Those who know about the respective presidencies–and lives–of Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt know that the fifth cousins were hardly similar politically. Mirroring that chasm, the Republican Teddy and Democrat FDR did not share the same opinion on baseball, a sport the 26th president, born in Manhattan, despised, and the 32nd, who hailed from Dutchess County’s Hyde Park, likely saved.
Baseball historian and former Presidential Speechwriter Curt Smith details the connections to the sport of U.S. Presidents all the way back to Washington in his book The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball & The White House (University of Nebraska Press, 472 pps, $29.99). And the contrast between the two New Yorkers place them near the opposite ends of positive interaction with the game.
The hearty TR much preferred football, whose violence and those of “…tennis (!), lacrosse, boxing [and] polo,” per his daughter Alice. Though his statements often belied his loathing of the sport, Theodore, Smith argues “…merely wanted it to go away,” despite the game desperately wanting the President’s attention.
FDR, on the other hand, while not the most fervent fan (Taft, Nixon, Reagan and numerous others can lay claim to the honor), came to the sport’s rescue with what was termed the “Green Light Letter” early in 1942. Written to Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, in the midst of the nation’s biggest crisis of the century, mere weeks after the Pearl Harbor invasion, paved the way to keeping the game going during the second World War. A three- or four-year hiatus could have been a death knell for the game; FDR’s green light kept it aloft on the premise of providing needed diversion for hard-working Americans in time of war. It almost put the President in the Baseball Hall of Fame, an early push for his induction led by Sporting News publisher J.G. Taylor Spink petering out in an interesting story Smith chronicles.
The legacies of the two Roosevelts, as with nearly all of the presidents since the game’s popularity in New York and elsewhere began to swell in the mid-19th century, are often complex. For every Ronald Reagan, who played the famous pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander (named for a President!) in a biopic film, broadcasted Cubs game recreations on Des Moines, Iowa, radio and was unfettered in his praise and love of the sport, there is the relative indifference of Truman and the mixed legacy of LBJ.
After summarizing the first 100-plus years of the U.S. presidencies, Smith’s detailed chapters begin in earnest with TR pretending to wish the game well while privately wishing it away, as Alice noted. Smith’s recounting of the story of Roosevelt receiving a lifetime pass in a White House ceremony is particularly telling. And while, as Smith notes, baseball was far from FDR’s favorite sport, he knew the hold it had on the country and helped the sport when it needed it most.