Podcast: Frederic Frommer on Richard Nixon and Ted Williams
President Nixon and Ted Williams, then manager of the Washington Senators, in the Senators’ locker room. (Getty Images/Bettman)
Frederic Frommer is a Sports Public Relations Executive and Author of Histories About Baseball.
Last month an article appeared in Politico Magazine that commemorated the opening day of baseball 50 years ago at RFK stadium in Washington, D.C. It discussed President Nixon’s love for the game, and his relationship with then Washington Senators manager, and baseball great Ted Williams.
The writer of the piece joins us on this edition of the Nixon Now Podcast. His name is Frederic Frommer. He’s the author of “You Gotta Have Heart,” a history of Washington baseball, and is head of the sports business practice at the Dewey Square Group, a public affairs firm in Washington.
Click here to read the entire piece in Politico.
Jonathan Movroydis: You are listening to the “Nixon Now” podcast. I’m Jonathan Movroydis. Last month, an article appeared in “Politico Magazine” that commemorated the opening day of baseball 50 years ago at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. It discussed President Nixon’s love for the game, and his relationship with then Washington Senators manager and baseball great, Ted Williams. The author of the piece joins us today. His name is Frederic Frommer. He’s the author of “You Gotta Have Heart: A History of Washington Baseball”, and is head of the Sports Business Practice at the Dewey Square Group, a public affairs firm in Washington. Frederic, welcome.
Frederic Frommer: Great to be here. Thanks, Jonathan.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just to kind of start off, why did you decide to write this piece for Politico?
Frederic Frommer: So I actually started off with the idea of writing a story about Ted Williams and the 1969 team, because it was a very successful team. The only winning franchise of the Senators, and it had been 50 years. I thought it would be fun to take a look at that.
But as I delved into it, I saw a more interesting and a broader story, which was, you know, the fact that not only was Nixon there on opening day and rooting on Ted Williams, but also the fact that these two men had been such staunch allies through the years, and the fact that they had both been, you know, on the ropes, they had both been kind of written off, and here they were making sort of triumph and return to Washington in the same year.
So once that kind of came to me, I decided it’d be a more interesting story to look at both men through that prism.
Jonathan Movroydis: Nixon threw out the ceremonial first pitch at RFK stadium on opening day. Could you describe that moment? And what was the date?
Frederic Frommer: It was April 7. At the time, the way presidents threw out the first pitch was very different from what fans now experience. Now, we see a president or a politician will stand on the pitcher’s mound, or actually maybe a little bit closer to home plate, and throw it from that general vicinity. But back in those days, the president would actually sit in his box where his seat was, and he would throw the ball up for grabs, where players from both sides would battle for it, kind of like bridesmaids trying to catch a bouquet at the wedding, and whoever would get the ball would get a copy, would bring it over to the president and have the president sign it.
So, in this case, Nixon was given a ball to throw out, and he actually dropped it, like, into the stands. You can see him bending over in this picture, and Ted Williams kind of grinning at his friend’s misfortune. So as I point out in the piece, it didn’t really start out very well for Nixon or for Ted Williams, as the Senators lost that game eight to four that afternoon.
Jonathan Movroydis: You said earlier that both men were staunch allies, and they sort of made a triumphant return to Washington in 1969. Could you kind of describe early in that year, why was it such a triumphant return for both men? Especially, we know Nixon becomes president, gets inaugurated for president, in January of that year. But particularly Williams.
Frederic Frommer: Yeah. So, you know, going back a decade, you know, it’s interesting to look at how far the men had come from 1960. So 1960 was Ted Williams last season as a player, and it was also obviously the year that Nixon ran for president the first time. He was Vice President under Eisenhower, he lost that race. So what happened was, was Ted Williams, he had such a contentious relationship with the fans that when he hit a home run on his final at bat, you know, this incredibly successful and dramatic moment at Fenway Park, he refused to tip his cap to the fans and just kind of left, kind of in a huff, in a way.
