The Baseball Presidency: The Making of George W. Bush

This story was originally published in Inside Houston magazine in 2001.

George W. Bush may have symbolized the perennial Baseball Presidency.

George W. Bush’s life and White House years may have best symbolized the perennial Baseball Presidency that has long existed in America.

GEORGE W. BUSH REMEMBERS THE most memorable experience of his freshman year at Yale being the April day in 1965 that he left the campus and boarded a flight for Houston. When his mother Barbara picked him up at Hobby Airport, she could barely contain her own excitement. She was treating her son to the first game to be played at the Astrodome, the world’s first domed stadium billed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” by the Astros’ original owner, Judge Roy Hofheinz.

“I’ve got the best seats in the house for us,” she told her son. Fittingly, some would say for the Bushes, a family with its roots in Connecticut, the Astros were playing the Yankees. The New York Yankees were the most storied team in baseball, and their aging superstar Mickey Mantle was one of George’s favorite players.

“Great, mom,” said Bush, who was then eighteen. “I can’t wait.”

“They’re called skyboxes.”

Today, Bush shakes his head when he recalls that day and arriving at one of the Astrodome’s 53 luxurious skybox suites. “We got up in the skybox,” he says. “It was the very top of the Astrodome. The players looked like ants. I said, ‘Mom, these may be wonderful seats, but where are the players?’”

It may be that the source of some of President George W. Bush’s greatest political strengths ­ — the unpretentiousness and mellow good nature that warm up voters and are serving him well in Washington –­ goes back to his childhood and to his unquenched and impassioned love of baseball, a game never so rhapsodized in the nation’s capital as it has been since Bush became the country’s 43rd president.

President George W. Bush throws out the first pitch at a Washington Nationals game.

President George W. Bush throws out the first pitch at a Washington Nationals game.

“Baseball,” Bush said in an interview during the 2000 presidential campaign, “has been a part of my life since before I can remember. It is a pursuit for optimists. To come to the park every day, you have to believe you can win.”

Perhaps it is the optimism built on baseball that, in part, explains how Bush became president, surprising critics who said he wasn’t smart enough, defeating a Democratic candidate who had been bred for the presidency, confounding journalists who almost universally opposed him in the sanctity of their own private voting booths. How else is this second Bush presidency to be explained? Had it been not a case of enough Clinton helping Democrat Al Gore’s presidential campaign or of too much Clinton personal hijinks in the public consciousness? How had Bush done what few thought he could do? And if this marks the end of what the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once called the “imperial presidency,” as Washington pundits are saying, what will the Bush years be called?

Call it perhaps the Baseball Presidency. What Bush himself might say is that it just goes to show how far the America of soccer moms and hip-hop sports culture mentality has strayed from its traditional national pastime. The America that Bush grew up in ­ and the America that brought major league baseball to Houston and built the Astrodome ­ remains an America with an undying game that has been slowly reclaiming its place as a cultural expression of the national character. As cultural historian Jacques Barzun once observed about the country and baseball: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

Perhaps part of understanding Bush is understanding baseball — that the game has the image of stability and conservatism, that it is individualistic but still emphasizes teamwork, that it is anti-intellectual but cannot be won through sheer brute force or strength or emotion but through cleverness, thought, guile, and technical mastery of small details. “Baseball is, to be sure,” as American Studies expert Gerald Early has put it, “an American cultural Declaration of Independence… There is something about baseball’s checks and balances that mirrors those checks and balances of the Constitution.”

And baseball, in the famous words of Saturday Night Live’s mythical baseball great Chico Escuela, has been vetty, vetty good to George W. Bush. It has been, other than his family, the most important aspect of his life. Baseball made him a success after a series of business failures. Baseball made him rich, and baseball launched his political career. Baseball was his vehicle both for embracing a family tradition and for leaving his father’s shadow. Baseball also gave Bush a powerful, if intangible, asset: It made him what he always claimed to be: a “regular guy,” not a president’s son from Andover, Yale and Harvard, but a guy who spit sunflower shells in his box seat while hobnobbing with the on-deck batter.

