Matching presidents and ballplayers, 1933-2008by Chris Jaffe
August 11, 2008
It's always a blast to write a column and have it go over well. That's what happened last week. I wrote a column based on a simple premise that got me a bit more feedback than normal, pretty much all of it positive. That was especially gratifying, because this column was going up even if the first one bombed.
The premise: divide up all MLB history by presidential administrations, find the ballplayer from that era who is most similar to the president, and explain the comparisons. This allows me to combine two loves: history and baseball. Last one only went to 1933, so this completes it.
The downside is that it runs the risk of becoming political. The point of this is to be fun, not to get people caught up in some damn debate. Still, I want to get the guys who I think are good comps.
Here are the matches since 1933.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45)/Ernie Lombardi
In 1921, when he was an up-and-coming politician still in his late 30s, FDR came down with polio. It cost him the ability to walk. Through arduous physical therapy, he made a modest improvement. He could walk short distances, and even give a speech standing, provided he either clung to the podium for dear life or had an assistant standing next to him.
In other words, it's even money who would win a foot race between these two.
That's terrible, but Lombardi was the slowest player in baseball history. People tell tales about how he'd be thrown out at first on balls hit to left field.
Both these men helped make history in 1940. FDR became the first man to win a third presidential term, and Lombardi is the only Hall of Famer from the Reds' first world championship.
Willard Hershberger, Lombardi's backup became the first (and still only) baseball player to commit suicide mid-season in that campaign. A few years later, FDR installed James Forrestal in his cabinet. While serving as Secretary of Defense under Truman, Forrestal became the first and only cabinet member to commit suicide.
Harry S Truman (1945-53)/Bobby Thomson
When you think of amazing back-from-the-dead rallies you think of these guys.
The most famous and exhilarating upset in American political history was Truman's shocker over Thomas Dewey in 1948. Expected by everyone to lose, he pulled out all the stops on a "Give 'em Hell" railroad campaign to win. The Chicago Tribune famously printed its incorrect "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline.
The baseball equivalent of that, of course, came three years later, when Truman still served as president. The New York Giants came back from a 13.5-game deficit to force a best-of-three playoff against the rival Brooklyn Dodgers. In the bottom of the ninth in the final game, Thomson homered to finish the upset. "The Giants win the pennant!" is the Dewey Defeats Truman of the sporting world.
Dwight David Eisenhower (1953-61)/Warren Spahn
When you think glamorous, exciting presidents, you don't think Ike. People rarely say that much negatively about him, but he just never captured the popular imagination. In part, that was his intent. Ike was perfectly willing to spend time out of the limelight if he could while serving as president.
Like Ike, Warren Spahn didn't have a flashy style at all. He didn't have the tremendous fastball or the world's greatest control. He was the Greg Maddux of his day, really good at all phases even if lacking that one signature hook to really grab the public's attention.
It didn't hurt either in the slightest. In both cases all they did was go out and win all decade long. Ike cruised through two presidential elections, becoming the first Republican to serve two full terms. Spahn won 202 games in the 1950s. He had seven 20-win seasons when Ike was president.
Another similarity: both men were quite successful at an unusually advanced age. When he left office, Ike was the oldest president in history. Spahn threw no-hitters in his 40s and tied his personal best for wins in a season at age 42.
John F. Kennedy (1961-3)/Maury Wills
Initially I intended to go with Sandy Koufax for this comparison. He has more prestige to match JFK's Camelot image. That doesn't work though. While Koufax was overrated, he at least was absurdly great for a few years. JFK? He's just overrated.
He had his moments, sure. The most obvious one came in late 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis, when he found himself under tremendous pressure and responded brilliantly. Aside from that there's the Bay of Pigs, gunning up U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and not passing any civil rights legislation.
A short term, sure but he doesn't deserve a spot in the Greatest President Ever sweepstakes, and his fans keep trying to put him in it. Would he have pulled troops out of Vietnam had he lived? That's immaterial; he did the opposite for his presidency.
Similarly, Maury Wills was a good player, but not as good as his backers make him out to be. He had one great moment that, like JFK, came in 1962, when he stole over 100 bases. In fact, he swiped 54 bases in the last 60 games. That came in the midst of a pennant race against the Giants. Like JFK, he did as well as he could in the highest stress position his job had to offer.
But that was his only great year. Aside from that he was a singles hitter who didn't hit that many singles and had a fairly short career with only a dozen years with 100+ games.
Oh yeah, for the last 40+ years he's bragged about having had sex with Doris Day. When it comes to scoring with blonde Hollywood movie stars from the 1950s, JFK can hold his own.
Lyndon Baines Johnson (1963-9)/Dick Allen
"For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'it might have been.'" Sir Alfred Tennyson. Ah the tragedy of unmet promise. That's something both LBJ and Dick Allen know quite a bit about, alas.