With Nixon, of course, he loses the presidential race in 1962, he loses the governor’s race in California, and he famously says, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” So kind of looking back at the early ’60s, both men had looked like they were slinking off in anger from the public stage. Of course, by the end of the decade,you know, Nixon has this incredibly triumphant return, you know, winning the presidency, proving all his doubters wrong, and Williams, in a similar way, you know, he had expressed interest in managing, and he had kind of been out of baseball for a while. Then the Senators [inaudible 00:04:22] manager in the 1969 season, and he was also really, a lot of people doubted he could do that, he’d be good at being manager. Actually, at least in that first year, he was a very successful manager who wound up winning manager of the year of the American League.
So it was a case where both men, you know, had been really in the depths, and they had this moment where, in 1969, as Nixon said in a letter to Ted Williams, you know, “It’s my hope that we can both make Washington a first-place city again.”
Jonathan Movroydis: You said he had no prior managerial experience, Williams. Did he have any coaching experience before he came onboard the Senators?
Frederic Frommer: I don’t believe he did. Not in any kind of a formal role. Not like a coach on a team. He may have helped people here and there, but not in any formal position with a team.
Jonathan Movroydis: Why did the Senators decide to take a gamble on him?
Frederic Frommer: You know, it was really pretty much a PR move. The new Washington Senators owner was guy named Bob Short, and he, I don’t know if he had been an adversary of Nixon…he had been the treasurer for Hubert Humphrey’s campaign in 1968, and he bought the team in the Fall of ’68. The Redskins, the Washington Redskins, had just hired Vince Lombardi as coach.
So Bob Short, you know, he realized that, you know, there was a vacuum there with Lombardi filling the front pages and dominating the headlines, and also he wanted to make a splash himself as a new owner. He thought, well, what better way to do that than by hiring a legend like Ted Williams? You know, he thought that would be a name. It would put people in the seats and it would generate a lot of excitement, and it actually did. It did put people in the seats, and there were a ton of reporters that followed Williams around Spring training that year, 100 people at his news conference. [inaudible 00:06:10] February, when he was introduced, there was a ton of excitement.
There was one reporter who even compared his hiring…he said it was the most significant off season baseball move since Jackie Robinson had been signed to break baseball’s color barrier. So Bob Short, you know, he had a lot of failings as owner, but he had good instincts in hiring Ted Williams as a manager.
Jonathan Movroydis: What kind of manager was he? You know, there’s a lot of talk today about players managers, people like Aaron Boone or Alex Cora. What kind of manager was Ted Williams? Was he as surly as a manager as he was as a player?
Frederic Frommer: Not at first. He was quite a character. I mean, he was confrontational in the way that he would kind of bark orders at players. There was more, like, I think players kind of respected him because of his achievement, and because they knew that they kind of took it with a grain of salt when he would say, you know, kind of things. Like, for example, to Eddie Brinkman, he said, “Your skin [inaudible 00:07:06],” you know? “I don’t want to see you carrying your glove around Spring training because you need to work on hitting,” and those types of things.
But they did take a shine to the fact that he was very optimistic as a manager, and he really encouraged guys to do better. He really did help them with the mental side of things, especially the mental side of hitting. But he actually was very much a hands-off manager in terms of the tactics and the day to day strategy. He acknowledged he didn’t really know how to run a game very well, and he had a guy, a coach, basically one of the first bench coaches, actually, a minor league guy that helped him with making in-game decisions. He really wasn’t for all of that.
In fact, during Spring training there was a funny story. He heard these two coaches yelling and getting into an argument about something. Williams went over to them, “What’s going on here?” They said they were debating the proper way to do a rundown. He said, “Oh, I give a blank about that. Let’s go hit.” You know, so he wasn’t that interested in the finer points of fielding or hit and run. He really did one thing well, hitting, and that was what he wanted to impart on his players.
Although he actually had a very good impact on the pitchers as well, because he knew what would work, and he was very much a devotee of a lot of off-speed pitches, sliders. In that sense, really ahead of his time, because you know, now the game has gone in that direction as well. The slider is one of the most effective pitches. You know, Ted Williams really emphasized that with his pitching style.
Jonathan Movroydis: Who were the best players? Who were the leaders on the Senators at the time?
