Podcast: Nicholas Sarantakes on Nixon and Baseball
President Nixon talks to a fan on the Washington Senator’s opening day at RFK stadium on April 7, 1969.
Nicholas Sarantakes is author of “Fan in Chief: Richard Nixon and American Sports: 1969-1974”
On July 22, 1969, President Nixon celebrated the 100th anniversary of baseball with a White House reception of over 400 baseball greats, officials, and media.
Among those in attendance in the East Room were Pittsburgh Pirates all-star Roberto Clemente, New York Yankees greats Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, Cincinnati Reds’ Pete Rose, and other then current and future hall of famers.
Washington’s RFK Stadium was the location for the all-star game the same day. President Nixon was planning to attend, but the game rained out and was postponed to the next day when Nixon was en-route to see the splash down of the Apollo 11 astronauts in the South Pacific.
Nixon told his audience: “As far as I am concerned 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 have liked to have ended up as a sports writer.”
On this edition of the Nixon Now podcast, commemorating the 150th anniversary of baseball and President Nixon’s love for the game, we’re joined by Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, historian, professor at Naval War College, and accomplished author. His newest book due out this October is “Fan-in-Chief: Richard Nixon and American Sports, 1969-1974.”
Jonathan Movroydis: You’re listening to the “Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter at Nixon Foundation or at nixonfoundation.org.
July 22nd marks the 150th anniversary of baseball. Fifty years ago, the city of Washington, D.C. and President Nixon marked the 100th anniversary of baseball with the all-star game at RFK Stadium, and a White House celebration of then former and active baseball playing greats. To discuss President Nixon’s love for the game, we’re joined by Nicholas Evan Sarantakes. He’s a historian professor at Naval War College and accomplished author. His newest book due out this October is “Fan in Chief: Richard Nixon and American Sports, 1969 – 1974.” Nick, welcome.
Nicholas Sarantakes: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
Jonathan Movroydis: To start off as a primer, when did Richard Nixon’s fascination with baseball start?
Nicholas Sarantakes: I think it started very early as he was growing up. You have to remember that for someone of his generation, someone who grew up really in the interwar period, baseball was the national sport. So, he became interested in it. Now, like many Americans, he followed it indirectly. Until the 1950s, Major League Baseball really was located in the northeast corner of the United States, and that was mainly because of railroads, that was how you would get from New York to St. Louis. You couldn’t really play a team in Los Angeles. So, he would follow it via the newspaper or via radio. But he didn’t really watch a game until in person, until after he had graduated law school.
Jonathan Movroydis: Where did he watch that game?
Nicholas Sarantakes: I believe, if memory serves me, that was a Brooklyn Dodgers game, but it could’ve been a Washington Senators game. I’m a little fuzzy on that, but he was actually, in person…I believe he was up on the northeast doing job interviews after law school.
Jonathan Movroydis: Why do you think baseball gravitated towards President Nixon? You know, his love was politics, history. He did play sports. He was on a football team, but why do you think baseball resonated with him so much?
Nicholas Sarantakes: I think like a lot of other people, it’s a fascinating sport, particularly, it’s fascinating if you pay attention to it. President Nixon, for example, would always keep a scorecard and he would fill out, you know, who hit, who got on second, how many strikes the pitcher had, and how many balls. And that’s kind of an interesting mechanism that really forces you to pay attention to it.
Baseball is a bit of a sport that kind of appeals to… has a bit of a slower pace than, say, basketball or football. It doesn’t necessarily translate well onto television. That’s my little theory. It’s a really fun sport if you’re paying attention and you’re there in person. And it’s just a struggle. You’re trying to do your best at trying to hit the ball. There’s the thrill or excitement. Baseball can have some super thrilling moments when you’re watching guys hit the ball, or do double plays, or trying to run it out to second instead of staying on first. And I think all those things appealed to President Nixon just like a lot of other average Americans.
