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.
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.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:
Derek Jeter had a great career until 3 days ago when he sold his apartment at Trump World Tower- I told him not to sell- karma?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 15, 2012
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.”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2013
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
- J. Craig Crawford, Orlando Sentinel, “A Day Hillary Clinton Needed – Talking Baseball With Cubs Fans”
- C-Span, “Ernie Banks 1996 DNC Convention in Chicago”
- Frank Ahrens, The Washington Post, “Hillary Clinton Toasts ‘Home’ Team”
- Katharine Q. Seelye, The New York Times, “Mrs. Clinton May Steal Mayor’s Yankee Fan Base”
- YouTube, “Hillary Has Always Been a Yankees Fan”
- Ben Smith, Politico, “Always Been a Yankees Fan”
- Phil Rosenthal, Chicago Tribune, “Hillary Clinton campaigns for compromise at Chicago event”
- Voice of America, “Long-Suffering Cubs Fan, Clinton Sees Diplomatic Parallels”
- Paul Schwartzman and Michael E. Miller, The Washington Post, “Confident. Incorrigible. Bully: Little Donny was a lot like candidate Donald Trump”
- Hunter Walker, Business Insider, “Donald Trump’s classmates share their memories about his ‘Lord of the Flies’ days in military school”
- Nick Vadala, Philly.com, “Report: The Phillies once scouted Donald Trump as a high school baseball player”
- Victor Mather, The New York Times, “They May Be Next to Lead the Country, but Can They Play Ball?”
- Brent Larkin, Cleveland.com, “Donald Trump’s failed bid to buy the Cleveland Indians”
- Sid Hartman, Minneapolis StarTribune, “Hartman: Donald Trump, Twins owner? He made an offer”
- Alison Leigh Cowan and Ken Belson, The New York Times, “Trump and the Mets? Anything Is Possible”
- Drew Jubera, Esquire, “How Donald Trump Destroyed a Football League”
- Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns, The New York Times, “Donald Trump’s Presidential Run Began in an Effort to Gain Stature”
- Jeane MacIntosh, New York Post, “Trump Sings For The Fences At Wrigley Field”
- Kenny Ducey, Sports Illustrated, “Extra Mustard: Donald Trump says he would like to own the New York Yankees”
- Mike Mazzeo, ESPN.com, “Donald Trump would fire A-Rod”
- Entertainment Tonight, YouTube, “Donald Trump on A-Rod: ‘He’s A Bad Guy'”
- Charles Curtis, NJ.com, “Donald Trump pals around with Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez years after ripping the slugger”
- Dayn Perry, CBSSports.com, “It turns out Donald Trump was wrong about Stephen Strasburg”
- Nathaniel Rakich, Baseballot, “Of Course Donald Trump Thinks Pete Rose Should Be in the Hall of Fame”
- Jason Williams and James Pilcher, Cincinnati.com, “Rose lawyer: Hit King didn’t endorse Trump”
- Chicago Tribune, “Trump threatens ads against Ricketts family — Cubs ‘not properly run'”
- Zachary Mider, Bloomberg Politics, “Diamondbacks Owner Says Stopping Trump Tops Selling Tickets”