Frederic Frommer: Well, the best player was definitely a guy named Frank Howard. He was a slugger that had done a lot of home runs, and also struck out a lot. So in Spring training, actually, Williams brought him into his office and he said, you know, “How does a guy that hits 40 home runs only walk,” I think it was, like, 50 times, or something like that. A guy with that kind of power should be getting some walks. Frank Howard said that, you know, he considers a lot of pitches UFOs. You know, Unidentified Flying Objects. He has a hard time laying off stuff.
So Ted Williams said, “Look, can you hit with [inaudible 00:09:19] one strike? Take a really tough pitch and lay off it,” and Howard did, and in fact, he had a great season. He had his best season ever that year. But they actually took some time. A funny story told to me by Bowie Kuhn, who was the baseball commissioner that year, and it’s also at opening day. Bowie Kuhn is sitting next to Nixon, and Kuhn is telling Nixon, when Frank Howard comes to bat, “You’re going to see a brand new Frank Howard. You know, he’s really worked on his fundamentals. He’s going to be much more selective because of all of the great work Ted Williams has done to make him a more selective hitter.”
Well, the first pitch comes. It lands six feet in front of home plate, and Frank Howard takes a swing and a miss, and as Bowie Kuhn told me, Nixon and Kuhn just looked at each other and laughed, and didn’t say a word. So it took some time, but ultimately Nixon’s work with Frank Howard and guys like Epstein also paid off. You know, he had a really good impact, and the team’s hitters were much better. Not only for the really good hitters, but a guy like Eddie Brinkman, the shortstop I mentioned briefly. For two previous seasons, he had hit 187 and 188, and he raised his batting average to 266 that year under Ted Williams.
Jonathan Movroydis: Was Williams taken with Washington? Did he enjoy managing in that city?
Frederic Frommer: I think very much so, yeah. He really enjoyed, you know, certainly his relationship with President Nixon, and having him come to the games. He had a lot of friends. He stayed at a fancy hotel during the season, and he was very impressed with the fans. They had, Jon, about 900,000 fans that year, which today would be, you know, not very much, but at the time was actually a pretty good number. It was the best attendance that that that expansion team had ever had. So he was really happy with the fans, the support they had given the team that year, and the fact that fans, including Nixon, would stay until the very end of the game. Presidents now, more than recent years, you never stay until the end. But Nixon always did.
Jonathan Movroydis: You had mentioned that Williams won Ail [SP] Manager of the Year. How did the Senators, what was their win and loss record? Did they make the playoffs?
Frederic Frommer: They didn’t make the playoffs. You know, back then there was no wildcard. So it was kind of hard to make the playoffs, although it was the first year of divisional play. So it was a little bit easier, and prior to that you had to be the best team in the league for the World Series, and that was pretty much the playoffs.
In ’69 you had two divisions, and Williams brought the team to an 86 and 76 record. A pretty good record. Fourth place in the American League East, because you had a lot of good teams they were battling against, including the Orioles, the Baltimore Orioles that won pennant that year.
But they finished, you know, with a pretty decent record. In fact, in September, their winning percentage was up over 600. You know, and they only played one or two games in October. So basically the last month of the season, they were one of the hottest teams in baseball.
Jonathan Movroydis: So Nixon would attend these games, as you mentioned. He threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Was he attentive at these games or was he, you know, was it public relations, or was he a genuinely interested fan of the game?
Frederic Frommer: Definitely a genuinely interested fan. There was a detail that I came across from 1960, actually, when he’s Vice President of the time, he’s sitting with President Eisenhower and Ted Williams comes to bat. Williams hadn’t announced yet this was his final season, but the betting was that it would be. Nixon turned to Ike and said, “This is probably his last season. You know, let’s root for him to hit a home run,” and sure enough, he did.
I came across an interesting correspondence from the RNC of the White House, where they go [inaudible 00:13:12] around the All-Star Game that year in ’69, which is in Washington, and they had to go to great lengths talking about how Nixon’s affinity for baseball really is a great PR move, because fans and voters liked to see their presidents as people like them. So if they see a president rooting for a team and going to games, then they’re going to have more affinity for that president. But they also note that he was a genuine fan, and James Reston, actually, that year, wrote a column basically saying the same point, that, you know, this is a great PR move for Nixon. But it is absolutely genuine. It’s something that he really enjoys doing, and he was a huge fan of football and other sports as well.
