Our Would-Be Fans-in-Chief

Both candidates have sung "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" at Wrigley Field. (pics via Gage Skidmore)

Both candidates have sung “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” at Wrigley Field. (pics via Gage Skidmore)

No matter who wins the presidential election in November, it will be a dark day for America. For the first time since World War II, a Yankees fan is going to occupy the Oval Office.

It’s practically a prerequisite for American presidents to drape themselves in the national pastime. Eisenhower played semi-pro ball under an assumed name in college. Reagan began his acting career as a Cubs broadcaster in Iowa. George W. Bush was co-owner and managing partner of the Rangers before embarking on his political career.

So it’s good that, regardless of which one becomes the 45th president of the United States of America—and yes, it has to be one of the two—Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both have long histories with the national pastime. Those baseball connections have even shaped their personalities, informed their political styles, and fed into the images that we the voters have of the candidates today—both for good and for bad.

Born in Chicago in 1947, Hillary Rodham Clinton grew up in suburban Park Ridge, Ill., a fan of Ernie Banks and the Chicago Cubs. It was a poor decision. The year Clinton was born—just two years after what remains their last World Series appearance—the Cubs began a streak of 15 consecutive non-winning seasons, never finishing higher than fifth in the National League. “I remember talking with my dad in those days, worrying about the Cubs in the same way you’d discuss an errant child,” Clinton later recalled.

As a child, Clinton didn’t want to be president; instead, she aspired to be either a journalist, an astronaut—or a baseball player. A gender pioneer from an early age, Clinton eschewed girls’ softball and insisted on playing overhand, hard-pitch baseball with the neighborhood boys. The rough-and-tumble experience lent her her trademark toughness and simulated her later career as one of the first powerful women to break into another man’s world, Washington, D.C.—where, as in youth baseball, she has always had a target on her back. “I’m so glad I learned to play hardball when I was a little girl,” she quipped as first lady in 1994, amid her bruising health-care fight.

Clinton left Chicago for college just as Billy Williams and fellow Park Ridge resident Ron Santo were emerging to make the Cubs respectable again, but she continued to follow the team from afar. Her fandom was tested when, at Yale Law School, she met and fell in love with a St. Louis Cardinals fan. But by the time Bill Clinton was elected president, his wife had converted him to the church of the Cubs.

As first lady, Hillary Clinton threw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field on Opening Day 1994.

That season, the Cubs went 49–64 and must have been glad it was cut short. That day, Clinton received an enthusiastic kiss on the cheek from Harry Caray after singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

She was a member of the Emil Verban Memorial Society, a Cubs fan club for Washington VIPs, where she delighted in the company of childhood heroes like Don Cardwell, “Moose” Moryn, and Mr. Cub himself (who also introduced her at the 1996 Democratic National Convention). After Hurricane Georges devastated the Dominican Republic in 1998, Clinton worked with Sammy Sosa, fresh off his 66-home-run MVP season, on relief efforts.

The Cubs went 90–73 that year, capturing the NL Wild Card, but it was the New York Yankees who came away World Series champions, and on June 10, 1999, they came to the White House for their championship ceremony. The first lady usually stayed away from such events, but at this one, she not only showed up, but she led the proceedings with a glowing introduction of George Steinbrenner and his squad. When Joe Torre presented the first couple with a pair of hats with the familiar “NY” logo stitched on the front, the president accepted his politely—but Hillary Clinton excitedly tied back her hair and pulled the cap tightly on. She stood beside Steinbrenner in the front row, cap firmly in place, for the whole ceremony, grinning from ear to ear. To Cubs fans, it was unthinkable.

(via New York Daily News)

(via New York Daily News)

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Cynics saw the shift as nakedly political. Earlier that week, Clinton had formed an exploratory committee to run for the open U.S. Senate seat in New York—despite never having lived in the state. To many, the first lady was just latching onto the Yankees to establish her New York cred—another slick move by the supposedly calculating Clintons. But appearing on NBC’s Today Show, she told Katie Couric, “The fact is, I’ve always been a Yankees fan.” To a skeptical Couric, Clinton explained, “I am a Cubs fan, but I needed an American League team … so as a young girl, I became very interested and enamored of the Yankees.”

Then, as now, people accused Clinton of lying to advance her political career. But in this case, the facts were on her side. A young Hillary Rodham had idolized Mickey Mantle, even dressing as him for Halloween when she was seven. Photos surfaced of Clinton wearing Yankees gear before she even became first lady, and a newspaper article from 1994 identified her as a “big-time fan of the Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees.” It turns out all those years of heartbreak on the North Side had taken their toll. “I had to search for a team that would counterbalance the experience of losing every single year, so—I hate to say this, and I know you’ll boo me—I became a Yankees fan,” she later explained. “I alternated my affections because it was just too hard being a Cubs fan.”

