Matching presidents and ballplayers, 1869-1933by Chris Jaffe
August 04, 2008
When you write columns here at THT, you have to start with an idea. The goal is to find something original or interesting to say about the grand old game people have been talking about for over a century.
Some ideas are the result of diligent study, deep thought, insightful analysis or impressive research. Fortunately, this isn't one of those. That's what guys like John Walsh and Sal Baxamusa are for. This column is intended more as a lark. Hopefully, it's not just enjoyable for me.
The idea is basic. List every president who has been in office during the history of major league baseball, and find an athlete who played the game during his time in the Oval Office who best reflects his man and/or his administration.
The criteria for choosing a pair? Whatever the hell I feel works best. See? Told ya there was no impressive researcher here. It sounds like a neat little mental game to play, and hopefully you'll get a kick out of it to. Who knows, maybe you'll even learn something, but I swear to God that's an accident. That's not the intent at all.
Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)/Asa Brainard
Grant is, of course, far better known for his service in the Civil War than his presidency. That's a good thing for him because he was a terrible president with a term in office marked by scandal and poor governance.
Brainard was one of the game's primordial pitchers. Born in 1841, he must have peaked in the 1860s, just like Grant. By the time the game organized, he was a rotten pitcher whose time in the NA was marked by losses and poor pitching.
Oh yeah, according to the original Historical Abstract, Brainard also battled the bottle, making him that much more an effective match for Grant. Finally, he died in the 1880s, just as Grant did. His tomb wasn't quite as large as the former president's though.
Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-81)/Charley Jones
Ol' Rutherford wasn't an especially memorably president. Aside from having a quintessential 19th-century name (have you ever met anyone named Rutherford?) he is primarily known for how he got elected. The 1876 race is probably the most disputed in US history (yes, even more than 2000) with both sides claiming victory for a while afterwards.
Eventually, it ended with the Compromise of 1877, in which the Republicans got the White House (Hayes was the GOP candidate), in exchange for ending post-Civil War Reconstruction. The Democrats, billing itself as the white man's party in the South, ensured their power there, and blacks got screwed. Thus Hayes' election helped incorporate the South back into the nation.
Charley Jones' presence in baseball helped ensure the incorporation of southerners into the game's national pastime. If you look at 1870s and 1880s baseball, it's almost entirely populated by individuals from the northeast quadrant of the country. Only slowly did recruitment filter out around the country. North Carolina native Jones was MLB's first star born in the former Confederacy.
Both are largely forgotten. It's difficult to think of any major achievements under Hayes' tenure. Jones disappeared so completely that we still don't know his death date, making him the most prestigious player in the Tomb of the Unknown Ballplayer.
James A. Garfield (1881)/Mickey Welch
Mickey Welch had a rough go of it on July 2, 1881. Starting that Saturday afternoon against the eventual pennant-winning Cubs, he got his hat handed to him, as the Cubs thumped him 10-5. (Game logs don't exist, but he completed all his starts that year, so all 10 runs fell on him).
As for President Garfield...well, let's just say that afternoon wasn't one of the most enjoyable experiences of his life either.
Welch survived and lingered on long enough in MLB to win 300 games and a place in Cooperstown. Garfield lingered for a bit, but didn't survive.
Chester A. Arthur (1881-5)/[N]Ed Williamson
Chester A. Arthur wasn't supposed to be president. He was the ultimate political hack. He had only been given the vice presidential slot on the ticket to help quell unusually fierce internal fighting in the GOP. Once president, he sure as heck wasn't supposed to do anything memorable, but he surprised people by championing civil service reform.
Ed Williamson wasn't supposed to be a slugger. He was a great fielder and a good hitter, but in his first half-dozen seasons he launched only 11 homers. However, in 1884 the Cubs decided all balls hit over the comically short portion of their outfield fence (balls that were considered doubles in all other seasons) would be homers, allowing Williamson to hit a bunch.
Once a slugger, he sure as heck wasn't supposed to be a record-setting one. The team had big bashers in Cap Anson and Abner Dalrymple who were generally more impressive than him. But in 1884, it was Williamson who led the league with 27 homers, a single-season mark that stood until Ruth came along.
Grover Cleveland (1885-9; 1893-7)/Pud Galvin
Cleveland got his start in Buffalo, New York. Well, technically he was born in New Jersey, but his career really took off in Buffalo, where he served as sheriff for the county and then later mayor. Galvin got his start in Buffalo pitching for the Bisons. He actually started two-thirds of their games in their NL existence from 1879-85.