Indeed, if ever a new American president itched impatiently for baseball’s traditional opening day with its red, white and blue stadium bunting and the innocent expectation of the long season ahead, the day when, as chief executive, he might stroll out to the mound at the heart of a lush, manicured diamond and from there throw out the first pitch of the season — that president is George W. Bush, who when he was the owner and managing partner of the Texas Rangers attended nearly every home game in the old Arlington Stadium, sitting in his front row seat in Section 109, Row 1, behind the Rangers’ dugout, with his cowboy boots perched on the railing, passing out autographed baseball cards of himself to fans.

“I want the folks to see me,” Bush said of his non-skybox persona, “sitting in the same kind of seat they sit in, eating the same popcorn, peeing in the same urinal.”

When he attended the opening day game at the Astrodome’s successor — the new retractable-roof stadium Enron Field

George W. Bush's autographed baseball collection, which once adorned the Oval Office, is now housed at the Bush Presidential Library.

George W. Bush’s collection of baseballs autographed by some of the game’s all-time greats, which once adorned the Oval Office in the White House, is now on display at the Bush Presidential Library.

with a full-size, detailed vintage locomotive that runs on 800 feet of railroad track beyond the left field wall ­ Bush had moved up from the skybox set. Last April 7, two days shy of 35 years since attending the opening of the Astrodome, Bush and his father, former President George Bush, were guests of Enron chairman and chief executive officer Kenneth Lay. It was a union made of money, politics and baseball. Enron, the largest supplier of electricity and natural gas in the United States, was the single largest contributor — more than $555,000 through its employees — to Bush’s political dream. Lay had personally given over $100,000 to Bush’s political campaigns, more than any other individual. He was also one of the “Pioneers” — a Bush supporter who had collected at least $100,000 in direct contributions of $1,000 or less.

Critics have long claimed that Lay and Enron have had Bush and his father in their hip-pocket, pointing to favorable treatment the company has received in deregulation legislation in Texas while Bush was governor and in what may be ahead for Enron’s interests in world markets. For baseball purists, more interesting than the charges of political favoritism may be the metaphor Bush used in dismissing the allegations on the day of the Astros’ 2000 season home opener. “The governor,” said Bush spokesman Scott McClellan, “is an avid baseball fan who has attended games his entire life. And we’re not going to swing at a political wild pitch that’s low and in the dirt.”

In a sense, Bush’s life has been one long baseball metaphor, his personal field of dreams, his connection to a happy childhood when he collected bubble gum baseball cards, played Little League baseball and, like other youngsters of his time, wanted to be Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle. Baseball had also been bred into him. His grandfather, Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush, had played baseball at Yale. His father had been the star Yale first baseman who met Babe Ruth, and George W. attended his first baseball games as a baby when his father played for the Yale team.

As young Bush was growing up in Midland, Tex., his father helped coach his son’s Little League team. “It was the one sport my dad shared with us as kids,” says Marvin Bush, who is 10 years younger than George W.In Midland, young Bush spent long hours playing baseball in a field behind his house and became a catcher on his Little League team, the Cubs. Barbara Bush was the only Little League mother who could keep score at games, and she remembers her son as “the most enthusiastic player” who made the all-star team as a catcher. George Bush, in a letter at that time to his father-in-law, described “Georgie” as “so eager. He tries so very hard.”

“He had trouble,” says Fay Vincent, the former baseball commissioner and a friend of the Bush family who spent a summer in Midland in the 1950s. “I used to tease him about it. I remember him striking out a lot.”

“Well, he was a good catcher,” says his Little League coach, Frank Ittner. “But he was like his daddy. He couldn’t hit.”

George W. Bush played Little League Baseball in Midland, Tex.

