George Herbert Walker Bush was a baseball guy.
He had a photo taken with Babe Ruth. He played college ball against Vin Scully and twice played in the College World Series. He got Ted Williams to campaign for him in New Hampshire in 1988. He invited Ted and Joe DiMaggio to the Rose Garden for lunch in 1991 — the 50th anniversary of Ted’s .406 season and Joe’s 56-game hitting streak. Bush presented Ted with the Presidential Medal of Freedom that same year.
Bush entertained fellow Texan Roger Clemens at the White House in the summer of 1986 and invited a pack of sportswriters to the Roosevelt Room to talk about baseball before the start of the 1989 playoffs.
This week, as our nation pays tribute to and celebrates the life of the 41st president, we remember George Bush the baseball guy. US Commanders-in-Chief have been throwing out ceremonial first pitches since William Howard Taft chucked one from the box seats in 1910, but it’s safe to say that George Herbert Walker Bush was the best ballplayer and the politician most connected to baseball during his time in the Oval Office.
Bush was already a war hero and a parent when he played baseball at Yale in 1947 and ’48. He threw left and batted right, Rickey Henderson-style. The late Joe Rossomando, Bush’s assistant coach at Yale, told Joe Castiglione that the light-hitting Bush had “a major league glove.’’
On April 12, 1947, Bush went 0 for 3 in a 3-1 Yale victory at Fordham. We don’t know if the future president flied out to center field in that game, but if he did, the ball would have been caught by Fordham center fielder Vin Scully, who also went 0 for 3 and was lifted for a pinch hitter in the late innings.
A year later, Bush was chosen for the ceremonial photograph when the Great Bambino came to New Haven to donate his papers to the Yale library.
“I was captain of the ball club, so I got to receive him there,’’ Bush told me in 1989. “He was dying [Ruth died four months later]. He was hoarse and could hardly talk. He kind of croaked when they set up the mike by the pitcher’s mound.
“It was tragic. He was hollow. His whole great shape was gaunt and hollowed out. I remember he complimented the Yale ball field. It was like a putting green, it was so beautiful.’’
Bush did not know Ted Williams when he first ran for president in 1988. He grew up a Teddy Ballgame fan, and according to Ben Bradlee Jr.’s “The Kid,” Bush narrowly missed crossing paths with the slugger in preflight school in Cherry Point, N.C., during World War II.
After Bush lost the Iowa caucuses in 1988, two of his New Hampshire operatives (Governor John Sununu and Sam Tamposi) reached out to Williams for help in the state’s crucial primary. Williams was a Republican (it dismayed the Kennedys when Ted declared, “I’m a Nixon guy,” during the 1960 presidential election) and, like Bush, a pilot. Both men also loved to fish. Williams agreed and traveled to New Hampshire, stumping for Bush in Wolfeboro, Laconia, and Hanover, always introducing the candidate as “the next president of the United States.”
Three months after he was inaugurated, Bush invited Ted to join him and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak at Memorial Stadium for the Orioles home opener against Clemens and the Red Sox. Despite the efforts of Boston manager Joe Morgan, who used a five-man infield in extra innings, the Orioles beat the Sox, 5-4.
In July 1991, Bush invited Ted and DiMaggio to lunch in the Rose Garden, then flew them to Toronto on Air Force One to watch the All-Star Game at SkyDome. Later that year, Bush awarded Williams the Medal of Freedom, housing Ted and his companion, Louise Kaufman, in the Lincoln bedroom. When Kaufman died in 1993, Bush sent a letter of condolence to Williams. In 1995, Bush traveled to Hernando, Fla., for Ted’s spring event at the Hitters Hall of Fame.
Bush loved to talk baseball. He told us that he read every word of David Halberstam’s “Summer of ’49.’’ He told us he once went 3 for 5 against North Carolina State — a single, double, and triple. He said his uncle, George Herbert Walker, had sponsored a team in Maine that was coached by Red Sox great Smoky Joe Wood. Bush’s brother, Bucky, went to school with Fay Vincent, who would later become baseball commissioner.
“If it were a choice between the finals at Flushing Meadow or a World Series game or some golf tournament or a Super Bowl, I would take a World Series game,’’ he said. “I understand the game, and I like it. I just love sitting there, thinking: ‘What would you do next? Would you walk this guy or tell someone to steal?’ ’’
In 2005, the former president met Red Sox great and Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr.
“Doerr came to see him at his home in Kennebunkport,’’ recalled Bush family friend Tim Samway. “And the president was like a little kid meeting his hero. He was reciting all of Doerr’s statistics from the late 1930s. Doerr had been the president’s favorite player when Bush was in high school.
“The president went running outside, literally running, calling to his wife, ‘Barbara. You’ve got to come meet Bobby Doerr!’ ’’
Bush was 81, Doerr 87.
A couple of little kids.
A couple of baseball guys.