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Playing Hardball: Presidents, Baseball and the Hudson Valley

Stories of the Presidential love affair with baseball and our local community
Hyde Park's Franklin Delano Roosevelt played a key role in keeping baseball going during World War II.
November 3, 2022

For better or worse, politics and sports – especially baseball – have always been intertwined, with many of our elected officials having close ties to our national pastime. Many know that George W. Bush was the owner of the Texas Rangers and desired to be the Commissioner of Baseball before

For better or worse, politics and sports – especially baseball – have always been intertwined, with many of our elected officials having close ties to our national pastime. Many know that George W. Bush was the owner of the Texas Rangers and desired to be the Commissioner of Baseball before becoming Governor of Texas, and his father, George H.W. Bush played baseball at Yale in his college days.

Some may have even heard the story of Abraham Lincoln being told of his nomination while he was playing baseball. MLB official historian John Thorn cites Albert Spalding in his book, America’s National Game as telling the following story:

It is recorded that in the year 1860, when the Committee of the Chicago Convention which nominated Abraham Lincoln for the Presidency, visited his home at Springfield, Illinois, to notify him formally of the event, the messenger sent to apprise him of the coming of the visitors found the great leader out on the commons, engaged in a game of Base Ball. Information of the arrival of the party was imparted to Mr. Lincoln on the ball field.

“Tell the gentlemen,” he said, “that I am glad to know of their coming; but they’ll have to wait a few minutes ‘till I make another base hit.”

The story may or may not be true, but it is fun to think about nonetheless.

But even beyond those better-known stories, there are some others including our nation’s leaders and baseball (or variations on it), including ones with direct ties to the Hudson Valley.

George Washington

Believe it or not, the first President of the United States was documented on several occasions playing ball, first at Valley Forge in 1778. Soldiers wrote that Washington would sometimes play a game called Wicket, a precursor to baseball that was very popular in parts of New England in the 18th century, with them. A year later, while he Washington was at the Fishkill Supply Depot (located near the Van Wyck Homestead near the present-day intersection of I-84 and US-9), it was observed that he “sometimes throws and catches a ball for whole hours with his aides-de-camp.”

These examples show why Washington was such an effective leader first of the Continental Army and then of the young United States. He showed rank-and-file soldiers that he cared about them and was willing to socialize with them, rare for a commanding officer in those days. In turn, they responded in a way that truly changed the world.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Hyde Park native Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a big fan of the game of baseball growing up, though he allegedly never played the game well. While attending the Groton School in Connecticut, FDR served as the secretary of the baseball team. According to Gerald Blazer and Steven Culbertson in the Spring 2002 edition of Prologue Magazine, Roosevelt was nearly fired from his job as an attorney in New York City because he would play hooky to go to the Polo Grounds to watch the New York Giants play.

As his political career got underway, FDR threw out the first pitch of the 1917 season in Washington, filling in for Woodrow Wilson, for whom he served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. When he was President, FDR made a record eight opening day appearances, even as his health worsened throughout his time in office.

However, Roosevelt’s most-important contribution to the sport came in the form of a 1942 letter to baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. During World War I, the 1918 MLB season was cut short and ended on September 2, and Landis asked for Roosevelt’s advice on how to proceed given the United States’ new involvement in World War II.

In January 1942, Landis wrote: “The time is approaching when, in ordinary conditions, our teams would be heading for spring training camps. However, inasmuch as these are not ordinary times, I venture to ask what you have in mind as to whether professional baseball should continue to operate.”

Roosevelt wasted no time in responding, writing the next day, “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half, and which can be got for very little cost. And, incidentally, I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally.”

FDR understood that keeping baseball going would a positive force for morale on the home front, and that the relaxation that it could provide would be key to victory in Europe and Japan.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Though born and raised in Kansas, and eventually settled near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Dwight Eisenhower was a celebrated student-athlete at West Point. Ike did not play baseball at West Point, but was a star halfback on the football team. The New York Times said he was “one of the most promising backs in Eastern football.” However, he suffered a major knee injury during his sophomore season in 1912 that ended his career.

What does that have anything to do with baseball? Well, Eisenhower probably shouldn’t have been allowed to play football at West Point, by his own admission. While he was President, he admitted that he had played professional baseball under an assumed name with Abilene in the Kansas State League as a young man. Researchers have never been able to find him (he claimed to have gone by the name “Wilson”), though that doesn’t necessarily mean he didn’t play. Eisenhower also talked about wanting to grow up to be a Major League baseball layer when he grew up, “like [Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Famer] Honus Wagner.”

Donald Trump

While he was a young man attending New York Military Academy in Cornwall, Trump was a member of the baseball team and a co-captain during his senior year. While he wasn’t exactly the best player on the team as he as sometimes claimed, his teammates remember him as being a “darn good first baseman” and having a “very sweet swing. Almost a Ted Williams-like swing.” He was a below-average hitter, but had some power and was very good in the field.

Generally well-liked by his teammates, as a senior Trump won the Coach’s Award, which was given to an exemplary team player. In his days before entering the White House, Trump was a common sight at ballgames – throwing out first pitches and even playing in celebrity games.

There are far more stories of our Presidents and their on-going love affair with the game of baseball, but these are just a few that touch on our local community. The two blogs cited below from Thorn elaborate on a few more, and are fun, light reads.

With Election Day right around the corner on Tuesday, November 8, the Hudson Valley Renegades encourage all of their fans to head to the polls and participate in our key state and local races. For more information, visit the New York State Board of Elections website at elections.ny.gov.

Sources:

Cox, Matt. “Keep Baseball Going.” Baseball Hall of Fame. Accessed November 2, 2022. https://baseballhall.org/discover-more/stories/short-stops/keep-baseball-going#:~:text=In%20what%20has%20become%20known,would%20be%20essential%20to%20victory.

“The Depot.” Friends of the Fishkill Supply Depot. Accessed November 2, 2022. https://www.fishkillsupplydepot.org/depot.html.

Schaerlaekens, Leander. “Was Donald Trump Good at Baseball?” Slate, May 5, 2020. https://slate.com/culture/2020/05/donald-trump-baseball-high-school-nyma.html.

Thorn, John. “Our Baseball Presidents.” Our Game, February 26, 2014. https://ourgame.mlblogs.com/our-baseball-presidents-ec1617be6413.

Thorn, John. “Our Baseball Presidents, Part 2.” Our Game, February 28, 2014. https://ourgame.mlblogs.com/our-baseball-presidents-part-2-310f39787275#.788k5btbz.