Baseball & Politics

An 1889 editorial in the New York Sun advised "all statesmen of any aspirations for the future to consider that if they have not yet recorded themselves as lovers of our national game or some other sporting interest, they should do so immediately." No one likes a front runner more than politicians, so it's certainly no surprise that many of them heeded the Sun's advice and began expressing an interest in baseball. Indeed, nearly every president from Abraham Lincoln to George W. Bush has embraced the game in some fashion. Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson was an avid follower of the Washington Nationals, one of the nation's top amateur teams during the 1860s. It is said that Johnson often allowed government clerks and staffers to be excused early to attend games. It is not known whether this leniency was a factor in Johnson's impeachment. Richard Nixon, a cheater who did get caught, loved baseball and reportedly was offered the commissioner's job after he lost the 1960 presidential election to Kennedy. While most presidents confined their baseball playing to throwing out the ceremonial first pitch of the season, some-like Woodrow Wilson and George "Spikes" Bush-enjoyed reputations as pretty fair players during their college days. Bush played first base on Yale's Eastern Championship teams in 1947 and 1948 and was, like the notorious Hal Chase, one of those rare players who threw left-handed and batted right-handed.

Politicians of lesser prominence have also been unabashed fans of the game or have been drawn into the game in a more official capacity. Albert B. "Happy" Chandler, the junior senator from Kentucky and a friend to Richard B. Russell, was appointed Commissioner of Baseball following the death of Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1944. Although considered by some to be nothing more than a mouthpiece for team owners, Chandler nonetheless okayed and presided over the breaking of baseball's color line in 1947 and allowed the players to establish a pension plan, much to the dismay of owners. A bit farther south of Kentucky, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro starred as a schoolboy athlete in the mid-1940s before going to bat for revolution. Castro's love of baseball is legendary, but his actual pitching talent is the subject of much speculation. After he came to power, Fidel would pitch an occasional exhibition game for the "Barbudos" before regularly scheduled games of the Havana Sugar Kings. In these games his "fat pitches" would be clobbered unmercifully, but he would never be yanked (yes, an intentional pun)-after all, what manager would dare send Fidel to the showers?

The high name recognition and competitive nature of ballplayers has helped some former players begin a career in politics after their retirement. Among contemporary player/politicians, Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning has enjoyed the greatest success, first as a member of the Kentucky legislature and later as a member of the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate. Former big league star Bill "Spaceman" Lee ran a tongue-in-cheek presidential campaign as the Rhinoceros Party candidate in 1988; his slogan, "no guns, no butter."

Several prominent dead-ball era players had careers as elected or appointed officials, or ran for public office, during and after their playing days. Genial Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson ran for congress in his home state of Maryland in 1940, but lost to the incumbent. Perhaps character endorsements from the likes of Ty Cobb hurt "The Big Train" more than they helped. Harry Davis, star of the Philadelphia Athletics club (1895-1917), was a Philadelphia city councilman during his career. "Cactus" Gavvy Cravath, the leading home run hitter of the dead-ball era, became a justice of the peace in Laguna, California after his career ended, only to lose his job for being too easygoing.

Upholding the law and meting out justice and punishment on the baseball diamond are the jobs of the umpire. Umpires, like politicians, are viewed by many as a necessary evil. In spite of this perception, dead-ball era stars "Wahoo" Sam Crawford, Big Ed Walsh and Bill Dineen all worked as umpires at the conclusion of their playing careers.

"In baseball, when they say you're out, you're out. It's the same way in politics." (Gerald Ford)