A Few Notes on Ronald Reagan, Baseball, and the Movies

It’s still pretty well known that Ron Reagan spent some years in the 1930s re-creating Chicago Cubs games for a radio station in Davenport, Iowa, and this post isn’t going to focus on that. But, as a follow-up to an earlier post on George W. Bush as part-owner of the Rangers, here are a few selections on Reagan and baseball, in the aftermath of the 100th anniversary of his birth. This, from the Boston Globe of March 23, 1990, described Reagan at a Boston cancer treatment benefit as he

talked of what 79-year-old men love to talk about in the spring. Baseball and the old days, baseball and the Brooklyn Dodgers and Ted Williams and the Red Sox and Joe DiMaggio, all the while munching on jelly beans.

“It was great,” said Mayor [Ray] Flynn, who sat on one side of the former president. “I told him how much I loved seeing the movie ‘The Babe Ruth Story’ and . . . “

So refreshing,” said Mike Andrews, who sat on the other side of Reagan. “He was talking about a book he’s reading on the history of baseball back in the times the 1880s when you needed nine balls for a base on balls and . . . “

A wonderful afternoon in the Back Bay. A mayor and an ex-president sitting side by side, and not a word of politics, but so much more. Reagan traveled to Boston gratis to speak at a fund-raising luncheon for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute yesterday, and seldom has the Jimmy Fund had a brighter day. No pomp, no circumstance, few flourishes, the 40th president of the United States visiting almost unannounced, but leaving all behind warmer.

“I was telling him how I had this film history of Ebbets Field,” Mayor Flynn said. “And he asked me, ‘Does it have Gil Hodges in it?’ and ‘Jackie Robinson?’ and ‘Is Carl Furillo there?’ and I told him they were all there. He told me how he’d love to have it . . . so I’m going to send it to him. I’ve got to get it to him.”

When the former president would turn away from Flynn, there’d be Andrews to his left, and Reagan would talk to the former Red Sox second baseman about the days when nine balls would be a walk and four strikes a K. “He was telling me things I didn’t know,” said Andrews, recalling the ex-president’s anecdotes and other lore from “Total Baseball,” a book rich in historical detail. “He also talked about David Halberstam’s book ‘The Summer of ’49’, those Red Sox and Yankees,” said Andrews, “a lot about DiMaggio and Williams.”

Flynn and Reagan talked about sports movies from the ’40s and ’50s, and Reagan said he thoroughly enjoyed William Bendix and ‘The Babe Ruth Story,’ too, and when Andrews and Reagan talked movies, “he told me he had just seen ‘The Hunt For Red October,’ ” said Andrews. “He told me, ‘It was great . . . just great.’ ” Politics were set aside.

“I was thrilled just to be this close to him,” said Jack Bicknell, the Boston College football coach. “It was thrilling just to talk to him,” said Mayor Flynn. “I was so thrilled to introduce him,” said Andrews, the master of ceremonies. They all used the same word. “Thrill.” None of these people regularly use that word at noontime on a March Thursday. Yesterday they all used it.

We’ve all heard the Dutch Reagan stories, right? Once Ken Coleman set the well-placed bait with his descriptions of Reagan the radio broadcaster and baseball recreator at WOC-AM of Davenport, Iowa, Dutch Reagan came up to the podium and finished it all off with detail. Reagan in the little Iowa studio far from Wrigley Field, the play-by-play coming to the station by Western Union ticker, the Cardinals and the Cubs tied in the ninth, Billy Jurges up, Dizzy Dean pitching, when suddenly the ticker gave out.

“I had the pitch already coming to the plate,” said Reagan, “and the wire’s gone dead. So I had Jurges foul one off . . . the wire’s still dead . . . so I had Jurges foul another one off . . . then I had Jurges hit a home run that was just a foot foul . . . I had two boys fighting for another foul ball behind the plate . . . “

Old story. But still a thrill to hear it. None of them took their eyes off Reagan, not Joan Benoit Samuelson or Bill Rodgers or Mike Eruzione or Doug Flutie at the head table, or the hundreds in the audience, or even Yolanda Creeden, a student intern from Simmons College working with the Dana Farber people as a public relations assistant, or Andrews just a foot or two from Reagan and the podium. All listening.

Reagan’s voice doddered a bit. For he is 79 years old. But most at the event, many of them athletes or ex-athletes, marveled at his physical appearance, which is . . . well, amazing. “He was telling me how he used to work out at the White House,” said Andrews, “and how after he got to the White House, his chest was 2 inches bigger than before . . . “

Some $100,000 more was raised for the fight against childhood cancer, the day capped off by a painful yet inspiring irony in light of the Red Sox’ longtime support of the Jimmy Fund. Jean Yawkey waved in appreciation when she, her late husband and the Red Sox were thanked for their long support of the Jimmy Fund, but the circle was so touchingly completed when Kyle Stanley, the 9-year-old son of the former Red Sox reliever, proudly walked to the podium, strongly spoke into the microphone and presented the ex-president with a Dana Farber baseball cap. Kyle Stanley, it was learned over the winter, has a tumor. Later, when the entire family was calle d to the podium, Bob Stanley stood behind them all, very proud.

