One hundred years ago in Tampico, Illinois, Ronald Wilson Reagan began an improbable road to the presidency that culminated in one of the most successful political careers in American history. Admittedly, I have a profound admiration for the Gipper, but The Captain’s Blog likes to steer clear of politics, so this centennial tribute will focus on Reagan’s strong link to the great American past time of baseball.
Although Reagan’s pre-political background as a movie actor is widely known, not many people realize that his first entertainment career was in radio, most notably as the reenactment voice of the Chicago Cubs on Iowa’s WHO during the early-to-mid 1930s. In this role, Dutch Reagan, as he was known to listeners, would receive game updates via telegraph and then, accompanied by sound effects, bring the action to life with a vivid description of the details. In one famous instance, the telegraph feed went down in the ninth inning of a tight ballgame, forcing Reagan to improvise on the spot. With no updates forthcoming, Reagan anxiously described the action as Augie Galan battled Dizzy Dean in an epic batter/pitcher confrontation. Foul ball after foul ball was broadcast to the audience until the telegraph messages finally resumed. Even at an early age, the comfort and ease with which Reagan worked a microphone was evident.
Curly started typing. I clutched at the slip. It said: ‘Galan popped out on the first pitch’. Not in my game he didn’t. He popped out after practically making a career of foul balls”. – Ronald Reagan, excerpted from his 1965 autobiography “Where’s the Rest of Me?”
Reagan left radio behind for the bright lights of Hollywood, but his baseball reenactment days were far from over. In 1952, Reagan starred alongside Doris Day in “The Winning Team”, a movie about pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, who balanced a Hall of Famer career and alcoholism. Although not as famous as his portrayal of George Gipp in the classic “Knute Rockne All American”, a role that included the “win one for the Gipper” line that would give the future President one of his more endearing nicknames, Reagan’s performance as Alexander was well received.
Unfortunately for Reagan, his love of the game was not matched by his ability to play it. In his trademark self deprecating manner, he once admitted that a fear of the ball prevented him from hitting and ensured that he was always the last boy chosen in every game. In this one regard, Reagan likely wasn’t being modest. In 1938, he injured his Achilles tendon during a celebrity baseball game, and then, in 1949, upped the ante at a charity event by breaking his leg in a collision at first base with fellow actor George Tobias. In addition to a damaged ego, the latter injury not only cost the actor a $100,000 salary for an upcoming film, but also forced him to use crutches or a cane for almost an entire year. After the accident, Reagan didn’t play much baseball.
Just for the record though – I wasn’t sliding into first. I was beating out a bunt and the first baseman blocked me off the bag. Well everything is an experience – now I am qualified to play an invalid if ever the script calls for such.” – Ronald Reagan, excerpted from a letter to Eureka College alumni president Tressie Masocco, dated September 22, 1949; from Kiron K. Skinner’s “Reagan: A Life In Letters”
As President of the United States, Reagan used the bully pulpit to advance his fondness for baseball. Just months into his first term, he hosted 32 members of the Hall of Fame at a White House luncheon on March 28, 1981. Immortals like Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, Bob Feller, Bob Gibson and Bill Dickey spent the afternoon talking baseball with the 40th President, and according to most accounts, it was Reagan who was most in awe.
When Reagan, 70, greeted former Chicago White Sox shortstop Luke Appling who is 74, he said ‘I knew I’d find someone my age here.” – Milton Richman, UPI sports editor, March 28, 1981
During his presidency, Reagan performed the typical ceremonial duties that had become expected of a commander-in-chief, including throwing out ceremonial first pitches and greeting World Series winners at the White House. Additionally, Reagan also kept tabs on milestones, and often would follow up a particular accomplishment with a presidential phone call. In one such instance, Reagan called Pete Rose after he set the National League record for most hits on August 10, 1981. Unfortunately, breaking the record was easier than getting the President on the line. “I waited 19 years for this,” Rose stated amid several classic one liners that left the assembled media in stitches, “I guess I can wait a few more minutes.”
Four years later, when Rose broke Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record, an on-field phone call from Reagan went much more smoothly, although the irony of the words wouldn’t be understood until several years later. “Your reputation and legacy are secure,” Reagan told Rose. Unfortunately, the future wouldn’t be as kind to Rose as it would be for the President.
Perhaps of most significance to Yankees fans, one of Reagan’s final acts as President was to pardon George M. Steinbrenner III, who had been convicted in 1974 of making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon. With one stroke of his pen, Reagan not only wiped out the Boss’ criminal record, but also made amends for the Yankees’ relative futility during his administration.
Before fading from the political scene and succumbing to the tragic debilitation of Alzheimer’s disease, Reagan had the opportunity to reprise his role as a baseball announcer on two more occasions. On September 30, 1988, he filled in for Harry Caray during almost two innings of a Cubs’ games against the Pirates. During the broadcast, Reagan quipped, “”You know in a few months I’m going to be out of work and I thought I might as well audition.” Then, after leaving office, the Great Communicator slipped behind the microphone for an inning of action during the 1989 All Star Game in Anaheim. During his time in the booth with Vin Scully, Reagan witnessed back-to-back homeruns by Bo Jackson and Wade Boggs. Over 50 years later, Reagan had come a long way from Augie Galan’s one pitch pop up against Dizzy Dean.