Sports were in Ronald Reagan's blood.
Reagan once said that as a young man he loved acting, politics and sports -- and was not sure in which order.
Growing up in small-town Illinois, he made the most of his opportunities to do the things he liked. He played football at Dixon High School, graduating in 1928. A natural swimmer, he worked summers from 1927 through 1932 as a lifeguard -- and by his count, he pulled 77 people from the water to safety. At Eureka (Ill.) College, near Peoria, he played football as an undersized but overachieving lineman known for his determination despite being matched against much larger opponents. He also ran track and was captain of the swim team.
Eventually, he became an excellent horseback rider, his interest in riding sparked from his earliest days when he enjoyed cowboy movies in Dixon's only theater. Tom Mix was one of his favorites. Reagan would swim and ride horses well into his later years.
Although Babe Ruth was in his prime when Reagan was in high school, he was unable to take up baseball because he was nearsighted. The condition was detected in his early teenage years and prevented him from seeing pitches or balls hit toward him until they were only a few feet away.
Graduating from Eureka in 1932, Reagan knew he had no future as an athlete. But he hit upon a way to combine two of his loves, acting and sports: He could be a sports announcer, which more often than not in the 1930s meant recreating events from telegraph reports. That required some flourish, and Reagan had honed that ability from his acting roles -- encouraged by his mother -- in high school and college.
With radio becoming an integral part of American life in 1932, Reagan auditioned for a sports announcer's job at WOC, Davenport, Iowa. He had to stand in front of a microphone in a studio and make up a game. With extraordinary detail and excitement in his voice, he recounted much of the fourth quarter of a game in which he played for Eureka -- only in his fictitious version, Eureka won a game it actually lost.
"When the red light went on," he told Mark Shields in a 1981 interview for Inside Sports magazine, "I said, 'We're just going into the fourth quarter now. It's late afternoon, the long blue shadow is settling over the field, the chill wind blowing in through the end of the stadium. . . .' "
WOC hired him to broadcast football.
"How do you do, ladies and gentlemen. We are speaking to you from high atop the Memorial Stadium of the University of Iowa. . . ." he recalled in an early autobiography, "Where's the Rest of Me?" He was paid $35 total to do four Iowa games.
Then came a four-year stint at a major station, WHO, in Des Moines. He broadcast college football from dozens of Midwest sites and recreated from telegraph reports more than 600 big-league baseball games. Behind the WHO microphone at the events, he looked debonair and confident; he wore tailored suits, neckties, often sweaters, with his black hair combed back and parted in the middle. More often, though, he was tucked away in the studio, recreating the games, using his imagination to flesh out the minimal description of the action available to him from the dots and dashes sent from the ballpark by a telegraph operator to the telegraph operator sitting across from him. Reagan essentially became "the voice of the Chicago Cubs," at least on WHO.
He recreated the 1932 World Series game in which Babe Ruth supposedly pointed to the Wrigley Field outfield and delivered his "called shot" home run off Charlie Root. Reagan sounded a bit melancholy in later years when mentioning Root, for Reagan had become a Cubs fan while behind the mike. When recalling stories about the Cubs, he sometimes referred to players as "our" players.
As inevitably happened in those days, Reagan suffered the agony of having the telegraph connection go dead on him. It happened to him as he recounted in "Where's the Rest of Me?" with the Cubs' Augie Galan at bat. In his game description, Reagan already had the pitch on the way when his in-house telegraph operator, Curly, slipped him a note saying he had lost contact with the ballpark.
"So I had Augie foul this pitch down the left-field foul line. I looked expectantly at Curly. He just shrugged helplessly, so I had Augie foul another one, and still another; then he fouled one back into the box seats. I described in detail the red-headed kid who had scrambled and gotten the souvenir ball. He fouled one into the upper deck that just missed being a home run. He fouled for six minutes and 45 seconds until I lost count. I began to be frightened that maybe I was establishing a new world record for a fellow staying at bat hitting fouls, and this could betray me. Yet I was into it so far I didn't dare reveal that the wire had gone dead. My voice was rising in pitch and threatening to crack -- and then, bless him, Curly started typing. I clutched at the slip. It said: 'Galan popped out on the first ball pitched.' Not in my game he didn't -- he popped out after practically making a career of foul balls."
In 1937, Reagan used vacation time at WHO to join the Cubs at their California spring training site on Catalina Island. That trip enabled him to visit Hollywood, get a screen test and a new and bigger career.
Tall and broad-shouldered, Reagan was athletic-looking. And, indeed, he was athletic. But his identification with sports is not so much because he played the games, but because of his football and baseball broadcasts and, later, his portrayal of athletes on the screen. He was halfback George Gipp in the 1940 film "Knute Rockne All American." As president, Reagan was often referred to as "The Gipper." Though a remarkable athlete, Gipp is remembered largely because of Reagan's acting, in particular the deathbed scene in which the doomed hero looks to Rockne, played by Pat O'Brien, and says: " . . . Some days when things are tough, maybe you can ask the boys to go in there and win just one for the Gipper."
In 1952, Reagan was pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander in a film called "The Winning Team."
During his political life, Reagan enjoyed meeting athletes and conversed easily with them. Typically, he was in high spirits hosting 32 baseball Hall of Famers at a White House luncheon in 1981. "I can't tell you how thrilled I am to have you here . . . to look at your faces, you span the years for me," he told them. "The nostalgia is bubbling in me. They may have to drag me out of here."
And his upbeat attitude rubbed off. At that event, the often withdrawn Joe DiMaggio was exuberant. "Nobody's ever seen him like this," then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn remarked. "He's used up 10 years of words in the last hour. He's talking to everybody."
Reagan enjoyed ceremonial occasions that brought him back in touch with sports. After the Redskins won the Super Bowl in January 1983, he happily met the team at Dulles International Airport; Coach Joe Gibbs quoted him as saying, "Congratulations, you really brought the city together." In October of that year, he attended a World Series game between the Philadelphia Phillies and Orioles in Baltimore.
Less than two weeks after attending that game, he was expecting to have another enjoyable time, playing golf at Augusta National. But while he was on the 16th hole, a gunman crashed a pickup truck through a club gate and demanded to speak with the president. The gunman kept several people hostage in the pro shop for about two hours before surrendering, as Reagan, in the interim, was rushed from the course in his armored limousine.
Reagan liked football best of all sports. In January 1985, he flipped a coin to begin Super Bowl XIX in Palo Alto, Calif. -- the coin toss in Washington was beamed by satellite to the game site and shown live on ABC-TV. Reagan once said that playing football gave him "inner confidence because you've met your fellow man in that kind of physical combat."
One of the remarkable things in Reagan's life was how much he accomplished after claiming to have achieved his goal as a sports announcer. "If I had stopped there," he wrote in his 1990 autobiography, "An American Life," "I believe I would have been happy the rest of my life."