This all started with a phone call. When Reagan was president and was asked to tape an announcement for the Jimmy Fund, Andrews asked that if he were ever in Boston, could he come to the Dana Farber hospital? Reagan said he would, “and I thought, you know, ‘He’s just saying that,’ ” said Andrews. Then two months ago, “lo and behold,” a phone call came, and yesterday Dutch Reagan was in Boston.

Also, here’s Reuters describing Reagan’s guest spot with Vin Scully to broadcast an inning of the 1989 All-Star game:

Former President Ronald Reagan returned to one of his old loves with an inning of color commentary on national television at the 60th annual Major League Baseball All-Star Game Tuesday.

Reagan joined network play-by-play man Vin Scully in the broadcast booth for the first inning of the mid-season classic.

“It’s a great honor for me after broadcasting for several years in Iowa to now finally make it to the big-time of a top network sportscasting job,” Reagan joked.

“And it’s reassuring that after only six months away from the job that I had – well I’ve been out of work for six months and maybe there’s a future here,” the 78-year-old former chief executive said.

Reagan said he felt “kind of like a kid” in the broadcast booth, “particularly since our host Gene Autry is 81.”

Autry, a Hollywood veteran known as the singing cowboy, owns the California Angels, who play their home games at the stadium here. Reagan, dispensing with presidential diplomacy, called it the “greatest baseball stadium in America.”

Among his comments, Reagan reminded viewers that he appeared in a baseball uniform when he played St. Louis pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander in the film The Winning Team.

And like all-star Bo Jackson of the Kansas City Royals, who also plays football for the Los Angeles Raiders, Reagan pointed out that he too played football in the movie Knute Rockne – All American.

At the conclusion of the inning, Reagan admitted to being a bit nervous.

“I’m so sorry that it’s over for me now and I have to confess I was a little uptight because, as I say, when I was sitting up in a place like this I had to tell the people what was happening because they couldn’t see it.

“Now I get a little self-conscious when I know that people can see what’s going on.”

Finally, here’s some of the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell talking about that portrayal of Grover Alexander in July 1988, when Reagan was still president:

Epilepsy is the first thing that comes to President Ronald Reagan’s mind after he’s watched himself portray Grover Cleveland Alexander [in 1952] in “The Winning Team.”

The president wants to make sure his White House audience understands why Old Alex often fell down and why, in his misery, he sometimes drank too much. Above all, the president wants to stress why he thinks the aging pitcher’s comeback in the 1926 World Series was such a worthwhile story for a movie.

“They wouldn’t let us use the word ‘epilepsy’ in the movie,” Reagan said Friday night. “I’d already made a movie where I played an epileptic professor.” And that movie hadn’t made much money. So, Alex the Great was just going to have mysterious fainting spells – something vague about his having been an artillery sergeant in World War I.

In the movie’s climax, Alexander, 39, released by the Cubs in midseason for his supposed drinking problems, is pitching the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series title against the Yankees and their Murderers Row. The Cardinals, who’ve given him a last chance, have been rewarded for their faith with his complete-game wins in Games 2 and 6. Hollywood didn’t script it.

In the seventh inning of the seventh game, with a one-run lead and the bases full, with Tony (Poosh ‘Em Up) Lazzeri and his 114 RBIs at bat, Cardinals Manager Rogers Hornsby called the bullpen for Alexander.

“Alexander and Lazzeri were the only two epileptics in the major leagues,” said Reagan. “And each knew it about the other.”

Alexander warmed up so slowly that it became part of Series lore. Reagan asked Alexander’s widow if she knew why. “He said, ‘I figured I’d let him wait.’ ” . . . [and then, as you may know, struck out Lazzeri].

If “The Winning Team” isn’t Reagan’s best movie, it’s close. He knows it and is proud of it. And the president likes to watch it every so often.

Reagan on Alexander, speaking off the cuff after the movie, deserves to be saved. Of course, it’s part of Reagan lore that he spent five years broadcasting Cubs games. His baseball love, and credentials, are legitimate. But his pride in his throwing arm may not be nearly so well known.

True, Bob Lemon doubled for Reagan in long camera shots where break-a-foot curves were necessary. “But I did a lot of that myself,” said Reagan, who took a two-week crash course from Lemon and was especially pleased with a scene where he hits the pocket of a catcher’s mitt nailed to a barn door. Years before, in his lifeguard days, Reagan would chunk rocks almost every night in the dark so that the last necking couples on the beach would ask what he was doing. “Oh, just trying to hit that big rat.” Many a young lady then asked to leave. . . .

Perhaps Reagan is proudest that “The Winning Team” is really a movie about Alexander’s marriage – that’s the winning team in question, not the Cubs or Cardinals. Alexander’s widow was the movie’s technical adviser and, according to Reagan, she even provided the dialogue for a central closing scene. In it, the pitcher tells his wife he knows she must be exhausted because of all the pitches he has thrown that season, because, battling his disease, he has been “drawing strength from you every game.”

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