“The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House,” by Curt Smith, University of Nebraska Press, 2018, 504 pages, $29.95
There is nothing so All-American as baseball, except maybe U.S. Presidents. Or maybe it is the other way around.
With “The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House,” by Curt Smith, it does not matter. He combines the two to examine how baseball and the presidency have interacted through the life of the republic.
It seems all presidents had some relationship with the game. Washington played a version of stickball. His troops played “rounders” at Valley Forge, and the general played catch with an aide. Smith takes a brief look at baseball’s development into today’s modern game, but his book really takes off with the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, who was in office when the major leagues took their familiar shape. From Roosevelt on, Smith spends a chapter on each president’s relationship with the game, from Taft to Trump.
Some presidents, including Taft, Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt were enthusiasts. No president was a bigger baseball fan than Nixon. He was asked to head the players’ union and to serve as baseball commissioner before becoming president. Some presidents, both Bushes, and Trump, played the game in college. Trump was scouted by the Red Sox.
Teddy Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were indifferent or hostile to the game but affected warmth for baseball for political reasons. Roosevelt considered it a mollycoddle game. The only game that interested Johnson was politics. A few, notably Jimmy Carter, preferred softball to baseball.
Smith traces the rise and decline of professional baseball as America’s pastime and its rivalry with professional football. Baseball was at its apogee in the middle of the 20th century, the 1950s, when Truman and Eisenhower were president. Since the 1960s it has been supplanted by pro football. Smith, an unabashed baseball partisan, yearns for the days when “the NFL rivaled pro wrestling — except that wrestling had a niche.”
“The Presidents and the Pastime” is a sunny book and a perfect summer read. While acknowledging faults, Smith focuses on the good in baseball, and the presidents covered regardless of party. In today’s hyper-partisan environment, it is a refreshing break.