Jonathan Movroydis: Nixon love football. You know, he always used football analogies to talk about life especially life in politics. He talked about Coach Newman, his high school football coach telling him that if you get knocked down, you get up and play another down. How did Nixon think about, you mentioned the scorecards and analyzing the game, but how did Nixon think about baseball?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Nixon tended to find it as a recreation, something that he could put his brain on hold or stop having to think about, you know, income, deferred tax ratios, or the strategy of the Sino-Soviet split. This was just a great way to take in a game, relax. He certainly enjoyed it. Particularly when he was president, he believed that the Senators…at the time, the Washington Senators played in Washington. They have since left and they’re now the Texas Rangers. Actually, there were two versions of the Senators. The first Senators left in 1960, and they became the Minnesota Twins. Baseball put an expansion team in there, and they played in Washington for another 10 years or so, and then they moved to Texas and became the Texas Rangers. But it was a great kind of way to bring a very divergent city together for a few hours, Washington Redskins perform that function today. To some degree, it was a kind of bond. So, it was where you could kind of talk to your opponents or kind of get together with your colleagues.
So, it was just a great recreation, and it was a good way to spend a couple hours in the summer sun. So, I think he felt that that kind of was what baseball did for America. It certainly had a lot of the striving efforts, the struggle efforts that football has. But football has a little bit more of an energetic pace to it than baseball. Nixon certainly found recreation in it. And just for whatever reason, there seemed to be better writing, better literature about baseball than there was football. And I’m sure that certainly appealed to some of his intellectual sides.
He said he loved to read the sports page. One of the reasons he read “The Washington Post” was so he could read what people were writing about baseball players. Shirley Povich who was a sports columnist on the “Washington Post” during those days was one of his favorite writers. Povich is the father of Maury Povich, the television journalist today. So, there was a lot rewarding. There’s absolutely something a little bit timeless about baseball. I don’t wanna oversell that because also it’s, you know, it’s a sport, you go for the entertainment value. So, I think all those things appeal to Nixon, but, you know, there’s this great quote, you know, “If you wanna understand America, you have to understand baseball.” And I think some of that resonated with Nixon. I mean, I can certainly see that in his thinking about baseball and to some degree football, but football kind of appealed in a different way. So, it really was kind of an American sport for him. He enjoyed it, and in that sense, it also made him relatable.
President of the United States has a very odd job in the sense that he’s super powerful. And when we get down to it, not many of us can really relate. And he has to do a lot of different things. And this is any president, and the guy who’s in the office today, the guy who’ll be there next time. People have been there before. You have to do so many different things. You have to juggle, you know, figuring out, you know, tax policies. You have to figure out agricultural policies. You have to decide who you’re gonna appoint to the bench, and so on and so forth. You have to meet with the Girls Scout who sold the most cookies.
You’re juggling a number of different things, and you’re running, and pushing, managing a society of hundreds of millions of people. And that is really a really awesome responsibility, and then, you know, taking foreign policy. So, there are some really serious demands on the job that probably is very difficult for anyone to understand, but yet, we expect the president to be one of us. And if there’re 300 million of us, there are a lot of us. But going to the games allowed Nixon to some degree to be one of us, you know. And he did not go into the dugouts. He sat in the seats with average fans. So, that’s kind of baseball Nixon in a nutshell.
Jonathan Movroydis: You know, a lot of experts, some historians will say that Nixon was an introvert in an extrovert’s profession. In terms of sports, baseball particularly, did Nixon make himself more relatable than other presidents? How does he compare with other presidents in terms of American sports especially baseball and relatability?
Nicholas Sarantakes: There are a lot of presidents who played the sport, you know, both Eisenhower and the first Bush played the sport. The second Bush, you know, owned the Texas Rangers or managed them as a minority owner of the team. Anyway, so a lot of people love the sport. You know, and then for one reason or another, it kind of goes hand in hand with golf. It’s kind of something that’s kind of expected. Very, very few people who have gotten that far have not liked the sport. I mean, you certainly have seen people who have gravitated a little bit more towards football like President Ford, and President Obama was certainly more of a basketball guy than he was a baseball guy. But it is a sport that is in many ways, the sport of American presidents. And, you know, as far…everyone had a kind of a love of the game.
I think one of the few people who didn’t really like it was Theodore Roosevelt. But anyway, it…Roosevelt liked sports. He just, you know, liked football and boxing, and stuff like that. So, it’s just part of…you know, sports is part of the American social fabric. You know, so, in that sense, he was pretty much like a lot of other people who came to the White House or who came to the Oval Office. What was different was that he basically found ways to use the sport to promote himself politically. He was doing a lot of things. He was living Walter Mitty fantasies. And some of the things that he was doing seemed odd at the time, but now seem kind of common place. For example, he invented the practice of calling the team after they won the big game. At the time, that seemed really odd.