Jonathan Movroydis: You talk a little bit about a story about, that Nixon wanted Ted Williams and other — I’m sorry not Ted Williams — but he wanted members of the Senators to greet him when he came back from his famous Kitchen Debate in Moscow in 1959. Could you touch upon that story a little bit?
Frederic Frommer: Sure. One of the funny stories I heard in talking to players. Like, Roy Sievers told me the story a few years ago. He was the Senators outfielder and one of Nixon’s favorite players. So while Nixon is overseas at the Kitchen Debate in the Soviet Union, the Senators had lost 12 games in a row. Not unusual, actually, but maybe a little bit worse than normal.
So Nixon actually called Roy Sievers from Moscow and demanded to know, you know, what was wrong. He said he wanted to meet the Senators players at the airport when he came back. So Sievers came out there, brought a bunch of players that Nixon had asked for by name. So there were four players. Nixon kind of demanded of them, like, what’s wrong with you guys? Why can’t you win games? Sievers and the other players said, “Well, you know, our pitching is not good. Our hitting is not good, you know? It’s just not happening.” So Nixon said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll be out there tomorrow, and the reason he said that was Sievers had told me that Nixon was a bit of a good luck charm, that they usually won the games that he went to.
But they actually lost that game, and their losing streak hit, I think, 17 or 18 games that year. But it goes to show that he really followed baseball, even, you know, certainly pre-internet age, that he was following baseball from thousands of miles away, and really took a shine…he really took it personally when the Senators weren’t doing well. In fact, years later, in 1992, at a luncheon, he said, “You had to have been a real fan of the Senators, a real fan of baseball, rather, to be a fan of the Senators back then, because they were such a bad team most years.”
Jonathan Movroydis: Onto the Nixon Williams friendship, when did the two first meet?
Frederic Frommer: They had known each other in the ’50s when Nixon was Vice President and Ted Williams would sometimes have lunch with him when the Red Sox visited Washington. So that was the beginning of it, and then they stayed in touch through the ’60s, and obviously through ’69, in the early years of Nixon’s presidency, and Williams’ reign as the Washington manager.
Jonathan Movroydis: You write that Nixon had a special affinity for Ted Williams. Could you expand on that a little bit?
Frederic Frommer: Yeah. I think a lot of it was, they had a lot in common. Although, on the surface, you wouldn’t think so. You know, one was an incredibly talented athlete, the other one wasn’t. But they came from the same generation. They came from a very similar part of the country in Southern California, about 100 miles apart, were born in the 1910s, they both served in World War 2, and they both had this tenacity about them. You know, that people had written them off, people had criticized them, and those men used that criticism to fuel them to kind of prove their doubters wrong.
So I think that there was a natural affinity between the men because of that, and also Nixon’s politics really aligned closely with Williams. He really was a hard right wing guy in many ways, although as I point out in the story, he was pretty liberal on civil rights. He championed a negro league player’s admission into the Baseball Hall of Fame. But on some of the social issues, on guns and issues like that, and then certainly on military issues, on foreign affairs, he was very hawkish, the way the president was.
Jonathan Movroydis: Did he campaign for Nixon?
Frederic Frommer: He did, both in 1960 and in ’68. In fact, it’s a great story…I can’t take credit for this one. This is Bradlee Junior’s book about Ted Williams. In 1960, you know, president, I’m sorry, Senator John F. Kennedy, you know, the Democrat nominee, really worked hard to get Williams to support him, because he was a home state guy. You know, Kennedy was from Massachusetts. But Williams was not interested.
So he sees him at an airport in Miami across the tarmac. He says to his aid, “The son of a bitch is wearing a Nixon button.” It really kind of hurt Kennedy, that Nixon had guarded his home state guy. So he did a lot of work for him in ’60, again in ’68. Nixon was very appreciative. He’d always write letters of thank you, and send him golf balls, and other types of things just as a token of appreciation for the work that Nixon had done.