George W. Bush played Little League Baseball in the 1950s in Midland, Tex., where his family knew future Commissioner Fay Vincent.

Young Bush didn’t have to hit. His future, financially at least, was secure. Though he might not have known it, he was a stockholder in father’s booming oil company. “Little George,” says Ittner, “had a million shares of letter stock, so he probably was one of the richest Little League players in Midland.”

More importantly, during this period, Bush gained an intangible quality from his family’s competitive nature and from having to overcome his limited physical talent to acquit himself as a Little Leaguer.

“The blind drive to win is a hallmark of the Bush family clan,” says Gail Sheehy, who wrote the controversial profile on Bush for the October 2000 Vanity Fair, claiming he suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia. “One thing that G.W.’s childhood friends told me repeatedly was that he has to win, he absolutely has to win and if he thinks he’s going to lose, he will change the rules or extend the play. Or if it really is bad he’ll take his bat and ball and go home. So I had very little doubt that he would win this election in the end, no matter how long he had to play it out.”

Like countless other youngsters of his time, Bush also collected Topps and Bowman baseball trading cards that came wrapped with a piece of bubble gum in the pre-collectibles rage era. Bush, however, went one step better. He sent cards with self-addressed, stamped envelopes to big league players, asking for their autographs. Most of them obliged and returned the cards. A decade later, he gave the cards in a leather-bound collection to younger brother Marvin. Later Bush tried to get them back only to be told by Marvin that they had been lost, “just to get him off my back.” When informed by a reporter that Marvin admitted still having the collection, Bush’s face lit up. “This is a breakthrough story! I finally found my Willie McCovey autograph!”

Bush’s great-uncle, Herbert Walker, was then one of the original owners of the New York Mets, so George W. and his brothers attended the team’s first spring training. Uncle Herbie even named his dogs Metsie and Yogi, after manager Yogi Berra, the former New York Yankee catcher and another of Bush’s favorite players. “George always wanted to buy a baseball team,” recalls First Lady Laura Bush, “to be an owner like his Uncle Herbie.”

Bush himself, however, was not destined to be even the ballplayer his father had been. At Andover, he still organized an intramural stickball league. At Yale, he was a pitcher his freshman year but didn’t stick with the team. After college, Laura Bush recalls that Bush coached a Midland Little League team through “quite the poor season.”

After completing a Harvard MBA, Bush, like his father before him, went into the oil business. Oil had made his father rich, but young Bush struggled. His oil company failed, and he had to be bailed out by relatives and powerful friends of the family. It was in the oil business, however, that Bush made the connection that would ultimately change his fortunes. In 1984, Bush merged his small company with the oil exploration operation of family friend William O. DeWitt Jr., whose father had owned the St. Louis Browns baseball team and later the Cincinnati Reds — and who later alerted Bush that the Texas Rangers were for sale.

Former President George W. Bush talks baseball with new MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.

Former President George W. Bush talks baseball with new MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.

In 1989, as part of a consortium of investors, Bush became an owner of the Texas Rangers with whom he became the highly visible managing partner. Ultimately, however, what would transform the fortunes for the Rangers franchise was the $190 million Ballpark in Arlington, which replaced the team’s outdated minor league park in the same city. Bush became one of the leading campaigners on behalf of a local sales tax election that paid for two-thirds of the facility.

After he was elected Texas governor, Bush withdrew from the day-to-day operations of the Rangers and put his interest in a trust. With a presidential bid looming, the partners eventually decided to sell the team to Dallas businessman Thomas O. Hicks in 1998 for $250 million. Bush’s $606,000 investment turned into $14.9 million, mostly because of the new ballpark and because, through his original contract with his partners, Bush’s stake in the team went from 1.8 to 11.8 percent.