The first time he did that with was the ’69 Mets. And John Wooden, the basketball coach at UCLA…this was when Nixon was in office, UCLA was in the midst of winning all those national titles in college basketball. And Wooden said that one of the highlights of his career, one of the biggest honors was when Nixon called him after they had won the national championship. And nowadays, that seems to be pretty much, you know, routine. But that was an innovative way for, you know, the president to say, “Congratulations on this major accomplishment. I know it was tough. You impressed me,” and all that sort of stuff.
So, again, it’s kind of one of those things, we expect a lot of the president other than just the formal powers in the constitution. So, those were great things that Nixon did, or that was one of many great things he did. He also started the practice of holding receptions for teams after they won the big game, and he did some other things. But one of the interesting things about Nixon is when you look at the video of this era, you can see him very relaxed. He enjoyed interacting with the players. It was really fun for him. And he enjoyed talking sports with reporters. There was a certain amount of Nixon being extroverted, Nixon being relaxed, and I’ve actually kind of seen when he would step on stage at some events in some where you kind of see him stiffen up and become the kind of awkward…physically awkward Nixon that we all know and love. But sports really was kind of a release mechanism for him. So, he’s typical and atypical at the same time.
I think what was really unique about him that doesn’t seem that unique nowadays because so many other people have copied him, is that he found ways to kind of relate to the American people using baseball.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you tell us a little bit about that? What instances are there of, you know, him talking to players? Are there any particular instances that stand out in your mind?
Nicholas Sarantakes: There was one moment where Maury Wills who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers showed up at San Clemente and just said, “Hey, can you tell President Nixon I’m here?” And Wills was a very big star with the Dodgers in the ‘70s and, you know, the guards called and, “He’s here? Let him in.” So, the ability to get in and meet the president without an appointment, I don’t think there are a whole lot of people who can do that. I mean, maybe the director of the CIA, you know, and Mrs. Nixon, and that’s probably about it, you know.
So, it gave people a certain accessibility to him or people who were in sport had certain accessibility. And then he starts that practice of calling teams after they win the big game. There was another instance where Carl Yastrzemski who won the MVP trophy for the 1970 All-Star Game… Yastrzemski, for those of you outside New England was a huge star with the Boston Red Sox in the 1970s. Yastrzemski decided he wanted to give the trophy to Nixon, and just said, “I wanna give it to him.” And he happened to be on a plane with one of Nixon’s aides said, “I’d really like to give this trophy to Nixon.” It took a little time to work out the scheduling, but Yastrzemski came to the Oval Office. They had a meeting. And when you listen to Nixon on the White House tapes, I mean, the guy was super happy. He said, “That was a fantastic event.” And then people said, “Well, the idea was Yastrzemski’s and it’s all his,” because Nixon thought someone had engineered it and he’s like, “What? I didn’t even know the guy.” And they said, “Well, he wanted to do it. He really respected you.”
And last time I was in the Nixon Library, that trophy was on prominent display in one of the sections of the library. So, it was something that really resonated with Nixon. So, those were the kind of things, like sports people could kind of get access to him in a way that other people in American society couldn’t because in one way or another, you know, that was something that Nixon wanted to talk about. It was fun. It was a distraction from the otherwise demanding the parts of his job. And these were always really interesting. It’s not quite Nixon and Elvis. But, you know, when you have the president of the United States interacting with famous sportspeople, suddenly, you know, they’re not the most famous person in the room. So, it was probably also a very different experience for many of them as well.
Jonathan Movroydis: You had mentioned Nixon calling New York Mets following in 1969 World Series, their victory over the Baltimore Orioles. Who did he talk to? Was it Casey Stengel?
Nicholas Sarantakes: No. Stengel was not managing the team. It was Gil Hodges. So, he talked to Hodges, and then he talked to the owner, Joan Payson. And it was kind of a brand-new experience. And so, they’re handing Gil Hodges, the manager of the team the phone, and he says, “Who is this?” And everyone was yelling and screaming and pouring champagne. So, it was not necessarily super easy to have a conversation with him, but they were ecstatic because that was kind of like one of the bigger upsets in sports history. We all love the stories of the underdog, so, like, going from worst to first, and the Mets really did that.
