Thursday, July 23, 2009

Bush and Nixon: The Men Who Would Be Baseball Commissioner

BOULDER, Colorado -- President Barack Obama recently enjoyed the privilege of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the Major League All-Star Game in St. Louis. The tradition is nearly as old as the game itself. The All-Star Game started in 1933, and every president since Franklin Roosevelt, who first pitched at the game in 1937 at Washington's Griffith Stadium, has made the ceremonial delivery.

This is just one of many connections between the presidency and the national pastime. While attending the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory earlier this summer, I watched a documentary chronicling this relationship. Lincoln was lampooned in a political cartoon from 1860 for his love of the game its in infancy; ambidextrous Harry Truman and Gerald Ford each threw Opening Day first pitches with their left and right arms; and Ronald Reagan, when working as a Cubs radio announcer for a station in rural Illinois, would make up colorful descriptions of the action on the field for listeners, as all he had to rely on was a play-by-play ticker tape.

Two men who achieved the highest office in the land also nearly held the highest office in baseball. The dearly departed George W. Bush (well, he's just moved to Dallas) and the irrepressible racist Richard Nixon were both considered for the job of commissioner of Major League Baseball, though both chose instead to run for president.

How different would America - and the game of baseball - be today had both of these men become commissioner? They were arguably the two worst presidents ever to be elected to two terms, yet baseball could have kept them away from the presidency. The ball club owners could have done the nation a favor by keeping these men out of public office. Nixon's presidential ambitions were clear when he declined the offer in 1965, though Bush's were not when he was considered for the job 1992. In Nixon's case, the owners could have been acting much like when a country accepts to host some deposed Third World strongman to prevent them from causing any more trouble, like Saudi Arabia did with Idi Amin, or Boston University continues to do with many former African dictators.

(Above: Nixon making a proposal to add the expansion Saigon Senators to the National League)

Nixon did cause at least one owner a headache when he became president. In 1973, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn fined and suspended newly-minted Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for making illegal contributions to Nixon's re-election campaign, something Big Stein claimed he was forced to do under pressure from Nixon campaign officials.

As commissioner, what challenges would Nixon have faced in 1965? That era saw some big changes in baseball, including expansion into Canada, the playoff system, the players union, free agency, and the growth of night games. As the man who presided over much of this time period, Kuhn was a dynamic yet controversial commissioner, and he was hardly on the cutting edge of all of these changes, especially the new labor relationships that were taking shape between owners and players. Nixon was no friend to unions as president, but during the 1960's he had been considered to head up the nascent Baseball Players Association, and long after he had left the White House, he did successfully arbitrate a dispute between MLB and the umpires in 1986 to avert a strike. With this solid baseball resume, I think it is unlikely that Nixon would have left his office in disgrace aboard a chopper flying out of Dodger Stadium, waving the "V" for Victory.

Unlike Nixon, Bush had few political ambitions, at least that anyone was aware of, in 1992, and even when he assumed the presidency just eight years later, few foresaw that his campaign promises of modest foreign policy, limited federal spending, and education reform would turn into ... well, we all know what happened. Bush also has a baseball resume, but the crises that faced the game during his potential tenure were far more serious. While still the managing partner of the Texas Rangers, Bush was a candidate to replace Faye Vincent. Steroids would become the single most important issue over the next decade, and while he did employ at least one proven juicer (Rafael Palmeiro), it's hard to say whether he would have handled the situation any better or worse (which would be quite hard to do) than Bud Selig. One decision that Bush was surely on the wrong side of was to expand the playoffs to six teams and break the leagues into three divisions, which has been an unabashed success. Every owner voted in favor of the change in 1993, with one exception - the Rangers' George W. Bush.

Bush also understood the power of baseball as a national symbol, something that he mobilized for maximum propaganda effect after the attacks of September 11th, 2001. His theatrics at Yankee Stadium a few days later would make any die-hard nationalist proud. The Yankees, true to form, have continued this ceremony to the present day, forcing everyone to sing "God Bless America" at every seventh-inning stretch. And if you don't feel like singing, then you can get your ass to jail. USA! USA!

It is an interesting bit of counter-factual history, and if I had to choose, I would gladly pick both these men to be my baseball commissioner instead of my president. Bush may still have ambitions to become commissioner, though his rock-bottom popularity make him a risky choice to replace Selig when he retires, supposedly in 2012. I can say this without exception, though; in many cases, both the country and baseball have deserved far better leadership than they have gotten.

Despite his brief term, Bart Giamatti is considered by many to be the last great commissioner. He famously banned Pete Rose for life for betting on baseball, but more importantly, he was able to eloquently express his love and admiration for the game to the public, something that Selig appears utterly incapable of doing. Giamatti also served as president of Yale University, and immediately upon assuming this post in 1978, he issued this memo:
To the Members of the University Community:

In order to restore what Milton called the ruin of our grand parents, I wish to announce that henceforth, as a matter of University policy, evil is abolished and paradise is restored.

I trust all of us will do whatever possible to achieve this policy objective.
That's a platform I can get behind, whether it be from a university president, a baseball commissioner, or the president of the United States.

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