“He’s probably retroactively gotten a lot more credit for running the Rangers than he really did,” says Houston Chronicle sports columnist Mickey Herskowitz, who collaborated with Bush on his campaign biography but was later dumped and replaced by campaign communications director, Karen Hughes. “Bush was the front man, the PR man, the hand-shaker.”

During his years with the Rangers, Bush became particularly close to Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, whom he had met on the campaign trail for his father in 1980. Bush helped to convince the aging pitcher to stay five years, rather than the single season Ryan had planned — in part because Ryan liked what he saw. “He promoted the ball club as much as anybody I’d seen,” says Ryan, whom Bush later appointed to a state wildlife commission.

“I enjoyed being a Ranger and getting to know (President) Bush and his family, finding out about his dad and what kind of baseball fans they were. I really respected the fact that he always sat in the front row at the ballpark, whether we were doing well or not doing well. Sitting with the fans, he didn’t hide, he always signed autographs and talked about the team.

“I think the fans realized he was a baseball fan and was committed to doing everything he could to make the Rangers a top-notch organization.”

Bush took something else away from the Rangers besides friendships and a small fortune. In his years with the Rangers, he also developed a management style that served him well while he was governor ­ and which has helped him in the first few months of his administration.

“I’m not so sure you can segue from baseball to a presidency,” Bush says of his management style, “but there are some lessons about management, about developing a strategy. Baseball is a marketing business. It’s a business of being able to relate to fans and convince fans to come out. This is a business about adding value.

“I do build teams. That’s what a president does. He builds an administration of people heading in the same direction with the same goal.”

Yankee legend Derek Jeter gets a congratulatory pat during his finale game in Texas from President George W. Bush.

New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter gets a congratulatory pat during ceremonies before  his farewell game in Texas from President George W. Bush.

In his young presidency, Bush has had one evening that aides say has stood out from all the rest. On the first Wednesday of February, not even the mid-day drama surrounding the capture of a gunman outside the South Lawn of the White House could sidetrack the president’s evening plans. George F. Will, the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and intellectual laureate of conservatives, had arranged a relaxing evening for the new president with some people he regards as being among the most gifted individuals in America.

When John F. Kennedy was president, he hosted a dinner at the White House to honor Nobel Prize winners and welcomed the guests by saying, “This much genius has not been in the White House except possibly when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

On this evening, President Bush would not be equal to that kind of wit, but then again Thomas Jefferson never won a Cy Young Award, managed four World Series champions, been named the American League’s Most Valuable Player, or broken Lou Gehrig’s Iron Man record.

That evening, Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine, New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, Chicago Cubs skipper Don Baylor, and Baltimore Orioles’ future Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, their wives and Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane were all getting their spring training sendoff. They dined with the president on veal chops and salad in the old family dining room, then had ice cream and cookies shaped like French fries and hot dogs for dessert.

“He was so gracious,” said Glavine. “He said, ‘If you don’t mind, I’d like to show you around.’ We were looking at each other like: ‘Are you kidding me?’”

The guests got the presidential tour, although it was not the extensive one Bush wished he could have given them. For the first time in his nineteen days in office, Bush was struck with a tinge of regret that he had not yet brought to the White House the more than 250 autographed baseballs, collected since his childhood, that had adorned his gubernatorial office in Texas. The balls were signed by Joe DiMaggio, Mantle, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, and other legends of the game.

Bush had also left behind several baseball bats, including one from his beloved Texas Rangers with his name engraved and another from home run record-breaker Mark McGwire, wishing him luck in his presidential campaign. Bush, however, added to that collection that night, getting autographed baseballs from his guests and even putting his presidential signature on baseballs that some of the players brought with them.

“I never dreamed about being president,” Bush told his guests, rephrasing a line he has used often in talking about himself. “When I was growing up, I wanted to be Willie Mays.”

 

Tony Castro, a former Sports Illustrated staff writer who covered George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, is the author of the forthcoming biography, Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal Son (Brassey’s, Inc.).

Copyright, Tony Castro