidential years, President Nixon customarily attended California Angels, New York Mets, and New York Yankee games. In June of 1978, Nixon helped call an Angels game on the radio:
Famously, he attended the Angels 1979 division clinching victory over the Royals and joined the Angels’ clubhouse celebration. A photographer captured Angel second baseman Bobby Grich drenching the former President with beer.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, President Nixon could often be found at Yankee stadium watching games from George Steinbrenner’s box. On July 4, 1983 the President watched Yankee southpaw Dave Righetti toss a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox. The next morning, he wrote an enthusiastic letter congratulating the victorious left hander:
In 1981—at the behest of Seattle Mariners owner and former Ambassador George Argyros, the President visited Seattle to catch a Mariners’ game at the Kingdome. After the game, he visited with and coached several of the players including Dave Henderson, Dan Meyer, Dan Paciorek, and Richie Zisk. To Zisk, he praised Seattle as one of the most beautiful cities in the world and commented on the Emerald City’s weather, saying the “rain makes the flowers grow.”
On hitting at Yankee stadium, the President advised Paciorek, a right hander, to take the ball to the opposite field and aim for the short porch in right field. Left field is “death valley,” he declared.
The President frequented Mets’ games at Shea Stadium as well. While Mets’ slugger Darryl Stawberry struggled through a slump, President Nixon wrote him an encouraging letter:
Strawberry appreciated the gesture, telling a reporter, “I think it is neat he would take the time to do this:”
After a New York Mets game in 1987, the former President appeared on the post-game show:
Off the field, President Nixon arbitrated the Major League Umpire Association’s labor dispute with Major League Baseball and earned a 40 percent pay increase for umpire’s working the American and National League Championship Series. Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler welcomed the President’s appointment, writing “This is a great honor which has been bestowed upon you, and a tribute to your integrity.”
The November 4, 1985 edition of People Magazine covered the negotiations and reported, “According to eyewitnesses at the arbitration, Nixon presided over the meeting between the umpire’s lawyers and representatives from both leagues in his Manhattan office with aplomb and dignity, sipping soda from a glass with the presidential seal and listening to the arguments pro and con. At the end of the three hour session, he said he’d render a decision later.”
Below are President Nixon’s handwritten notes on the arbitration dispute, complete with coffee stain:
President Nixon’s memorandum to the American League, the National League, and the Major League Umpire Association:
The Los Angeles’ Times coverage of the arbitration:
The artifacts documenting Richard Nixon’s love of the game and other baseball treasures will be on display at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum through October 5, 2014.
Brian Robertson holds a Ph.D. in Diplomatic History and specializes in the Nixon Presidency.