- The Washington Times - Monday, June 7, 2004

“Baseball is our national pastime that is, if you discount political campaigning.”

“It’s just an ugly rumor that Gaylord Perry and I are the only two people left alive who saw Abner Doubleday throw out the first pitch.”

“I wouldn’t care if a stray ball came through the Oval Office window now and then.”

Ronald Reagan

The nation’s 40th president had a million of ‘em, and many dealt with sports. Even if people didn’t agree with his politics, Reagan won friends with his “aw shucks, I’m just an ordinary guy” demeanor. And how better to be one of the boys than by being a big sports fan?

Reagan’s self-imposed nickname of the Gipper came from his role as doomed football star George Gipp in his first big movie, “Knute Rockne, All American.” When he was shot in a 1981 assassination attempt, the new president borrowed a post-defeat line from boxer Jack Dempsey to console his wife: “Honey, I forgot to duck.” But baseball was the sport that most captivated Reagan, who reached maturity at a time when it was the national pastime in fact rather than fancy.

Greeting 32 players from the 1981 Cracker Jack Old-Timers game on the White House lawn, Reagan noted, “This is a lot more fun than being president.”

And why in the world was the planet’s most important person sharing a microphone with Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray at a game in 1988? “Well, you know in a few months I’m going to be out of work, and I thought I might as well audition.”

Considering Harry’s well-known yakety-yak tendencies, it’s a wonder Reagan didn’t say something like, “Mr. Caray, tear down that wall of verbosity.”

Reagan came by his love of sports naturally, having played football at Dixon (Ill.) High School and Eureka (Ill.) College, as well as swimming and running track competitively. Ironically, he never enjoyed playing baseball because “I was ball-shy at batting. … I was always the last player chosen for a side.”

No problem. A middle-aged Reagan did a workmanlike job portraying Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander in the 1952 film, “The Winning Team” — and even got to be in love with co-star Doris Day (chastely, of course).

As nearly everyone knows, “Dutch” Reagan became a sportscaster in the early ‘30s and soon found himself recreating Cubs games over Des Moines radio station WHO. Recreations, now a long-lost art, featured an announcer sitting in a studio far from the event and being handed strips of Western Union copy containing what seemed like, but wasn’t, gibberish.

“I’d get something that said ‘S-I-C,’ and you can’t sell many Wheaties if you just yell ‘S-I-C,’” Reagan observed decades later in Curt Smith’s voluminous “Voices of the Game.” “So I would say, ‘Dean comes out of the windup, here comes the pitch, and … it’s a called strike breaking over the outside corner to a batter who likes the ball a little bit higher.’”

But when the wire transmission broke down — a fairly common occurrence — hoo boy!

“Once when that happened, I had a ball on its way to the plate, and there was no way to call it back,” Reagan recalled. “So I had Augie Galan foul off the pitch. He fouled off pitches for the next six minutes. … [When the transmission was restored,] I clutched at the first slip handed me. It said Galan had popped out on the first pitch.”

No wonder he was so good at those televised White House press conferences, even if he sometimes didn’t know a fact or two.

Reagan also broadcast University of Iowa football games — on the scene. He quit the sportscasting racket after taking a Hollywood screen test while covering the Cubs in spring training at Catalina Island and being signed to a contract. The rest is, literally, history.

Actor Reagan was something of a perpetual second banana, working in dozens of films but seldom getting top billing or the girl. Later, as president, he sometimes seemed to confuse the mostly unmemorable roles he had played. Once in a discussion with House Speaker Tip O’Neill, the subject of presidential predecessor Grover Cleveland arose.

“I played him in a movie,” Reagan exclaimed.

“No, Mr. President, you played Grover Cleveland Alexander,” O’Neill replied.

Retelling the incident, O’Neill said jokingly, “I knew then that the country was in trouble.”

But how could it be, with a president who loved sports as Reagan did?

During the early 1980s, players on championship teams often had to endure awkward congratulatory telephone calls from Reagan, whose face wasn’t seen and whose voice was barely heard on TV. The best response came from World Series MVP Rick Dempsey after the Orioles defeated the Phillies in 1983.

“Mr. President,” Dempsey said exuberantly, “you tell those Russians we’re having a good time playing baseball over here.”

And Ronald Reagan, sports fan, had a good time watching.

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