Jonathan Movroydis: You write that Williams had a complicated relationship with the press, much less Nixon did. Could you…
Frederic Frommer: Right.
Jonathan Movroydis: …also touch upon that?
Frederic Frommer: Sure. He referred to the reporters as knights of the keyboard, kind of derisively. You know, when he came up as a young hotshot, he didn’t really have any clue how to deal with reporters and work with them. So, you know, he would take offense at some criticism, and it sort of snowballed from there. So he had to, you know, he also had some run-ins with fans as well. He once spat in the direction of some fans who booed him for what they considered inadequate defensive fields.
But the funny thing is that when he came to Washington and he had a news conference in ’69 before the season, he actually assured the reporters there that he’s actually an easy guy to get along with, that it was only a few bad apples in Boston that he had a problem with, and also that, as a 50-year-old man in 1969, that he had hoped he’d matured, and would have a better relationship with reporters.
Actually, that proved to be true for some time. Some of the reporters I have spoken with, and also based on stories of the time, described him as a very likable guy, as someone who really enjoyed the give and take with reporters and chatted with them a bit. But that wore off after a while, and part of that was because he had this policy, which was sort of unique in baseball, which was that he kept the baseball clubhouses close for 15 minutes after every game to give players time to cool off. He thought it was best for both sides that, you know, reporters would get better answers from guys who weren’t just coming out of the heat of the battle.
Well, reporters had the opposite take on that. They wanted to talk to guys after the heat of the battle. They wanted those fresh, emotional answers. They didn’t want canned answers after guys had time to think about it. In fact, in 1969, the Baseball Writers Association of America had given Nixon something like, some kind of…they made him, like, an honorary member of the association. They sort of half-jokingly asked Nixon if he could get Ted Williams to change his policy. But Nixon would later say that neither, you know, Jesus or Nixon or Bowie Kuhn whatever would get him to change his policy, that he was deadest on keeping that in place.
Jonathan Movroydis: 1969 was a big year in baseball in Washington. The All-Star Game was actually hosted at RFK Stadium, and President Nixon also hosted a White House reception for 400 baseball VIPs and Hall of Famers. Could you describe the scene around Washington and baseball in summer of 1969?
Frederic Frommer: Sure. It was a really exciting time, both for Washington and for baseball. The year before was known as the Year of the Pitcher, when you had this sort of, just a plethora of one nothing games, really boring baseball, and people were getting turned off to the sport. People thought that perhaps football would replace baseball, which it eventually did. But not that fast. The baseball owners responded by lowering the pitcher’s mound to get more offense in the game by splitting into two divisions, as I mentioned, so more teams were in contention.
The sport really took off. It was a lot more offense, more people were interested in the sport, and for Washington, they arrived at the altar of [inaudible 00:22:28] was 51 and 50 record, which is pretty mediocre by most standards, but in Washington, it was actually a really good record. So Williams was getting a lot of credit for the work he had done to make the Senators a better team. Baseball used ’69 as a way to market the sport, because it had been the 100th anniversary of the first professional baseball team in the 1869 Cincinnati Reds, and so they did a whole bunch of events at the White House, and they had a reception for the best players, and that type of thing.
Nixon, he had, as you mentioned, all of these sportswriters and Hall of Famers and All-Stars at this reception. He made this comment, which must have been pretty stunning to people. He said, “I just want you to know that I like the job I have, but if I had to live my life over again, I would like to have ended up as a sports writer.” You know, pretty interesting, given his contentious relationship with reporters. Although it was really more political reporters, I think, than sports writers, which I think he had, actually, long term relationships with some of those guys.
So, yeah. It was a pretty exciting time. He was going to throw out the first ball. Unfortunately, the game was weaned out. He had to leave for a world trip the next day, so the Vice President filled in for him. But, yeah. Very exciting time, and a lot of home runs in that All-Star Game, by the way. It was a nine to three-game the year after a one nothing game on the previous All-Star Games. So it was a fun time in Washington, and it really put the city in, like, the center of baseball for a few days.