The episode has echoes two decades later amid Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Those close to Clinton insist she is warm and authentic in person, yet she has developed a reputation as artful and aloof. By all accounts, the young Clinton was a serious, sincere fan, but her overeagerness to prove her baseball bona fides led most to dismiss them as a pander or a fake. The bad timing of her pro-Yankees revelation exhibited the oft-cited Clinton ignorance—some would say hubris—that they are somehow immune from the regular rules of politics.

Clinton carries her double fandom into the present day. In 2007, when both the Yankees and the Cubs made the playoffs, she admitted, “I guess I would have to alternate” if both advanced to the World Series. As secretary of state, she kept an Ernie Banks signed baseball in a place of honor in her office, but she also gifted Derek Jeter game-used bats to foreign dignitaries. She recently held a fundraiser with Laura Ricketts, the Cubs co-owner, but she has also accepted donations from Yankees like Alex Rodriguez.

But if professional baseball players decided the 2016 election, it would be Clinton’s Republican opponent who would get the W.

Growing up in Queens in the 1950s and 1960s, Donald J. Trump was a talented and competitive athlete. He played football, soccer, basketball and wrestling, but his best and favorite sport was baseball. At age 12, he wrote an ode to the sport in the Kew-Forest School yearbook:

I like to hear the crowd give cheers,
So loud and noisy to my ears.
When the score is 5–5, I feel like I could cry.
And when they get another run, I feel like I could die.
Then the catcher makes an error,
Not a bit like Yogi Berra.
The game is over and we say,
Tomorrow is another day.”

In sixth grade, the right-handed-batting Trump was such a power threat that opposing teams resorted to a novel tactic—you might call it a rigged system—to beat him: the shift. Trump could have slapped the ball to an empty right field for a hit every time, but, even then, he was too self-confident, too determined to pick a fight with the rest of the world. He kept pulling the ball anyway. “He always wanted to hit the ball through people,” a classmate explained. “He wanted to overpower them.”

Candidate Trump’s thin skin and quickness to anger were evident on the diamond as well. Upon making an out, he sometimes exploded in rage, on one occasion smashing another player’s bat into the ground. But the intense attitude worked for him. True to his brand, Trump the baseball player kept winning and winning.

At the New York Military Academy, Trump became captain of his high-school baseball team. He dirtied his uniform on a daily basis with his gritty play at catcher and first base. When he took the mound, he fired off 80-mile-per-hour heat. (“He made my hand black and blue every day,” his catcher remembers.) Coaches and teammates started talking about him going pro—and it wasn’t idle praise. Both the Phillies and Red Sox scouted the star senior in 1964, but Trump was determined to go to college and “make real money.” Whereas Hillary Clinton dreamed of growing up to be a baseball player, Trump actually had the chance—and didn’t want it. He ended his playing career by breaking open a 4–4 game to win the championship for NYMA.

Trump went on to make his “real money” in real estate, but with it did not come the media attention and elite acceptance that he craved. So Donald Trump resolved to become a sports magnate. In February 1983, Trump made a $13 million offer to buy the Cleveland Indians. When team ownership resisted, he increased the bid to $34 million. He came close to closing the deal, but it fell apart amid rumors that Trump planned to relocate the franchise to Tampa—channeling Rachel Phelps six years before Major League. The same year, Trump made overtures to the Minnesota Twins, offering $50 million to then-owner Cal Griffith. That sale, too, failed to materialize, perhaps because of Major League Baseball’s exacting standards for its club of owners. (Trump’s casino connections—and probably plenty of other factors—also made his 2011 interest in buying the New York Mets a non-starter.) Eventually Trump found a league desperate enough to accept him: a new pro football confederation called the United States Football League. He bought the USFL’s New Jersey Generals in late 1983 and ran the league into the ground by late 1986.

The failure of the USFL is part of a broader campaign narrative by Trump’s critics that he is hardly the wildly successful businessman that he claims to be. But the 37-year-old Trump’s stubbornness also hinted at his later motivations for running for president. In both 1983 and 2016, Trump was fueled by an insatiable desire to be taken seriously—by sports figures, by political elites, by the general public. When his first advances were rebuffed, he commanded their attention.

As Trump’s fame spread, he was invited to throw out ceremonial first pitches for the likes of the Red Sox and Cubs. At Wrigley, the crowd booed when he sang the seventh-inning stretch, but he made friends with one section at least. In front of his private box, Section 107 urged him to “Buy the Cubs! Buy the Cubs!” with a mid-game chant, and when one fan held up a sign reading, “Don—We Need Beer,” Trump—ever a man of the people—sent a round down.