So, there wasn’t a profound conversation. It was just like, “Hey, congratulations. You did a great job.” Handed it off to the team owner, “Thank you. Thank you.” And then, you know, it’s like so this was a conversation that probably only lasted about a minute and a half. So, these conversations would get a little more organized as it became more expected and more of a tradition.
Jonathan Movroydis: What was the state of professional baseball in the 1960s? All sports go through, you know, ebbs and flows in terms of popularity, but where was baseball in the 1960s?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Baseball was in a tough spot. We call it the national pastime. And it certainly was that in the first half of the 20th century mainly because there were not a whole lot of other professional sports. The NFL had started off, I believe it was incorporated in 1920, 1921, but professional football remained kind of a product of the Midwest. It would expand to the West Coast a lot sooner than baseball, but it was never really a national pastime even though baseball was only located in the northeast corner of the United States, it had following everywhere.
And there’s a fun little graphic that you can see, I think it’s based on Facebook likes but, like, the Los Angeles Lakers have a following basically. They’re the basketball team on the west side of the Mississippi River. Well, that was the case for a lot of baseball teams. You might have, you know, people in Oregon and Washington loving the New York Yankees even though they’re nowhere close to New York.
So, baseball had been the national pastime for a long time, but then it started to face challenges in the ‘60s, professional football in the form of the NFL, and then also the American Football League, the AFL became very popular because their sport translated well onto television, the designs of the uniforms, the pace, the play. So, that started becoming popular and that was a source of money.
Baseball also inflicted some wounds on itself when you start seeing a lot of franchise relocation. I mentioned before, the Senators moving to Minnesota, and then the next version going to Texas. But the big one came in the late ‘50s when the Giants and the Dodgers moved from New York to the West Coast. But then you see things like the Braves leaving Boston, moving up to Milwaukee, and then moving to Atlanta. You see the A’s who are now in Oakland. Well, they started off in Philadelphia, then they were in Kansas City, and then they were in Oakland.
So, you see a lot of franchise relocation like that. And in one sense, it kind of made some short-sighted economic interest, you know, you can suddenly have a whole market to yourself. There’s a stadium out there that you don’t have to share with anyone, or you can tap into that market. People build your stadium. But what this did was it kind of hurt the fanbase. It hurt loyalty. And then you had a number of other challenges. The sport didn’t come across as well in television and football. Obviously, that’s kind of a win for football, and it’s a negative for baseball.
So, baseball was kind of hurting. And it also done some expansion. You had a couple of expansion teams, and some of those didn’t turn out to be all that stable. So, there was a team in Seattle that lasted a year, the Pilots. And then they moved to Milwaukee and they became the Brewers, and they’re still there today. The San Diego Padres were not particularly financially stable for a couple of years, for the first couple of years. So, baseball had a lot of problems, and they had had some weak leadership as commissioner…1969, Bowie Kuhn became commissioner.
You also have labor problems. Curt Flood is challenging the system. And eventually, that will lead to free agency in the mid-70s, or it’s the first big challenge to the system that basically allowed ownership of the dominant say in deciding where people would play. So, that didn’t play well. There were all these issues, off the field issues that were hurting the popularity of the game.
So, baseball needed to just kind of recover, and Nixon showing such interest, he’d pop into games on a regular basis in 1969. That was a great selling point for the Senators. “Nixon loves us, come on down and see what we got.” Turned out the Senators winning would soon tick through some changes to the play. You had a little bit more offense in ’69. Some of that was also due to expansion by lieu of pitching. But people were starting to see, you know, doubles, and triples, and homeruns.
For a time there, Reggie Jackson was on pace to break the homerun record in one season. So, that added a certain amount of thrill. So, baseball was hurting, and it needed to recover. And it recovered to some degree in the early ‘70s. They were putting out a pretty decent product, and it still had the attachment of a lot of people. And I don’t think, and it all depends on how you wanna configure it and what you wanna use as a criteria, but probable, while Nixon is in office, it is still the national pastime. I don’t think it really gets passed by the NFL in probably until the late ‘70s or the early ‘80s. So, that’s kind of the situation baseball was in. It was dominant but it had lost a lot of its preeminence.