Jonathan Movroydis: Who would win the World Series that year?
Frederic Frommer: In ’69?
Jonathan Movroydis: Yes.
Frederic Frommer: The Mets beat the Orioles. It was the Miracle Mets. [inaudible 00:24:06] described in the piece, you know, that was really the big story of the year, but that Ted Williams, his work in Washington was a minor miracle. He really…the biggest storyline, I think, outside of the Mets was a job he did in Washington.
Jonathan Movroydis: So he starts off hot with the Washington Senators. What happens to…? Does he stay on? Does he move on to another manager position, or does he call it quits in Washington?
Frederic Frommer: Yeah. He stayed on, and unfortunately, the magic really didn’t stay after that. The team that he inherited, the previous year they had the worst record in baseball. He had pretty much the same players. So it was an amazing job that he did getting them to play as well as they did. But they played a bit above their heads, and by the next year, 1970, they fell to last place. In ’71, they were even worse. They had lost 96 games in ’71, and then the team moves to Texas at the end of the ’71 season. Nixon, actually sorry, Ted Williams, even though he was so high on Washington in the beginning, he basically, you know, said good riddance. He said that the fans really didn’t care. They had a core of 5000 or 6000 people that did, but that Washington was a city of transient people, and that it was the right move to make to Texas.
But Ted Williams… I’m sorry, Richard Nixon was very upset about it, and said he was heartbroken by the move. In fact, he even talked on a secretly recorded tape, White House tape with the mayor of Washington in September of that year, October, rather, of that year about other cities, teams that they could lure, like maybe the Indians from Cleveland, or the White Sox from Chicago. But to answer your question, Williams went to Texas the next year, and he managed in ’72. They were the last place again. Actually, the worst record in baseball kind of coming full circle from the year before he had become manager. He quit with one year left on his contract.
It wasn’t, like, his fault. If you look at the next year, as I did, the next year you had two great managers split the time managing. Billy Martin and Whitey Herzog, and they still were a terrible team. They still, I believe, were in last place in ’72. So just a bad team, and he wasn’t really able to get guys to play as well as they could at first year.
Jonathan Movroydis: With Washington at the center of baseball, and its 100th anniversary, the well-attended games of the Senators, why the move to Texas?
Frederic Frommer: Because they didn’t draw after that. They only had a pretty good record of attracting fans in ’69 because they had a good team. Once the winning had fallen off, the fans started falling off too. So you had, the attendance wasn’t very good, and also, the lease that the Senators had with the stadium operators, which is the subsequent federal government, they weren’t very favorable. The owner Bob Short complained about, he wanted to get more parking revenue and concession revenue, and really couldn’t get that. So those two factors led him to move the team out of Washington.
You know, the team had lost team… I’m sorry, the city had lost the team 11 years earlier, in 1961. The first Washington Senators team had moved to Minnesota. So they had this track record of not really being able to support a team. Of course, that’s changed in the last 10 or 12 years here in Washington, but back then it wasn’t as wealthy a city. The population wasn’t quite as big, and they really didn’t have a good track record as far as supporting teams.
Jonathan Movroydis: Final question, and this is actually a two-part question. Would Ted Williams manage again, and did he correspond with President Nixon after Nixon had left office in ’74, and he had moved away from Washington?
Frederic Frommer: He did not manage again. I couldn’t find any correspondence after the presidency, but I did find a phone conversation I came across. Right after Nixon…I’m sorry, right after Ted Williams quit as manager, Nixon reached out to him and, you know, just kind of said, you know, “Whatever happened with the rangers, it wasn’t a matter of a lack of support from me.” You know, he kind of half-joked. Williams really thanked him for being there for him all those years.
So I don’t recall anything. They may have had some correspondence after that. I’m sure they did. But my research was really mostly focused on the years of’69 to ’72, with a little bit focused on the years before that as well.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Frederic Frommer. Our topic was President Nixon’s love for baseball, and his relationship to Hall of Fame great, Ted Williams. Fred, thank you so much for joining us.
Frederic Frommer: Thanks, Jonathan. I enjoyed it.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org, or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.