Both have their own distinguishing marks on history. Cleveland is the only man to win non-consecutive presidential terms, and Galvin was the game's first 300-game winner. It was enough to get one man on the (no longer existing) $1,000 bill and the other a space in Cooperstown.
Cleveland lasted far longer than any peer in presidential politics. Between Andrew Jackson in the 1830s and FDR in the 1930s, only three men served eight full years as president. Cleveland not only belonged to that exclusive club, but he did it in unorthodox fashion, serving them over 12 years.
Galvin similarly had an unusually long career. He was never the best pitcher, but he was the most durable. He was the only pitcher to begin his career in the NA who outlasted the AA.
Cleveland was the first man in history to win the popular vote three times in presidential elections. (He lost the electoral vote in 1888). Galvin is one of the very few (only?) men to pitch in the NA, AA, PL, and NL. Cleveland was the first president to die in the 20th century. I think Galvin was the first Hall of Famer to do likewise.
Benjamin Harrison (1889-93)/Amos Rusie
Amos Rusie was nicknamed the Hoosier Thunderbolt. It made sense given that he was from Indiana, broke into MLB pitching for an ill-fated Indianapolis squad and had the best fastball of his day.
Though Benjamin Harrison was born in Ohio, he came into his own in Indiana and made that state his political base. He was such a boring and forgettable president that being from Indiana might be his most distinctive feature. Pretty sad, isn't it?
William McKinley (1897-1901)/Bobby Lowe
McKinley has a strange reputation as a president. On the face of it, he differs little if at all from many of the late 19th-century presidents. He generally backed the same laissez faire, pro-big business policies they did.
But he generally has a different reputation from most of them. Maybe it's just the effects of winning two consecutive elections, or being martyred in office, but if you read much about McKinley it often focuses on his personal style. He was a kinder, gentler plutocrat. (Though I'm sure the Hawaiians and Filipinos would dispute that idea, it's one commonly expressed in writings on him.) His congenial disposition stood out in the era.
The 1890s were a rough and tough time in the baseball world with squads like the Baltimore Orioles and Cleveland Spiders embracing every underhand maneuver they could think of to win games. In this period, the Boston Beaneaters' old-fashioned, cordial style of play stood out.
Bobby Lowe was the second baseman on that most dignified of squads. He wasn't the best or the most valuable player they had. Far from it. That makes the parallel even better though. McKinley was not a great president, to put it mildly. I'm sure he was a nice guy, but his main achievement was killing a bunch of Spaniards because the USS Maine blew up due to an internal explosion.
A second-rate player from a likable team is the best comparison I can make to a second-rate president who happened to be a nice man.
Theodore Roosevelt (1901-9)/Honus Wagner
Teddy Roosevelt dominated American politics in the first decade of the 20th century. At the same time, Honus Wagner dominated baseball. Both were extremely popular with the masses. Wagner was arguably the game's best player through 1912, the year Roosevelt last ran for president.
Roosevelt made history when he became the first president in history to threaten to call out the army to settle a strike on behalf of the workers. Previous presidents had only intervened on behalf of the bosses. It was a Pennsylvania coal miners' strike; Wagner was born into a Pennsylvania coal miner family.
Roosevelt got his mug on Mount Rushmore, one of only four men on what is arguably the highest honor bestowed on any president. Wagner was part of baseball's Rushmore: one of the first five men elected into Cooperstown. Wagner's nickname was "the Flying Dutchman." Roosevelt descended from New York's Dutch stock.
William Howard Taft (1909-13)/Smokey Joe Wood
Both these men had two-part careers. Wood began as a dominant starting pitcher and ended up a regular outfielder. Taft is the only man to serve as head of the executive and judicial branches of the government; after serving as president, he became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court throughout the 1920s.
Woodrow Wilson (1913-21)/Ty Cobb
Woodrow Wilson was the first southerner to become president since the Civil War. Born in Virginia, he had first made a name for himself when he came north, first as president of Princeton University then in New Jersey politics. Likewise, Cobb was a southerner who made a name for himself after coming north. In his case, to Detriot.
Both were quite racist. That hardly made them unique or even noteworthy at that time, but even still they seemed to stand out more than most. Cobb's personality always drew attention to its dark side. Wilson helped segregate the federal government, most notably the post office facilities in the south.
