"When I was a small boy in Kansas, a friend of mine and I went fishing and as we sat there in the warmth of the summer afternoon on a river bank, we talked about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I told him that I wanted to be a real major league baseball player, a genuine professional like Honus Wagner. My friend said that he'd like to be President of the United States. Neither of us got our wish." – Dwight D. Eisenhower
I’m fascinated by presidents.
As you know from this Shinjo-esque performance, American presidents are one of my few areas of expertise, along with 1980s music and, of course, baseball.
So I was pretty excited to hear that the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum here in Grand Rapids was combining two of the three through an exhibit called “Play ball, Mr. President.”
There wasn’t too much to the exhibit itself, mostly large photos of presidents throwing out the first ball on Opening Day surrounded by quotes about the glorious game. The Mets were represented by a photo of Richard Nixon at Shea in 1969, with Gil Hodges in the foreground and a couple photos of Clinton at the 1997 observation of Jackie Robinson’s first game.
The display was pretty light on artifacts, exhibiting a Cardinals jersey presented to Clinton – no stain jokes! -- a glove used by Harry S Truman and some bats and programs.
Mostly, it brought back memories.
One of the highlights of my job is that I sometimes to get to see presidents and vice presidents up close when they pass through town either campaigning or for speaking engagements.
Jimmy Carter remains elusive. If I finally get to see him in person, I’ll have a streak reaching back to Richard Nixon, who I met at a Yankees game, of all places, in 1987.
Most of these encounters are carefully scripted and contact is fleeting. But you can sometimes glean a little bit into what a president is like.
There are two types of presidential encounters: Viewing from a distance and handshakes. Actually, it’s more of a hand touch as they walk down a rope line grabbing outstretched fingers.
“I never leave a game before the last pitch, because in baseball, as in life and especially politics, you never know what will happen.” — Richard Nixon
Gerald R. Ford: Two viewings, once at the opening of a mall and other at a city celebration of his 90th birthday a few years back. I’m probably the only reporter in our newsroom who has not interviewed him for something — though not for lack of trying. (“Would the president like to comment on last night’s school board meeting? No? Are you sure? They approved new textbooks. Can I just ask him?”)
Making it worse, my son posed for a photo with the president at the birthday celebration, one of a couple hundred kids to do so. Jerry’s a local hero, of course, and is very comfortable with the crowds here. Sadly, as his health issues increase, his visits back home are becoming fewer and fewer.
Ronald Reagan: The Gipper appeared at the opening ceremonies at the 1984 International Games for the Disabled, which were at Mitchell Field on Long Island, part of the area that includes Nassau Community College. I’m pretty sure I was the only community college editor to get credentials for that event! But any chance to see the president is a good one!
“Were you told how the All-Star Game came out?” — Nixon, to Apollo 11 astronauts just after splashdown
George Bush: I’ve seen the elder Bush three times, once when he gave a commencement address at University of Michigan. The next time was when he was campaigning through Michigan on a train. I had a hand clasp with both the president and the first lady. Here’s some cool trivia. There’s a scene in the Clint Eastwood movie “In the Line of Fire” that shows the fictional president campaigning from a caboose in Holly, Mich. That was really Bush on that trip – Holly was one of the stops -- with the fictional president digitally added over the real one.
Then in 2000 I had a good, full handshake when he was appearing at a Lincoln Day Dinner here in Grand Rapids. I bumped into him at a reception. He seemed like a very nice guy, and noticed that his tie had little parachutes — no doubt a nod to his then-recent skydiving.
Bill Clinton: I met Bill at a campaign stop in 1992 at a UAW hall in Flint. He was pretty late, which apparently happened a lot. But the guy knows how to campaign. A lot of people waited outside, and he stopped and shook every hand, made eye contact and had something to say to everyone.
I saw Clinton once more, after he was elected.
I met Hillary a couple years later when she was appearing at a Flint school. She gave me kind of a look of death as she shook my hand, and I have no idea why.
“I like to see Quentin practicing baseball. It gives me hope that one of my boys will not take after his father in this respect, and will prove able to play the national game.” — Theodore Roosevelt
Al Gore: Gore has a well-earned reputation for being a stiff speaker before large groups, but in one-on-one situations he is very engaging.
Gore was vice president when he came to a Grand Rapids park for a campaign stop in 2000. I brought the kids because I think it’s important for them to see these national leaders are real people, not just folks on television. We couldn’t get close to where he was speaking, but I saw an orange snow fence set up and knew that’s usually a place where a politico will walk and shake hands.
And sure enough, Gore walked over and started reaching into the crowd. His limo drove alongside with the door open and Secret Service agents on either side of him.
My daughter was 3 at the time and was squirming around. I was afraid she’d wander away and boosted her onto my shoulders.