LBJ's presidency had a tremendous start. He knew how to wield power and pass legislation, and he had an agenda he wanted to pass. In 1964 he won election as president in epic style, capturing around 60 percent of the vote and almost every state. By the end of the year, the world was his.
From 1964-5 he put through the largest domestic program since the New Deal—and larger than any since—the two most important civil rights bills of the century and the most important piece of immigration reform in the last 80+ years. He also created Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start while pushing for his War on Poverty.
It all fell apart on him. As most of those bills churned through Congress, LBJ also committed the US to waging an outright war in Vietnam. It derailed his presidency, and he never fully recovered. When people think of him, Vietnam is more likely to be the first thing that comes to mind, not domestic programs.
Dick Allen began his career with as much promise as anyone. In 1964, he had a rookie campaign for the ages. He hit over .300 with 29 homers. That might not sound like much now, but in the New Deadball Era, it put him in the top seven in both categories. He was only 22 years old. In 1964, it looked like the world was his.
Boy, did that ever not happen. Like LBJ, things went haywire in 1965. He got in a fight with teammate Frank Thomas. That proved to be the first in a series of controversies. To this day there are many who swear he's the most talented player they ever saw play. He was to hitting what LBJ was to passing legislation. However, the controversies are the first thing that comes to mind with Allen.
Also, both careers are impossible to understand in full without taking into account the racial environment of the 1960s. It led to LBJ's biggest successes and was a constant theme in Allen's career.
Richard Millhous Nixon (1969-74)/Denny McLain
Would you buy a used car from either one of these men?
"Tricky Dick" Nixon is one of the most vilified men in American history. He had moments of glory: détente with Russia and opening the door to China most obviously. And he certainly had his supporters, as he won two presidential elections. But his lasting legacy stems not from his policies but from his blighted personal character.
All of which perfectly fits Denny McLain. He's the only man to win 30 games in a season in the last 74 years. Nixon won two presidential races, and McLain had 2 Cy Young Awards. In October 1968, he achieved the ultimate baseball prize, a World Series ring. A month later Nixon won his grand prize.
McLain is best remembered for his multiple arrests and convictions. His list of crimes is so long that it's easier to list the crimes he's never been accused of: murder, selling un-tagged mattresses and necrophilia. Oh, and he never harpooned in whale in Oklahoma. That's against the law there.
Both had rough times in Washington. McLain lost 22 games with the Senators and Nixon had Watergate. Both hung around with criminal elements. McLain dealt with bookies and mobsters, and Nixon picked Spiro Agnew as his running mate.
Gerald Ford (1974-7)/Tony Oliva
As far as many people were concerned Ford had no business being in the White House in the mid-1970s. It's not that he was a bad man; he wasn't. But he was the least elected president of them all. Others have either been elected president by the people, or at least vice-president. Not Ford. Two counties elected him to the House of Representatives, and the Senate voted him to the vice-presidency when Nixon tabbed him to replace Agnew. He fell into the job when Nixon resigned.
As far as many people were concerned, Oliva had no place on a major league roster in the mid-1970s. It's not that he was a bad hitter; he wasn't. But he couldn't play the field anymore. His knees would not allow it anymore. Normally that ended your career.
Not since 1973. Baseball passed a new rule, the designated hitter, which many fans found fraudulent. Whatever their feelings, the rule allowed Oliva to survive for a few more years. After playing only 10 games in 1972, he returned to the regular lineup for the next three years.
He wasn't great or terrible as a DH, just as Ford was neither particularly impressive or terrible a president. But how they landed and maintained their job in the mid-1970s left a stain on them in the minds of some.
Jimmy Carter (1977-81)/Mario Mendoza
By all account, Jimmy Carter wasn't a bad man. And he certainly tried his hardest to do the right thing. Alas, he was in over his head. He had his success—most notably the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt—but when it came to the main part of his job, running the US itself, he couldn't quite pull it off.
I've never heard anyone say anything bad about Mario Mendoza the person. Looking at his stats at Baseball Reference, I can't imagine he was a clubhouse problem because there was no way he would've lasted as long as he did. Certainly he tried his darnedest to play ball. He had his merits, most notably on defense. But when it came to the main part of the job—hitting—he couldn't do it. His bat was success in a perpetual malaise.
Ronald Reagan (1981-89)/Nolan Ryan
I once read that in the early 1990s at least one poll of Texas residents showed that Nolan Ryan was more popular than Jesus Christ. I wonder what would happen if you tried the same poll nowadays between Reagan and Christ.
Both men had their admirers who thought they were the greatest. When he retired from office, some tried to get Reagan's face on Mount Rushmore. Any public poll of the game's greatest pitchers also gives a very high ranking to Ryan.
Both groups of adherents could be quite hostile to critics. A few years ago Reagan's fans got a miniseries yanked from a major network because it dared to say he was indifferent to the plight of AIDS patients. As for Ryan, go on sports radio show and say he's baseball's most overrated pitcher and see what happens.
