The White House Historical Association’s annual Christmas ornament this year is dedicated to Calvin Coolidge, among the presidents most closely associated with baseball. This led to the inclusion of a baseball on the ornament design, which in turn led the association to propose a formal partnership with the local nine.
And that, finally, led the group to imagine the impossible: the nation’s 30th president, Silent Cal, joining some of his more famous (but equally silent) brethren on their nightly journeys around the Nationals Park warning track.
“That was our dream,” said the group’s president, Stewart McLaurin. “We didn’t know what form that dream would take. But their vision met our dream, and we were off to the races.”
So to speak.
Thus, Friday night -– the eve of Coolidge’s 143rd birthday -– George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft will be accompanied by Calvin during their fourth-inning dash. Kids -– and I speak from experience on this –- will ask their parents about the skinny guy with the 20th century suit and tie. Families will discuss the Roaring ’20s, the Jazz Age, and a sometimes forgotten presidency. Maybe they’ll even talk about the election of 1924, when the popular Coolidge earned an absolute majority despite a strong third-party Progressive candidate. Hey, are we still in the Sports section?
“We love the fact that you can come to a Nationals game and walk out smarter,” said Valerie Camillo, the team’s chief revenue and marketing officer. “Look, if we have a handful of kids in that crowd that say ‘who’s Calvin Coolidge?’ and go open their encyclopedias and learn a little bit more about Silent Cal, that’s a win for us.”
Let’s back up for a minute. The WHHA is a privately funded non-profit group — founded with help from Jacqueline Kennedy — that promotes education about the Executive Mansion and its residents. For the past 35 years, the organization has received much of its funding from sales of its annual ornament, which typically honors individual presidents, chosen in sequential order.
The WHHA and the Nats signed a three-year deal during the offseason; in addition to this week’s arrival of Our Man Calvin, the Nats are selling the ornament in their team store, asking White House trivia questions in the fifth inning, and running a joint educational program with the WHHA in District high schools.
But the guy with the large head and running shoes will receive an outsized amount of attention. After the Coolidge family foundation okayed the concept, Racing Calvin was designed by Major League Baseball in accordance with traditional Racing President style and rushed through production. He is expected to be retired at the end of the 2015 season. And with that aforementioned three-year deal, and the sequential ornament tradition … wait, could Nats Town become Hooverville in 2016?
“Stay tuned,” McLaurin said.
But for now, there is Coolidge, and he fits. He was the last president to throw out a first pitch during a Washington World Series game. He was considered something of a good luck charm when the Senators were 1920s heavyweights. He posed for photos with Walter Johnson and visited Griffith Stadium, and his wife Grace was a well-known baseball fanatic.
“I venture to say that not one of you cares a hoot about baseball, but to me it is my very life,” she wrote to a friend in the ‘50s, according to historian David Pietrusza.
Which is why news of Coolidge in cleats was greeted with enthusiasm at the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation in Vermont.
“Everyone has been really happy,” said Matt Denhart, the Foundation’s executive director. “We really entered into something of the modern era in the ’20s, and Coolidge should be much better known. We kind of see this as a hook to get people’s interest, and to try to teach them more about Coolidge than just that he was the president.”
The Foundation would like people to learn that Coolidge favored thrift and civility, that he eschewed public displays of temper, that he spent his entire life in politics, that he favored governmental restraint, that much of his silent demeanor was intentional and for show, and that he was more complex than his taciturn caricature would suggest. (There has actually been a fair bit of debate about Coolidge in recent years, with modern political ramifications. This is probably not the place for all that.)
“He was sort of like Cal Ripken Jr., if you want to use a baseball metaphor; he was reliable,” said Amity Shlaes, author of the best-selling biography “Coolidge,” and an evangelist for the 30th president. “He was much loved by the American people and intensely popular, because I think they liked his great sense of fairness and kindness.”
Will Nats fans similarly support Coolidge, who is expected to make a few public stops around the District on Wednesday? There will be 25,000 Coolidge bobbleheads at Nats Park on Sept. 21, and Coolidge will be a frequent participant in the races, which Camillo said remain the most popular part of the team’s in-game presentation.
“What other program for Calvin Coolidge is going to generate this much publicity, this much attention, this much recognition?” she asked.
“What a wonderful opportunity to teach people about something they might not know anything about,” McLaurin added.
Finally, how will Cal fare as a racer? Well, if his words are any guide, he’ll at least play fair.
“The three contests which I witnessed maintained throughout a high degree of skill and every evidence of a high-class sportsmanship that will bring to every observer an increased respect for and confidence in our national game,” Coolidge said after the 1924 World Series, the last won by Washington. “It would be difficult to conceive a finer example of true sport.”