Richard Nixon genuinely loved sports. Americans during his life knew it, and modern historians are aware of it. John Sayle Watterson included a chapter on Nixon in his book on American presidents and sports, and Nicholas Sarantakes authored a book on Nixon and sports that came out in late 2018. After spending a week researching at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, I am confident that baseball and football were the former president’s favorite sports, and that he rarely missed an opportunity to engage with his fandom.
That said, Nixon also used sports for political purposes. I previously wrote here about how he and former MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn worked together in the War on Drugs and to maintain public awareness and support for Nixon’s efforts to repatriate prisoners of war from Vietnam. Now, I would like to spotlight some interesting links between Nixon and the Yankees in the election year of 1972.
That summer, a reporter asked Nixon to name his favorite ballplayers. Nixon promptly named Lou Gehrig as his favorite first baseman and Mickey Mantle as one of his favorite outfielders. Ultimately, Nixon ending up drafting presidential teams of All-Stars by league, one for the pre-World War II era and one for the post-war period.
The Yankees were well represented on both of Nixon’s American League squads. His pre-war roster included Gehrig, Babe Ruth, third baseman Red Rolfe, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, and pitchers Herb Pennock, Red Ruffing, and Johnny Murphy. On the post-war team, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Bobby Richardson, and Whitey Ford joined Mantle.
In October, shortly before the presidential election, Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca reached out to the White House about endorsing Nixon’s campaign. Branca and Thomson were famed in baseball lore for pitching and hitting, respectively, the ‘Shot Heard Round the World’ that clinched the NY Giants’ 1951 pennant win over the Brooklyn Dodgers.
They were joined in their support of the president by a figure linked to the most important Yankee of all-time. Babe Ruth’s widow Claire Merritt Ruth, in her seventies at the time and, according to the White House, not in great health, indicated her support for Nixon’s re-election. The White House was eager to bring Mrs. Ruth in alongside Thomson and Branca. An annotated memorandum marked “High Priority” noted the great timing of these endorsements, with the 1972 World Series set to begin days later.
In one final connection to the Yankees, the annotated memorandum recommended contacting the widow of Lou Gehrig. Perhaps another Nixon supporter, she was also in poor health, and the White House was unable to reach her in time. Nixon’s people scheduled a meeting between Nixon and Thomson, Branca, and Mrs. Ruth for October 13, 1972. The first talking point listed for the president in the memorandum directed him to highlight his exciting memories of the Bambino, baseball’s greatest homerun hitter, during his Yankees career.
Continuing the theme of Yankees sluggers and their ties to Nixon, Mickey Mantle also avidly supported Nixon. On November 22nd, shortly after Nixon won re-election, he penned a letter to The Mick. Nixon expressed his profound gratitude to the Yankees legend. The slugger had not only been an important part of the group Democrats for Nixon, but he had also been integral to a group of notable athletes that supported the president’s campaign.
In the months that led into the presidential election of 1972, Richard Nixon’s ties to the Yankees featured prominently. The organization is now undoubtedly thankful that none of these connections involved Watergate tapes, but the links are nonetheless fascinating to review in retrospect.