Jonathan Movroydis: Who did Nixon follow? Was he a Senators fan? Which team did he like to follow the best, the most?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Well, he had a rule that he basically rooted for the team in the city in which he lived. So, for a long time, that made him a Senators fan particularly when you’re in Washington as a congressman, a senator, vice president, and eventually president. So, professional baseball did not exist in California when he was growing up. He was obviously in New York for a couple of years in the ‘60s. So, I believe, but I cannot swear to this, that he was a Mets fan during that time period. I know he was a Mets fan when he lived in New Jersey in his post presidential years. But, the long and short answer is he was a Senators fan for a very, very long time.
Jonathan Movroydis: Tell us a little bit about the centennial celebration for baseball on July 22nd, 1969, which I mentioned in the intro. You had an all-star game at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. And you also had President Nixon hosting the current and past greats, the then current and past greats of baseball.
Nicholas Sarantakes: Yes. It was an idea that Nixon came up with himself. That becomes clear when you read Haldeman’s diary, the White House Chief of Staff, H. R. Haldeman. He’s like, “This is great.” And he came up with it with about two months before the event itself, and it just became an issue of trying to figure how to work it in.
Basically, baseball decided that this was their 100th anniversary, and that has to do with the founding of the Cincinnati Reds and the national league. So, they set the…1869 was the start of professional baseball. And there were some people who said, “Well, if that’s the case, then you need to have the all-star game in Cincinnati.” And for whatever reason, Kuhn said, “No. It’s gonna be in Washington.”
They had some receptions the night before, you know, the kind of big-ticket black-tie dinner. And baseball officially announced the greatest players of all time. Babe Ruth was the greatest player of all time, and then the greatest first baseman, and second baseman, etc. And then they put together an official roster of the greatest players alive at that point in time because some of your players like Lou Gehrig or Babe Ruth were deceased. And a title that was given to Joe DiMaggio was the “Greatest Living Baseball Player”. And side note, DiMaggio always insisted on being introduced that way for the rest of his life. And a lot of people who were not familiar with the history thought that was DiMaggio’s ego run amok. And it might have been, but it was also a title that baseball officially gave him.
So, you had all these things, big celebrations. There was going to be kind of a themed 1869 party at RFK stadium. And then Nixon had this idea, and Bowie Kuhn was a smart guy in a sense that he knew a golden opportunity when he saw it, so he said, “Sure.” And they worked out a deal, scheduling, they kind of wedged it in right before the game. And it was basically the important.well, all the all-star players in ’69 were invited, but also members of the hall of fame, and then leading members of baseball, the general manager of the Dodgers, and the Padres, and the Cardinals, and so forth.
So, you had this big reception of baseball people. And, you know, you go, “Okay. What’s the big deal?” Well, this was one of the very first times that you had had a reception for, you know, professional sports. And it was like Nixon shows up. He gives a speech where he says, you know, “You guys are fascinating. I’m always impressed by your skills. I say that as a guy who tried, but never could play the game up to your level.” And then, you know, he said things like, “If I have my life to do it over again, I’d like to be part of baseball, probably as a sports reporter or sportswriter.”
You know, and people started giving Ted Williams a hard time because Ted Williams was the manager of baseball. And he’d actually said, “No writers, no reporters in my locker room after the game.” And they said, “Well, you didn’t hear him say, you know, he wanted to be a manager or an outfielder.” And Williams was kind of like, “Oh, even Richard Nixon deserves one mistake.”
But he gave this really interesting speech, and then he had a reception. He welcomed everyone. And, you know, so there are pictures of him talking to Casey Stengel, Reggie Jackson, or Joe DiMaggio. And he was up on the sport, so he’d chat for a while with Joe DiMaggio who at the time was a coach with the Oakland A’s. DiMaggio was originally from the Bay Area. So, he was working with the A’s and he was actually giving Reggie Jackson hitting tips and all this sort of stuff.