When my turn came, Gore firmly shook my hand and looked intently into my eyes as if he was listening deeply to what I had to say – which since I wasn’t working and had a 3-year-old on my shoulders was nothing deeper than “Welcome to Grand Rapids.”
But after shaking, Gore looked up at Caroline, held up his hand and said “High five!” And as she slapped his hand, I heard a bunch of cameras from the media pool.
I had only been at the paper a short while, and worked nights, so I was a byline an empty desk to most of the day crew. Apparently later that morning our shooter came back with a photo of the vice president high-fiving a little girl. When the day editor called it up on his monitor, he said, “We can’t run this, it’s Murray!”
But they made me a print, a copy of which, of course, went out in every Christmas card that year.
Dick Cheney: Cheney gets portrayed as a grumpy old man, but he was pretty friendly at a Tulip City Airport stop during the 2000 campaign, patiently answering my questions.
Here’s some trivia: While his name is often pronounced chay-nee, his daughter told me the proper pronunciation is chee-nee, but the family long ago gave up correcting people.
“I never dreamed about being President, I wanted to be Willie Mays.” George W. Bush
George W. Bush: West Michigan is sold Republican territory, but Michigan is a swing state so Bush has visited a number of times to fire up the base.
One of the debates for the 2000 Republican primary was at Calvin College here, and that was like an All-Star Game for political junkies.
But Bush returned right before the election for a rally at Grand Rapids’ Welsh Auditorium. It was electric; I’ve never seen anything like it. The only thing I can compare it to is a band at the peak of its popularity playing its best song. The air crackled. And it was surprising because Bush didn’t have a reputation for being especially good on the stump.
I saw Bush at another campaign rally in 2000, and twice in 2004. Absolutely nothing compares to hearing a sitting president of the United States introduced and seeing him walk on stage.
Alas, five sightings and not one handshake.
“Baseball isn't just the stats. As much as anything else, baseball is the style of Willie Mays, or the determination of Hank Aaron, or the endurance of a Mickey Mantle, the discipline of Carl Yastrzemski, the drive of Eddie Mathews, the reliability of a Kaline or a Morgan, the grace of a DiMaggio, the kindness of a Harmon Killebrew, and the class of Stan Musial, the courage of a Jackie Robinson, or the heroism of Lou Gehrig. My hope for the game is that these qualities will never be lost." -- George W. Bush
John Kerry: Kerry, of course, isn’t a president but I helped cover a rally in 2004. You watch these things long enough and you can get a sense of how things will play out. After that rally, I just knew that Kerry wouldn’t win.
It didn’t start out that way. About 10,000 people packed Calder Plaza in downtown, with lines to get through the metal detectors stretching around the block.
The crowd was fired up, nearly as pumped as the Bush speech four years earlier. It was brutally hot and there’s no shade on the plaza, with some people fainting
There were the usual local politicos serving as warm-up speakers, with the governor and our two senators – a lot of firepower on the stage.
Then Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz, started to talk. It was surreal. She went on and on and on, veering off to the strangest places. She spoke as much about her late first husband as she did about Kerry, and mentioned Pittsburgh, “where I live.”
Now, I realize she’s a billionaire and has multiple houses. But it was goofy. You usually don’t talk about living in Pittsburgh when your husband is senator from Massachusetts.
The crowd was pumped, but after Heinz spoke it turned completely limp. Kerry followed and was cheered, but the atmosphere was nothing like it was earlier. I remember thinking that if this kind of thing was happening along the campaign trial, Kerry was toast.
Everyone walked off the stage to shake hands. Heinz was clearly uncomfortable doing this. In fact, I thought she was afraid, extending her arm tentatively. Kerry was better, as you would expect. He’s very tall and quick to smile.
But when I got back to the newsroom, the buzz was all about what in the heck Teresa was doing up there. That wasn’t a good sign.
“Next to religion, baseball has furnished a greater impact on American life than any other institution.” — Herbert Hoover
At least it wasn't a chalupa
It's getting harder and harder to impress my 14-year-old. He and his buddy are taking Spanish for the first time, and would get extra credit if we went to the Mexican Festival in Grand Rapids this past weekend.
So I happily took them downtown after their water polo tournament, and stressed that we should use this opportunity to avoid the elephant ear vendor and eat authentic Mexican food. I even got to use some of my limited Spanish ordering empanadas and Mexican sodas.
Then I saw one booth selling what looked like small tortillas with lots of meat, veggies and sauce piled high. We ordered three. And when the vendor returned with the treats, I told the boys we should learn the proper name so they could tell their teacher what they had.
"What do you call these?" I asked.
"Tacos," the worker replied.
Needless to say, the boys were laughing themselves silly.
The worker explained that in Mexico, tacos are served open. "You're used to seeing the Tex-Mex version," she said.