Nostalgic baseball talk main course of White House luncheon

MONDAY, Oct. 20, 1986, was the day President Ronald Reagan, with the full assistance of The Sporting News, turned back the clock. This was the day after the Red Sox had won their second straight game in the World Series and moved into the catbird seat - though only temporarily, as it turned out. The President wasted little time on the baseball status. He merely asked, ``Who's going to win the World Series?'' Dick Young of the New York Post provided the only reply when he said, ``I don't know -- I picked the Mets in five games, and they can't do it now.'' Much laughter.

President Reagan gave a small luncheon in the Cabinet room in the West Wing of the White House. Vice-President George Bush was there and he qualified by having played baseball for Yale University. The President hadn't played baseball, but he had won his letter sweater in football as a guard for Eureka College, had broadcast baseball in Des Moines for five years starting in 1932, and, after all, he has the say at the White House.

Further, as a motion picture actor he had played the great pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, to say nothing of his role as the Gipper in the picture on Knute Rockne. Pat Buchanan, a presidential assistant, also attended, but Reagan needed no assistance for the two-hour luncheon. None at all. He turned back the clock and was thoroughly enjoying a nostalgic visit with a group of men who write about and broadcast about nostalgia. When you think about it, nostalgia is what baseball is all about. The 1986 World Series is now nostalgia.

I don't know all that went on at Iceland, and I was careful not to bring it up when the President and I shook hands. Nobody else did, either. There wasn't a political word spoken around the long, oval table that is usually for Cabinet discussions. Just baseball, except for one reference to football.

When Dick Young was covering the Brooklyn Dodgers for the New York News, he was easily the most industrious writer. He was the only writer at the luncheon keeping notes. This was grist for his mill. He looked up from his scribblings and asked, ``Mr. President, what do you think of the DH [designated hitter] in baseball?''

``I don't want to stir up anything,'' he answered, ``but I don't think much of it ... I like the game of baseball better.'' And he went on with the only reference to football: ``I don't particularly care for football today with all these players coming in and out. When I played you played 60 minutes, both ways. I remember that to earn a letter you had to have played so much time. I think I only missed three minutes' playing time my senior year.''

The way this luncheon came about is that The Sporting News is celebrating its 100th year of publication. And somebody at the weekly paper discovered that in 1936, Dutch Reagan at WHO in Des Moines, had been voted the runner-up in a sports announcers contest. Richard Waters, president of The Sporting News, inquired if the President might be interested in giving a small luncheon at the White House. After the affirmative answer, a date was set, and the publication ordered a plaque made of a likeness of the 1936 story of young Dutch Reagan. Waters presented the plaque.

Then came the question of whom to ask from the press boxes and the broadcasting booths. The answer was easy: Invite those who had been elected to the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y. The writers were from the J.G. Taylor Spink Awards (Taylor was the longtime editor and owner of The Sporting News). The broadcasters were from the Ford C. Frick Awards (Frick was a former baseball commissioner and once did some radio work). The only exception was Byrum Saam, a Philadelphia announcer for almost 40 years and a high-ranking contestant in the same poll as Reagan half a century ago.

We gathered at the West Gate. The writers were Si Burick from Dayton, Ohio; Dick Young from New York; Bob Broeg from St. Louis; Joe McGuff from Kansas City; Earl Lawson from Cincinnati; Shirley Povich from Washington; Edgar Munzel from Chicago; Allen Lewis from Philadelphia; and Joe Reichler from New York. Some of these men have retired and scattered, but I named the cities in which they worked.

The broadcasters were Mel Allen from New York, Ernie Harwell from Detroit, Jack Brickhouse from Chicago, and me. Harwell is still fully active and he got to the big leagues in 1948. The rest of us are part-timers, except that Mel does cable-TV games for the Yankees.

The Sporting News had three representatives: Waters; Thomas Barnidge, editor; and Lowell Reidenbaugh, the veteran historian of the paper.

All the writers and broadcasters began their careers in the days before baseball expanded from 16 to 26 teams, with six teams on the Pacific Coast and two in Canada. Our working times corresponded at least in part with the years Dutch Reagan was at a microphone.

The President told us that after he passed a screen test in Hollywood, there was a discussion of how the name Dutch Reagan would look on a marquee. It didn't pass. Reagan then spoke up and said, ``My first name is Ronald.'' That did it.

We talked about when baseball was all east of the Mississippi River, except for St. Louis, which was just across it. We talked about such pioneer broadcasters as Graham McNamee and Clem McCarthy. The stories went back and forth, the questions flew. The President took all restraint and stiffness out of the room. He told stories of his days in the booth and on camera. We all got into the discussions. At 2 o'clock the President rose and said, ``I'd like to stay here with you fellows, but it's time now for me to go back to work.'' He reset the clock.

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