So, he basically had this time, and everyone was like, “I’m in the White House. What am I doing in the White House?” And most of us do not get to go there. You know, you might go as a tourist or something like that, but these people had been invited by the president, and suddenly, they’re in the East Room. They’re chatting with the president of the United States. And there’s the secretary of state and the secretary of defense, and you’re like, “What just happened?” And it seemed to many people, a very surreal event.
And then things kind of broke Nixon’s way. It turned out it rained. And it was the first time that the all-star game had been canceled because of rain. And, you know, it was like Nixon wanted to go. He was up against…he had to, like, leave the next day to greet the crew of Apollo 11. They just, you know, walked on the moon for the first time. So, he’s like, “I got to go there for that.” And it was like, “I really wanted to go to the game. The game was canceled. So, I didn’t get to go to the game.” But that meant that the event basically went on longer, and people were just like, “Hey, this is great. I’m gonna steal myself some White House silverware,” or something like that. But the reporters had nothing to report on. There was no all-star game. So, the big lead in a lot of the sports sections across the country was Nixon’s reception at the White House.
So, this turned out to be great kind of political pageantry. It had kind of been planned a little like that, but it turned out to be much better because sports reporters had a hole to fill in their sports sections, and that was the story.
Jonathan Movroydis: You talked a little bit about Ted Williams. In an earlier podcast, we talked about Nixon’s relationship with him especially his political support. Was there any other players that Nixon particularly liked and had a relationship with, and that supported him politically?
Nicholas Sarantakes: He had a lot of athletes who support him. In 1960 and in 1968, there was a committee called Athletes for Nixon. And there were a lot of people whose names you would recognize. Frank Deford was on that organization, Mario Andretti, Cathy Rigby, the Olympic gymnast, Wilt Chamberlain. So, there were a lot of people who supported him. Ted Williams was one of those guys, and he had a picture of Nixon in his office. I believe it was signed and, you know, that was where their kind of political sentiment kind of lied or where his political sentiment lied.
Nixon surely admired Williams, his sports ability. So, there was a good relationship there. It was not perhaps as close as the relationship Nixon had with George Allen who was the head coach of the Washington Redskins about a year later. In that sense, Nixon and Allen would talk on the phone often at very odd hours. But there was basically a strong mutual admiration society. Nixon had had a good relationship with Jackie Robinson in the 1950s. Robinson had supported in ’60 during the presidential election year, and he had supported him in ’62 when Nixon ran for governor. That relationship didn’t last, being mainly, Robinson became very bitter towards this play in various sports sections and the answer is, incredibly well.
A number of sports sections even newspapers that you might think would be very hostile to Nixon gave it prominent play. “The Boston Globe” devoted an entire page to the thing. It reprinted his article, included in roster of all the players, a lot of pictures of individual players particularly those who were Red Sox. But other papers gave a lot of prominent play to it. So, it was a great way to get a lot of positive media attention without not really doing anything political. And some papers just went crazy.
“The Indianapolis Star,” which does not…did not have a baseball team then or even now basically put it on the front page of the newspaper, not the front page of the sports section, on the front page of the paper, and they actually put it on top of the paper. So, it’s actually above the masthead. So, you have “Nixon’s historic all-star game”. And then you have all these pictures, and then it says, “The Indianapolis Star.”
So, it just was incredible. And then there’s, as always, there’s gonna be kind of reverberations from the “Sports Illustrated” do their thing. And they were kind of cynical and said, “This is, you know, a cheesy attempt to get publicity.” And there’s certainly an element of truth to that, but people would selling their news stories, interviewing players who had been retired for a long time like Harmon Killebrew who’s like, “Oh, just stunned, what an honor, thank you, thank you, thank you.” The children of players writing letters to the White House, or people saying, “Well, this is a good pick, but, you know, this guy shouldn’t have been there. This guy should’ve been there.”
So, it plays out for another week or so on sports sections. So, it was an incredible effort at political pageantry, of getting good publicity. I mean, and certainly, Nixon was genuine in what he was doing, but it was also just great. And oh by the way, it’s the summer of 1972, a presidential election year. So, that had a little bit of a factor in it as well. So, I’m not saying that’s why Nixon just dominated in November, but it certainly was an effort to, you know, convince the American people that he was one of them, and it certainly, it worked. I mean, people spent some time talking about Nixon as a sports pundit. And there are certainly people who were critical of it, who thought his writing was poor or that he made really bad choices. But even when you’re quibbling about that stuff, you’re still kind of, you know, buying into, you know, the undertaking.