Both had their downsides. Reagan's economic policies caused deficits to skyrocket. When the final history of America is written, it's possible that it won't be some great, mighty threat that did us in, but our own damn unwillingness to pay for stuff.
Ryan had that mighty fastball, but he combined it with terrible control. Incredibly, he allowed more than 50 percent more walks than any other pitcher in baseball history. Those walks turned into runs, which led to losses. Poor offensive support isn't the only reason he lost more games than anyone in the last 100 years.
Both men first found national recognition when they plied their trade in the Los Angeles area. Reagan had a chimp named Bonzo. Ryan had a second banana named Tanana. Same thing. Also, both men were exceptionally old in their profession of choice. Reagan was the oldest president in history. The only guys to last longer than Ryan are knuckleballers, spitballers, WWII replacement, and Satchel Paige.
And Robin Ventura never laid a punch on either one.
George H. W. Bush (1989-93)/Joe Carter
When he ran for re-election in 1992, some detractors made a T-shirt lampooning him. It was the George Bush Anywhere-but-the-US-World-Tour shirt.
It tried to turn his main strength (foreign policy) into a minus by noting that he did a better job over there than back here. The most famous feature of his presidency was the Gulf War. The achievement was not beating Hussein's armed forces but creating a coalition so broad and wide that it held together even after repeated missile attacks on Israel.
Joe Carter also had more success when he left the country than within it. He played for many US teams, but they were often sad sacks like the Cleveland Indians. Things went better for him when he left the U.S. to play for the Toronto Blue Jays. In 1992, he won his first ring and a year later captured his last one. He never even made the postseason with his five American teams.
Bill Clinton (1993-2001)/Derek Jeter
Clinton was a controversial president. (Well, they all are, but still.) For the most part the public really liked him. Aside from a stretch midway through his first term he consistently received high marks in public opinion polls as people also generally thought he did a good job.
However, those who disagreed did so vehemently. They never denied his political skills to schmooze and win over people but thought he was fundamentally corrupt and did an atrocious job.
Jeter is widely hailed as one of the best players in the game. He is the face of the most successful franchise over the last dozen years and is generally seen as the team's leader. He's a perennial All-Star who has won a Rookie of the Year Award, two Gold Gloves and once was runner-up in the MVP voting. Yeah, people think highly of him.
However, he most certainly has his critics. No one denies his overall ability. In particular he's acknowledged as a great hitting shortstop who will earn his way into Cooperstown. But the critics completely differ from mass opinion when it comes to evaluating his defense. Mainstream opinion holds that he's a defensive stud with his cannon of an arm. Meanwhile, every sabermetric defensive stat ever invented disagrees. At his best, he's been an average defender and at other times he's one of the worst. That nice arm can't make up for a slow first step.
Also, both men kept winning throughout the late 1990s. Clinton won re-election and survived impeachment. Jeter won four rings, all when Clinton was president.
Finally, sometime in the last year, when one of the lad mags—either Maxim or FHM or whatever the hell one it was—came out with a list of 100 Sexiest Women in the World, someone compared it to a list of Jeter's ex-s and noticed he'd been with a half-dozen. The joke should be obvious, so I'll move on.
George W. Bush (2001-current) / A. J. Pierzynski
I have to admit, I didn't think of this one. I originally planned to make it Juan Gonzalez (both in Texas in the 1990s and very well-regarded, both have seen their value crumble in the new century, both rely very heavily on bombs), but this works better. A poster named Brandon in MO at BTF thought this one up, and I like it better.
Bush is as widely and deeply hated a president this nation has since at least Nixon. Public opinion polls for him have been very low for him ever since Katrina. A flock of bestsellers have come out denouncing him and his administration. Many critics contend he isn't just bad, but the worst president in American history. People really like not liking this guy.
Pierzynski is the most widely and deeply despised man playing baseball in the 21st century. Does anyone actually like him? I suppose Ozzie Guillen and some guys on the Sox. The Twins got rid of him because they thought he was such a jerk. The Giants cut him outright. A poll of major leaguers from a few years ago of which player they'd most like to see get plunked had AJ as the runaway winner.
He keeps finding himself in the middle of controversies, whether it be Michael Barrett stupidly punching him in the face in a Sox-Cubs game, or the Josh Paul incident in the 2005 ALCS, he is a magnet for animosity.
Bush is most disdained in liberal circles (not surprisingly). A place like San Francisco, which has long had left-wing inclinations and beliefs would be the sort of place he's least popular in. San Francisco also might hate AJ more than any place else. They traded Boof Bonser, Francisco Liriano and Joe Nathan for him in one of the worst trades in history. He played poorly, and no one liked him.
References and Resources
B-ref's Play Index helped with Gerald Ford. I knew I wanted a DH from that years, but didn't know who the main ones were.
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.