These days, Trump seems to be a casual fan of both the Mets and the Yankees; he occasionally uses his company’s Mets season tickets, but the Bombers are the team he is most often associated with. Before his presidential run, he tweeted about the Yankees constantly, claiming to be a “long time” fan. He has said that if he could own any team in sports, it would be the Yankees. Perhaps fantasizing about himself in the role, he often attends games in the owner’s box at Yankee Stadium, where he once memorably did the Wave with Bill O’Reilly in what has become one of the funniest crowd shots of all time:

But despite that relationship, Trump isn’t afraid to “tell it like it is” about baseball, too. He thinks Derek Jeter is a “total winner” and a “great guy” but seemed hurt when Jeter moved out of Trump Tower. The day after Jeter broke his ankle in the 2012 playoffs, Trump tweeted:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently asked Jeter whether he would want to be Trump’s running mate, the one-time Obama supporter and future Hall of Famer politely declined, saying “that sounds like too much work.”

Perhaps due to a personal grudge — Trump says he had a “bad experience” when he was his landlord — Trump has had harsher words for Alex Rodriguez:

He also called Rodriguez a “bad guy,” advocated for his contract to be voided, and accused him of “partying all over the country.” But in 2015, amid Rodriguez’s .250/.356/.486 comeback season, he told the slugger, “You’re doing a hell of a job, great job,” while the pair hung out at a golf event. Clearly Trump’s flexibility on the issues is not limited to politics.

When the mood strikes, Trump will occasionally offer comment about a team other than the Yankees. After the Stephen Strasburg shutdown in 2012, he (incorrectly, as it turned out) predicted the young ace would walk away from the Nationals in free agency. Trump has also tweeted praise of the Mets’ David Wright and Carlos Beltran, then of the Cardinals. In return, plenty of baseball players have endorsed his run for president: usual suspects like John Rocker and Curt Schilling, but also names like Paul O’Neill, Clay Buchholz, George Brett, Ryan Madson and Johnny Damon, who got to know Trump as a participant on Celebrity Apprentice. (The world is still waiting for the endorsements of baseball’s two other failed celebrity apprentices, Darryl Strawberry and Jose Canseco.)

However, Trump’s non-endorsements in the baseball world that have actually turned into legitimate issues on the 2016 campaign trail. On the eve of the Ohio primary, Trump told a crowd in Cincinnati, “We gotta let Pete Rose in the Hall of Fame.” That evening, Trump tweeted a picture of a signed baseball from Rose that appeared to endorse him: “Mr. Trump—please make America great again. Pete Rose.” They were a perfect fit: the gambler and the casino owner, both treated “very unfairly” by elites and the media. But it was not true. Rose’s lawyer clarified that the Hit King was not endorsing Trump; he had merely fulfilled a request for a signed, sloganed baseball. Trump lost the Ohio primary 47 percent to 36 percent.

In addition, the owners of the Cubs and Diamondbacks, both major Republican donors, led the effort to stop Trump during the GOP primaries. The Cubs’ Marlene Ricketts poured $3 million into the unsuccessful campaign to discredit Trump, prompting him to threaten to run TV ads exposing the alleged mismanagement of the NL Central–leading ballclub. “I hear the Rickets family, who own the Chicago Cubs, are secretly spending $’s against me. They better be careful, they have a lot to hide!” The wife of D-backs owner Ken Kendrick, Randy, managed to escape his ire, perhaps because she only donated less than half a million to anti-Trump super PACs.

Choose wisely, America.

References & Resources

Nathaniel Rakich writes about politics and baseball at Baseballot. He has also written for The New Yorker, Grantland, The New Republic, and Let's Go Travel Guides. Follow him on Twitter @baseballot.
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7 years ago

Hmmm. Mrs. Clinton flip-flopping on the issues. Some things never change.

Marc Schneider
7 years ago
Reply to  Liam

Unlike Trump, of course, who has never flip-flopped on any issue. Yeah, right.

Dennis Bedard
7 years ago

George H.W. Bush was the starting first basemen for Yale in the 1930’s for what that is worth.

Jason S.
7 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

You’re off by a decade. George H.W. went to Yale after World War II ended which would make it the late 1940s.

7 years ago

Here’s what bugs me about Trump: he was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.

Marc Schneider
7 years ago

Just think; if there had been free agency when Trump was deciding on a career, there might have been enough money to make it worthwhile for him to go into baseball and, perhaps, he would be running a team into the ground rather than trying to run the country into the ground.

Jason Bourne's Brother
7 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

“rather than trying to run the country into the ground.”

Do not worry! The regressive left have already done that!

Marc Schneider
7 years ago

Yes, and we see how successful the right has been. Great job there, George Bush.

Yehoshua Friedman
7 years ago

This election campaign may yet run America into the ground. On this site I would really, REALLY appreciate sticking to baseball.

Drew Keller
7 years ago

If the Cubs do win the world series, I hope HRC is not vocal about her “love” (note the quotes) of the cubbies. i can’t stand bandwagon fans and i would consider her one since she jumped ship when she decided to support two teams because she “had to search for a team that would counterbalance the experience of losing every single year”. pure bandwagonism. no thank you.