So, it was, in one sense, a brilliant political effort on Nixon’s part. And it wasn’t really that cynical. I mean, with every politician, there’s a certain amount of that, but there really was a genuine effort to kind of, you know, pick who the great players were and then explain why. So, it was really an interesting, fun experience doing that kind of serious historical research.
Jonathan Movroydis: Did you get a sense of what his methodology was in selecting those players?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Not really. I mean, he wasn’t really looking for offensive guys or defensive guys. I think he was, you know, trying to find the best person in each position. Now, what he ran up against is that some positions like I think relief pitchers were not particularly strong during the prewar period. There was a greater tendency to have guys play longer. So, then there was a certain problem in finding people, and I think towards…my take is towards the end, I mean, there was obviously like… You know, you could have five brilliant guys playing first base, and it’s one of the reasons why you have it so you can…you don’t have to choose between this guy or that guy. But I think towards the end, it was like, “Well, who do I put at shortstop, or who do I put at right field?” or something like that. “I don’t have a lot of strong candidates.”
But the methodology seem to be… I mean, someone joked at, you know, if there’s one of the new stories or sports columnist that if there’s a minority group that isn’t represented, it’s not a very important minority group. So, I mean, you know, there was the mandatory, you know, Polish-American. There was the mandatory Czechoslovakian American. You know, there are the Catholics and Greek Americans. Actually, I don’t think there were any Greek Americans. But, you know, he had a couple people who probably didn’t really belong there. One was his brother’s college roommate, but he kind of even admitted to that. “He’s a friend of a family, so I put him in.”
But this was more just kind of trying to pick the guys, and he kind of started with who was in the Hall of Fame and kind of went from there. But again, the Hall of Fame has some weak spots, you know. It wasn’t particularly strong in relief pitchers, and I don’t believe it was in the ‘70s particularly strong in shortstops. I could be wrong on that. But there were one or two positions that were underrepresented. So, he had to kind of fill in a little bit towards the end.
Jonathan Movroydis: Some of your research has to do with the Nixon audiotapes. How did the tapes help tell the story about Nixon and baseball?
Nicholas Sarantakes: They’re really interesting because ultimately, it’s like being there. I joke with friends that it’s kind of like being, it’s like the West Wing but for real. So, you get to listen to the president, and just being the president. And you get to listen to him talking to people. And when I first started using this, the tape was kind of made available and I’m listening to it. And it’s like, “Okay, I know Nixon’s voice, but I have no idea who that other person, nor that other person is.” Because, you know, these aren’t voice that you recognize. Kissinger you recognize because it’s so distinctive, but who’s Haldeman and what does Ehrlichman sound like, I don’t know, Colson, who knows?
So, as time went on and people organized the tapes, it got a little easier. But even then, the tapes are, you know…and this kind of reflects the White House, you know. There are a lot of recordings, so you’re kind of scrolling through and it’s like, “Oh, that’s Nixon talking about agricultural policy. Not interested. Let’s fast-forward a little bit more. Oh, there’s Nixon…” And you’d listen to it for five minutes and go, “Oh, that’s Nixon talking about the midterm elections. Not interested.” But as a result, you kind of start picking up what it’s like to be in…working in the White House. And there were times when, I mean, it was really interesting. I mean, there’s no question who was the boss. When Nixon talked, people stopped talking, and no one really tried to talk over him. The only person who came close, and he only did it once or twice, was Haldeman.
You basically get to listen to the president making decisions, thrashing things out. Sometimes he’s like, “Well, look at this memo. What do I do about this?” And sometimes it’s just guys sitting there talking. Sometimes you wonder who was in charge because I was listening to one tape and you’re like, you have a meeting here and this is gonna be who’s in it. And it’s like, “Really? Okay. Oh, okay. Mrs. Lombardi is gonna be there. Okay.” Vince Lombardi’s widow. So, sometimes you’re like, “Okay. Who made this decision? The president doesn’t seem to know about it.” But other times, it was very clear that the president was the guy in the room who was in charge.
