Thursday, August 13, 2015

Play ball! Hoping for Coolidge luck -- Aug. 13, 2015 column


Novelist Henry James said the two most beautiful words in the English language are summer afternoon. I’d say that on any summer afternoon, the two words that bring joy and hope are “Play ball!”  

What better escape from the bizarre 2016 presidential race and assorted national and international crises than an afternoon or evening outside at the ball park? In August, we may dream about October but we don’t fret. Much.

In the nation’s capital, baseball comes with a side of presidential history. At other major league ballparks, sausages or pierogies are racing mascots, but in Washington it’s the Racing Presidents who compete in a fourth-inning sprint down the warning track and foul line. They are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and, as of last month, Calvin Coolidge.

Silent Cal seemed an odd addition to the presidents, but he did attend 10 baseball games while he was in office from 1923 to 1929. He was the first president to attend a World Series opener and the first to throw out a first pitch at a World Series game.

Coolidge didn’t lose an election in 30 years in politics, so he was thought lucky. Fans credited the “Coolidge luck” with the Washington Senators’ winning two of their three pennants. They won the 1924 World Series and the American League championships in 1925, during his tenure. 

These days, a president who ventures into a stadium may get booed. That’s what happened when President Barack Obama threw out the first pitch of the season at Nationals Park in 2010. What did he expect when he put on a Chicago White Sox cap?

Coolidge wasn’t much of a baseball fan, but his wife, first lady Grace Coolidge, was.

Called the “first lady of baseball,” she kept a scorecard at games and when she couldn’t be there in person listened on the radio. The Coolidges were in the stands at the first game of the 1924 World Series, when the president decided it was time to go back to the White House. The score was 2-2 in the ninth inning.

“When he rose to leave, the first lady, resplendent in her `good luck’ necklace of seven ivory elephants, snapped, `Where do you think you’re going? You sit down,’ seizing his coattails to emphasize her point. Coolidge obeyed and stayed on to see the Giants win in extra innings,” William Bushong, chief historian of the White House Historical Association, writes in an essay. 

Grace Coolidge told a presidential historian that her husband never played baseball or any other sport, and “He did not share my enthusiasm for baseball,” John Sayle Watterson reports in his 2009 book, “The Games Presidents Play: Sports and the Presidency.”

Watterson knocks Coolidge as “athletically challenged,” the worst natural athlete in presidential history from 1901 to 2005.

The new focus on Coolidge and baseball is the result of an unusual partnership. For the first time, the historical association, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the White House and educating the public, has joined in a multi-year agreement with a sports team, the Nationals.   

The 30th president is also the subject of the association’s 2015 official Christmas ornament, which celebrates Coolidge’s lighting in 1923 of the first national Christmas tree on the Ellipse. The ornament is itself a Christmas tree with 14 decorations that commemorate events in Coolidge’s life, including a baseball. An LED light is incorporated in the design, another first. 

Racing Presidents make personal appearances outside the ball park, and Coolidge likely will be in demand. While most historians rank him among our worst presidents, blaming his policies for the start of the Great Depression in 1929, Coolidge is the darling of Tea Partiers and right-wing talkers, who love his disaffection for big government and taxes.

Ronald Reagan put Coolidge’s portrait in the Oval Office and praised his policies, and several books recently have tried to put Coolidge’s policies in a better light.

Today’s Washington fans hope for a revival of the Coolidge luck when they hear those magic words: “Play ball!”

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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