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Richard Nixon, MLB, and the interplay of baseball and politics

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How Richard Nixon worked with MLB for political purposes.

New York Yankees v Washington Senators Photo by John Olson/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

It is a familiar sight to Yankees fans. During the seventh-inning stretch at home games in the post-9/11 era, the club invariably honors a veteran and then plays “God Bless America.” On the surface, it is nothing more than a ballclub paying homage to military service and expressing patriotism. It has deep historic roots, however.

On April 14, 1910, then-President William Howard Taft made an appearance at Boundary Field on Opening Day in Washington, DC. There, he threw out the first pitch, becoming the first sitting president to do so. The Senators won over Philadelphia, 8-0, behind a one-hit performance from the legendary “Big Train,” Walter Johnson. During World War I, “The Star-Spangled Banner” debuted at MLB ballparks around the country. Over a century later, the links between baseball and politics are stronger than ever.

In the second half of the Cold War, President Richard Nixon used baseball to pursue specific policies. His efforts included a partnership with MLB to combat drug use. Americans became steadily more concerned about drugs in inner cities, among GIs in Vietnam, and in colleges and high schools. Accordingly, Nixon saw an opportunity and declared a national “War on Drugs” after he realized the situation presented a political opportunity.

Nixon and MLB commissioner Bowie K. Kuhn maintained an ongoing partnership and correspondence to fight drug use. In May 1971, Nixon wrote to Kuhn and congratulated him for bringing organized baseball on board. Nixon asserted that eradicating drug use required universal cooperation, and MLB could play a decisive part in steering young Americans away from “this grave social disease.”

1970 MLB All-Star Game
Richard Nixon & Bowie Kuhn with Gil Hodges
Photo by Herb Scharfman/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

A few months later, Nixon again wrote Kuhn. This time, Nixon thanked the commissioner for forwarding him a copy of a brochure that MLB had disseminated across America. Nixon conveyed his gratitude for Kuhn’s efforts, which were “yet another proof that professional baseball will play its part.” Kuhn and MLB did not stop there. MLB produced a film in the spring of 1972 that warned athletes of the danger drugs posed to their careers, and that encouraged them to become members of community drug abuse prevention programs.

Kuhn sent a copy of the film to Nixon and noted that the film emphasized the president’s endorsement of baseball’s programs. Every single club in MLB was ordered to show the film to their players, as well as to other athletic groups, students, and the American public. Baseball was a full partner in the war on drugs, determined to “alert our young people to the drug menace.”

Although Nixon dedicated attention to fighting drug use, the war in Vietnam loomed larger than anything else in his first term. Nixon biographer John Farrell asserts that bringing the Vietnam War to an acceptable end was Nixon’s biggest challenge. Once again, the president employed baseball to communicate with the American public.

Nixon used baseball as part of his strategy surrounding American prisoners of war. Unable to attend Opening Day in 1971, Nixon arranged for a former POW to represent him. In correspondence with Robert E. Short, owner and president of MLB’s Washington Senators, Nixon thanked Short for allowing the serviceman to represent the White House. The POW issue, Nixon told Short, was “a matter of priority interest” and the White House was determined to “obtain their release at the earliest possible date.” Short’s cooperation with the White House would help “bring maximum publicity to our efforts on behalf of these brave men and their families.”

Richard M. Nixon Greeting Baseball Greats
Nixon & Kuhn with Senators owner Robert Short (and manager Ted Williams)

At the season’s inaugural Senators game, Master Sergeant Daniel L. Pitzer of the U.S. Army represented Nixon. The recently returned serviceman was the center of attention, although Nixon sent along prepared remarks. The president inextricably linked baseball to the war and Americana.

Nixon’s remarks told the crowd that Pitzer, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch, did so “as a reminder that there are still a great many of our men in uniform… who have not seen a ball game in a long time, much less seen their homes or families.” Pitzer symbolized America’s “deep and continuing national concern for the plight of these young men” and the White House’s determination to bring them home as quickly as possible.

Nixon continued to use sports to keep Vietnam in the public eye following his victory in 1972. The White House’s relationship with commissioner Kuhn is once again apparent. Nixon staffers made the necessary arrangements to put Kuhn in contact with the Department of Defense, so that MLB could offer an invitation to a military officer to throw out a ceremonial first pitch.

Kuhn later phoned the White House, and specifically requested that the officer, Captain Denton, attend not the first game of the season, but instead the first nationally televised game of the season. The latter game, Kuhn stated, would feature “better coverage of Denton being involved.” The White House agreed and facilitated the necessary conversations between the commissioner and the Department of Defense.

For better or for worse, politics and sports are inextricably linked – and not just at Yankee Stadium during the seventh-inning stretch. Cries of “keep politics out of sports” have gotten increasingly loud in the years since NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began protesting racial injustice during the national anthem, and since athletes more broadly began protesting for racial justice during last summer’s unrest.

An honest appraisal, however, acknowledges that politics and sports are historically linked. Although those ties may have previously seemed innocuous, they have become more overt and visible recently, and not just because of athlete protests. A 2015 report from then-Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake found that beginning in 2012, the Pentagon signed 72 contracts with professional sports teams for paid events promoting American patriotism.

I am not trying to argue that we cannot or should not pay our respects to veterans and honor America at Yankees games, or that we have to do so in a cynical light. I merely posit that it is important to consider historical context as it relates to the interconnection of sports and politics.

This article is based on an International Affairs conference paper I recently presented at the University of Colorado at Boulder. All quotes are from primary sources found at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.