Both dominated the 1910s. Wilson was president for almost the entire time, and Cobb won eight batting titles. After 1919 Cobb never won another. He still had it better than Wilson. Less than a week after the season's end (and the same day as Game 2 of the World Series), the president had a stroke from which he never fully recovered.
Neither man attained his ultimate goal. Despite three World Series appearances, Cobb never got a ring. Wilson's dream of everlasting peace ensured by the League of Nations proved elusive. Not only did the organization turn out to be toothless, but he couldn't even convince his own government to approve entry on the terms he desired.
Warren G. Harding (1921-3)/Babe Ruth
OK, this one really doesn't fit. Harding usually finds himself on the short list of US presidents while Ruth is the classic pick for greatest baseball player of all-time. You can't find a sharper contrast than that.
The similarity here isn't achievement but their personalities. Alice Roosevelt, daughter of Teddy Roosevelt and a longtime Washington gadfly, once remarked that Harding wasn't a bad man, just a slob. Though he looked imminently presidential with his silver hair, he had a less than ideal lifestyle. Though president during Prohibition, he himself would have booze in the White House. Though married, he kept a mistress. Ruth may not have voted for Harding, but they could have a lot of fun hanging with each other.
Both added to the English language. Harding used the non-word "normalcy" so often that it ended up becoming part of the English language. Due to the Bambino, the word Ruthian has also entered the vernacular. Harding coined the phrase "Founding Fathers," and the candy bar Baby Ruth was named after Ruth. (Officially its name came from someone else, but that was just something said to keep Ruth from getting a cut of the proceeds.)
In terms of achievement, there is some loose similarity. Ruth's most famous season may have been the 60-dinger year with the 1927 Murderer's Row, but he really peaked in the early 1920s, just as Harding's career crested.
Calvin Coolidge (1923-9)/Heine Sand
Sand is one of the blandest and most forgettable players from the mid-1920s. That's a good match for Coolidge right there. As an added bonus, Sand's career stretched from 1923 to 1928. Aside from a few months under Harding, he was entirely a Coolidge-era infielder.
There is a larger similarity than timing, though. Sand's strong point was defense. (I really have no idea how good his defense was, but looking at his hitting I can think of no other reason why he'd be able to keep his job as long as he did.) That's the art of preventing things from happening.
Coolidge as president attempted to do as little as possible as a matter of principle. He prided himself on finishing the day's work as fast as he could and doing as little as he could get away with. It wasn't mere laziness. He genuinely believed that the nation was at its best when the government did the least. He existed to stop government action just as Sand sought to end scoring.
Also, both have rather interesting sounding names.
Herbert C. Hoover (1929-33)/Herb Pennock
Hoover had a tremendous reputation in the 1920s. He served as Secretary of Commerce in Harding's otherwise corrupt and inefficient cabinet. He took advantage of this to assume extra responsibilities, becoming one of the best-known politicians in the country. As a result, he became the last man to move from cabinet directly to the presidency.
Things went swimmingly for him until 1929. Elected on the slogan of a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage, his administration suffered through the stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression. He never did recover and in the early 1930s was shown the door.
Pennock had roared through the 1920s. From 1920 to 1928, he won 153 games, only three fewer than Pete Alexander himself. Since leaving the perennially pathetic Red Sox for the Yankees in 1923, he topped all AL pitchers in wins, innings, complete games, and had the best winning percentage for anyone who had been in the league all five years. Only Walter Johnson had more shutouts, by one. And Johnson was retired by this time.
Like the stock market, Pennock crashed in 1929. Pennock got old fast and never was that effective again. After winning at least 10 games a year each season for a decade, he never won more than 11 again. A below-average pitcher, the Yankees got rid of him less than a year after Hoover left office. After one more season that was it.
That's 13 administrations. In the next installment I'll tackle the remaining 12. I like some of the matches I've made for that bunch — especially for Nixon.
References and Resources
A few weeks ago at BTF someone (and I don't remember who or in what thread) mentioned he had once made a list of who had the most win shares in each presidency, which caused a series of comments where myself and others noted similarities between Honus Wagner and Teddy Roosevelt. Sounded like something worth doing for all presidents. Almost all the Wagner-TR comments above were ones I came up with in the thread (going by my memory anyway).
B-ref provided the numbers and basic info. Its Play Index was especially helpful finding a good comparison for Calvin Coolidge.
As noted in the article, the Historical Abstract came in handy as well.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.