Tuesdays with Franklin
When FDR arrived, the sunlight was already reflecting off the perfectly polished silver coffee pot sitting in the center of the table.
He greeted his tablemate heartily. “Good morning, Dick. What’s that you’ve got there?” he asked, pointing to a round red object alongside Richard Nixon’s plate.
“Oh, it’s just my new Nats hat. You know, for opening day next week,” RN answered, and he raised the red object, displaying the stylized white script “W” sewn on the front above the bill.
“Ah, yes,” FDR nodded. “The national pastime. You know I managed the baseball club in my sixth form at prep.” His gaze drifted to the infinitely blue horizon. “The Grotons. That’s what our team was called. Every morning at that school we started the day with a cold shower —- they didn’t even have hot water taps to tempt us.”
RN laughed. “We didn’t even have indoor plumbing until the 1920s,” he said.
“I saw my first baseball game in 1925,” RN noted nostalgically, his eyes now joining FDR’s on the horizon. “It was quite an adventure for a twelve year old! I went with Shorty Hedges, who was a neighbor and a classmate. We we took the Pacific Electric streetcar —they called it the Big Red Car— over to Los Angeles to see a game at Wrigley Field. That was when the Los Angeles Angels was a minor league team. You know, double-A but minor league. And they were playing the San Francisco Seals in a double header.
“I don’t remember much about it, except that the Angels’ catcher was named ‘Truck’ Hannah. He was a great catcher, and he could hit, but he couldn’t run, so he never made the major leagues. And the pitcher that day, and this I remember very well because he won the game, was Charlie Root, who pitched for the Angels and later went up to the Cubs. He was the one that threw the gopher ball when Babe Ruth pointed and then hit it over the fence.”
FDR unfolded his napkin and took a sip of water from the crystal tumbler at his place.
“You know, Dick, I think I’ll have the Eggs Benedict again this week” he said —- but his companion was lost in his own thoughts.
“The Angels, I think, split the two games,” RN continued, “but what I particularly remember is the hot dogs. Shorty and I each had a dollar to spend, and the hot dogs cost ten cents. We each bought six. At the end of the game, the vendor came around and told us he had two left. He said, ‘Look, I’ll give you these for a nickel apiece.’ But Shorty said, ‘No way. I don’t have room.’ So that was a bargain but we had to pass it up.”
By now the vast room was full and a companionable buzz underscored the two old friends’ conversation.
“I remember how you used baseball in your Fireside Chats, Franklin,” RN said. “That was such a smart thing to do.”
“Ah yes,” FDR said, “’I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat. What I seek is the highest possible batting average, not only for myself, but for my team.’”
“Brilliant,” RN said.
“Remember when that old tyrant Landis wrote me in 1942?” FDR asked.
RN smiled. “Of course I do,” he replied. “Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Apparently he was quite a character. The Commissioners I dealt were very different —- Happy Chandler and Bowie Kuhn. Bowie actually discussed my becoming his successor. Now that’s a job I would love to have taken!”
“You could say that old reprobate Landis was a character,” FDR said unsmilingly. “Of course, giving credit where it’s due, he cleaned up the game when it badly needed cleaning up, but he stayed on far too long.”
“Just like Edgar,” RN interposed.
“And he held up the integration of the game unconscionably. I think he thought he would put me on the spot a bit when he wrote asking whether baseball should continue during wartime.”
“I consider that ‘Green Light Letter’ you sent him one of your finest moments, Franklin,” RN said. “Along with every other fan I could quote your reply. I bet I still remember it…..’I honestly feel it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.’ And you suggested adding night games so people on the day shift could see them.”
“Letter perfect, Dick — literally!” FDR exclaimed with delight. “And you know they did change the schedules. They played lots of twilight and night games and even some morning games for the folks coming off the night shifts.”
“That meant a lot to a lot of people,” RN said.
“Unfortunately the wartime teams were a bit…..lacking. So many players were away —- Greenberg, DiMaggio, Williams, Feller. Of course they found some interesting replacements. Remember the Reds had a fifteen year old pitcher? And the Browns sent in a one-armed outfielder? And Jimmie Foxx came out of retirement for the Phillies.”
RN laughed. “I remember all that like it was yesterday. In fact, I wrote a letter to Foxx’s daughter when I named him to my all time all star team when I was President. And I remember, Franklin, that after you died the Senators wore black armbands on opening day. Now that was a real tribute.”
“The good old Senators,” FDR said with real affection. “’First in war. First in peace. Last in the American League!’ You know, I threw out eleven opening day balls to those boys.”
“I know — that’s still a Presidential record,” RN said admiringly, and with as much of a competitive edge as it is possible to have in heaven. “Of course, I attended eleven games while I was President. And I threw out the first pitch at Anaheim — the first time a President threw an opening day pitch outside Washington. And I was the first President ever to see a triple play. It was the Senators and the Tigers, and as I recall, Don Wirt started it off a ground ball from Ed Brinkman. I suppose that doesn’t make much difference down there now, but I can tell you, it meant a lot to me then!”
The breakfast plates had long been cleared and the room was beginning to empty. The coffee in the polished silver pot, of course, was perfectly brewed and constantly replenished.
“You know, Franklin,” RN said, “I think the very best of all my baseball memories involve my family. In 1972 I worked with my son-in-law David Eisenhower to prepare that list of the all-time best players. I’ll never forget the hours we spent in the White House and at Camp David debating and discussing who qualified and why. I remember how amused Bob Haldeman was by my interest in that project. And then, in the ‘90s I went to those Mets games with my grandson Christopher Cox. So many wonderful afternoons the two of us spent together out at Shea, watching the games and talking about the players and about anything that came to mind. Those were truly memorable times.”
As the old friends rose to leave, RN, working the bill of his bright red Nats cap into a tight circle, said, “Why don’t you join us next Monday in Washington, Franklin? In the morning I’m playing golf out at Burning Tree with Jackie Robinson, Walter Annenberg, and your cousin TR, and then we’re going down to the Anacostia waterfront for the opening game at the new Nationals Park. The Nats and the Braves. You could meet us there. Come see what Bowden and Kasten have managed to put together. If nothing else the Park is supposed to be spectacular.” Almost as an afterthought, RN added, “And we can have all the hot dogs we want.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you Dick, and please extend my regards to one and all, but I’m playing tennis that morning with Herb Hoover and then Al Smith and Babe Ruth are going to join us at Yankee Stadium for opening day. You know this is the last season the Babe can watch them play in the house he built.”
By now the sun was high in the perfect sky and the clouds were pleasantly warm to the old friends’ feet as they shook hands and walked their separate ways.