"Gentlemen, go ahead with your coffee and all," said the President of the United States, his face beaming with pleasure as he spoke to his guests in the State Dining Room of the White House yesterday.
"I can't tell you how thrilled I am to have you here . . . to look at your faces, you span the years for me . . . The nostalgia is bubbling in me. They may have to drag me out of here," said Ronald Reagan.
"He wasn't kidding," Joe DiMaggio said later. "He really didn't want to get off. He'd have stayed up there telling stories for another hour. I was sitting with Ed Meese and he said, 'If we don't get a hook, he'll stay with you guys all afternoon.'"
The guys President Reagan hated to leave were 32 members of the baseball Hall of Fame -- the largest group of Cooperstown enshrinees ever gathered in one place for any occasion.
It was hard to tell who was more tickled with the luncheon, the players or the president. Reagan told stories from his five years as a Chicago Cub broadcaster and reminisced about big-league hijinks from long-ago spring training camps. DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Stan Musial and Warren Spahn seemed like children at their first ball game.
The president was at his most relaxed and casucal, certain of his footing, as soon as baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn began a series of ceremonial ball signings and gift presentations in the Oval Office. "I hear that Billy Herman is going to be here today," Reagan said to Kuhn. "You know N all the years I did Cubs games, Herman never grounded into a double play."
While Hall of Fame officials were worrying about not flubbing their lines, the president almost seemed in a mood to put his feet up on his desk. "Tonight I'll look through these (Hall of Fame) cards you gave me and see if I can find Old Alex," said Reagan, who played Grover Cleveland Alexander in a movie biography of the pitcher.
"I guess there's no Charlie Root card here, is there?" asked the president, recalling the Cub pitcher who gave up Babe Ruth's famous "called shot" homer in the 1933 World Series. Reagan broadcast that Series by telegraphic recreation.
"I remember Root in spring training. He'd sit in the lobby with the newspaper open. Our utility infielder, a real prankster . . . oh, what was his name . . . English . . . uh . . . yeah, Woody English. He'd stand there talking with Root and all the time he'd have a match burning behind the paper. He could get that; paper to explode in flames and Root would throw it up in the air and run out the door." All the while, Reagan did a pantomime of the old gag.
By the time Reagan spoke after lunch, he had warmed to a fine actor's simmer after practicing his material on the gents to his left and right, Duke Snider and Mays.
"I've always been proud I played Old Alex," Reagan told the munching immortals. "Bob Lemon, who's here, can tell you about that. He was my double. Sometimes I had to pitch for myself in close-ups. I can't really claim I was a baseball player. I went more the football route. So, they wanted me to pitch past the camera set up between the mound and home plate. Well, Al Lyons (then a Yankee) was catching me. My control wasn't all that good. One pitch I fired on the wrong side of the camera.
Well, Lyons reached out and speared it with the hand that had no glove. He came out to the mound real slow, handed me the ball and said, 'Alex, I'm sorry I had to catch your blazer barehanded.'"
At that moment, Ronald Reagan became an unofficial major leaguer. Ballplayers don't laugh like that just to be polite, not even for presidents.
Reagan then recalled George (Catfish) Metkovitch, a Red Sox with a bit part. "Metkovitch memorized everybody's lines. Then, on the bus back from location, he'd imitate us and give everybody a hard time. One day, he finally got his speaking line. He was supposed to chew out an umpire. We told Metkovitch just to yell anything he usually would at an ump.
"As the camera started rolling, you could tell something was wrong. His bat was shaking. I throw the pitch, the umpire bellows, 'Strike one.' George steps out, goes nose to nose with the ump and in this meek voice says, 'Gee sir, that was not strike.'"
When the howling stopped, Reagan added in a sarcastic aside, "The picture wasn't a comedy, so we couldn't leave it in.'"
Reagan saved his kicker for last, as his supposed "one minute of remarks" reached 15 minutes. "I was always sorry that in the Alexander film the studio was unwilling to reveal the reason behind Old Alex's drinking problems. Alex was an epileptic. Sometimes, when there were reports that Alexander (who won 373 games) had been found 'drunk in the gutter again,' it had really been a seizure. But Alex would rather take that than have it known what was wrong with him.
"Alex once got beaned and had double vision. He wanted to make a comeback, so he practiced pitching with one eye closed. The first day back, he threw one pitch and broke three ribs. He was asked, 'What happened?'
"'I closed the wrong eye,' he said."
The shock for many players here was the number of anecdotes from their past that Reagan recalled. Waite Hoyt, 82-year-old former roommate of Ruth, hardly expected Reagan to interject, "I remeber a game in Brooklyn that Hoyt pitched. Dodger fans always said 'Earl' for 'oil' and 'oil' for 'Earl.' Well, this day, Hoyt slid into second and didn't get up. This Dodger fan behind me gets up and yells, 'Good, Lord, Hoyt's hoyt (hurt).'"
If Reagan was in top spirits, then the players, accustomed to presenting a blase face to the world, were filled with innocent fun as they gathered in the East Room for a group photo after shaking the President's hand and chatting in a receiving line. The 32 looked like rascals from a light beer commercial as Musial and Spahn rubbed their hands through Mays' hair just before the camera clicked, forcing him to yell, "Time out . . . time out," as he grabbed for his comb to repair the damage to what remains of his hair.
The only umpire, Jocko Conlin, assumed the front-and-center position. "Look at Jocko," muttered Kuhn, "he thinks he's umping this group."
Bob Lemon said, "This luncheon was as good as managing in the Series or pitching the All-Star game. Here I thought I was through having good days."
Musial, who flew to Anchorage last month to meet with the pope, told the president, "You're an inspiration to us who are in our 60s. I was thinking maybe it was time to start slowing down until you were elected . . . Mr. (George) Bush talked about his days as a first baseman at Yale (where he was captain)," added Stan the Man, who sat next to the vice president. "However, I noticed that he didn't say much about his hitting."
The most surpirse was occasioned, however, by the legendarily aloof DiMaggio. "Nobody's ever seen him like this," marveled Kuhn. "He's used up 10 years of words in the last hour. He's talking to everybody. There really must be a White House magic."
The last man out of the East Room, waiting until it was nearly empty and guards were approaching to remove lingerers, was DiMaggio.
DiMaggio was told that Johnny Mize, who was just elected to the Hall, had said, "I've given autographs all my life, but today I finally asked for one."
Instead of smiling, DiMaggio seemed a bit perturbed.
"I blew it," said the Yankee Clipper.