And you see a lot of thinking, Nixon thrashing things out. This is a very sophisticated thinker not only in sports things but also in politics things and policy things. So, it was really a rewarding experience. It was like being there. And I found it one of the highlights of my professional historical career.
Jonathan Movroydis: One of the famous phone calls that Nixon made was to Hank Aaron in the last year when Nixon was in office on April 8th, 1974, when Hank Aaron hits his 714-career homerun and by-passes Babe Ruth for the homerun record. Could you tell us a little bit about that call?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Well, that call was after the tapes had been publicly exposed. So, it’s not one that’s been recorded, but it was, again, one of those things that Nixon did, that’s a huge moment in baseball history. Someone is replacing Babe Ruth, no one really can replace Babe Ruth, but he was breaking the statistic record that Babe Ruth had set. So, he gave the phone call, and again, it’s one of those things where today it would seem pretty commonplace. And Hank Aaron was like, “Hey, congratulations. Guess who’s on the phone?” And he’s like, “What?” So, they talked there and, you know, Hank Aaron literally tells people, he just wanted talk baseball. And it was really a fun conversation. And Aaron kind of jokes, “If I’d known he was such a nice guy, I probably would’ve voted the other way.” So, it’s one of those things. It’s kind of now commonplace, but at the time, it was really a unique different event.
Jonathan Movroydis: Nixon had been considered for the commissioner job, general counsel. He helped with the arbitration dispute in 1985. Could you tell us a little bit about Nixon’s involvement in the business of baseball?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Sure. Nixon loved the game, and he often thought or usually thought that the players were what made the sport. He has a lot of comments about that. But a lot of his backers were wealthy individuals who oftentimes owned baseball teams. In fact, the gentleman who owned Cincinnati Reds during the early ‘70s was a prominent, I think he was the treasurer of the committee to reelect. So, Nixon basically had fans on both side of the management labor dispute or divide in baseball. It really wasn’t a dispute, but, you know, on both sides.
And a number of the people who established the Players’ Union were actually Republicans. And they actually wanted Nixon to be involved with the league. So, this isn’t kind of a left to center labor union. And anyway, they basically tried to convince Marvin Miller to let Nixon do legal work for the Players’ Union. And Nixon was interested in the early mid-‘60s when he was more or less out of politics. He was basically a corporate lawyer operating out in New York, and he really was interested in this. Marvin Miller wasn’t, and I think in that sense, he kind of misread the situation. But Nixon was really interested in doing the job. It didn’t work out, but it was something that I think Nixon was very interested in. His sentiments were with the players.
There was talk about making him commissioner. One of the problems that baseball had that hurt it in the 1960s is it had weak leadership. And then they eventually fired the commissioner and brought in Bowie Kuhn in ’69. So, Nixon was interested in baseball, kind of on both sides of the issue. I think he probably would have been as successful as Bowie Kuhn, had he become commissioner. Of course, that would’ve probably been, you know, the end of his political career if he had taken that, and I think he wasn’t ready to write things off as we see, you know, he gets himself elected in ’68. But he offered to manage a dispute between the players and the owners. And the first baseball strike took place in ’71 or ’72. That was very brief. It only lasted about seven or eight days. And then in ’85, he managed or arbitrated the dispute between the part of union in baseball and came up with a pretty decent deal that kind of rewarded the empires in a quite healthy sense.
So, even though he was Republican who kind of his sentiments were with management, he understood the other side of the issue. And this was not simply, you know, “You should be grateful that you get paid to play a kids’ game.” He really understood that when you’re going out there and you’re putting your body on the line, there’s a chance of getting seriously healthy, you deserve to be financially compensated in a reasonable manner. Because you wanna make money doesn’t make you greedy or anything like that. I mean, the owners are making money off of this thing. So, he understood both sides of the issue. And actually, it was far more, I guess the word is moderate than people probably expected. His sympathies certainly were with the labor side of that divide.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, professor of history at Naval War College, and author of “Fan in Chief: Richard Nixon and American Sports, 1969 – 1974” coming soon in October. Our topic was Richard Nixon and his love for America’s pastime, baseball. Nick, thank you so much for joining us.
Nicholas Sarantakes: This was a fun treat. Thank you for having me.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcast at nixonfoundation.org or on your favorite podcast app. This Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.