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As Watergate simmered, Nixon buckled down on a sportswriting project

President Richard M. Nixon included Ted Williams (right) on one of his all-time baseball teams. (Bettmann Archive)

As he dealt with the immediate fallout from the Watergate break-in during the summer of 1972, President Richard M. Nixon set aside time for a different sort of passion project: assembling a list of his all-time greatest baseball players.

That effort, which also involved some of his soon-to-be-infamous aides, culminated with a nearly 3,000-word opus for the Associated Press, which appeared in newspapers across the country 50 years ago Saturday. Nixon’s list — or lists, as it turned out — included many of the sport’s greatest stars (Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson) but also some deep-cut surprises (Dick Groat, Bobo Newsom). Nixon, not especially remembered for his soft side, copped to “sentiment” playing a role in some of these unexpected selections.

The reviews were unsparing.

“When you regard him as a sports writer, you can’t help feeling that he really ought to go back to being President of the United States,” New York Times sports columnist Red Smith wrote. “That’s a dreadful, difficult line to write.”

The 50th Anniversary of Watergate

Nixon’s baseball-writing journey originated from a pair of questions from RKO General Broadcasting reporter Cliff Evans on June 22 — five days after five burglars were arrested breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex. Evans first asked Nixon to name some of his favorite players, and Nixon reeled off five Hall of Famers: Williams, Robinson, Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial.

“Mr. President,” Evans followed up, “as the nation’s No. 1 baseball fan would you be willing to name your all-time baseball team?”

“Yes,” Nixon replied.

The next day, in a secretly recorded conversation between Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, the president approved a plan for the CIA to block the FBI’s investigation into the Watergate break-in. It became known as the “smoking gun” tape, and it helped lead to his resignation two years later.

President ‘all cranked up’

But even as he plotted in late June to thwart the Watergate probe, Nixon was working diligently on his baseball list — tapping White House aides such as Haldeman and press secretary Ron Ziegler, remembered in history for dismissing the Watergate break-in as a “third-rate burglary.”

Nixon collaborated on the baseball piece with his son-in-law, David Eisenhower, the grandson of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, at Camp David — the White House retreat that Ike had named for him. On Sunday, June 25, they “opened the records books,” as Nixon later wrote in his story. David Eisenhower brought some baseball chops to the assignment, having worked for the Washington Senators in 1970.

“It was one of the most enjoyable things that I’ve done because we had a fine afternoon with rain that afternoon at Camp David and we couldn’t go outside,” Nixon recalled a few days later in a White House conversation with Evans, the RKO reporter. “So we pored over these numbers and names and all the fascinating stories of the great men of baseball for two or three hours.”

Haldeman took notice. “The President all cranked up about his baseball all-time great story,” he dictated in an audio diary entry the next day. “Wants Ziegler to figure out how to handle it as a Nixon byline. He apparently dictated it yesterday at Camp David and has figured out a super all-time team. One prewar, one postwar, one for the National League, one for the American League.”

But as Timothy Naftali, a former director of the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library, said in an interview, “That weekend he was actually concerned about the payoffs to the Watergate burglars. He was multitasking, and he was trying to keep himself busy, but there’s no doubt that that weekend he was scheming.”

Indeed, Haldeman’s diary recorded that Nixon had something else on his mind besides baseball.

“He got into a number of political things today … The problems on Watergate continue to multiply as John Dean runs into more and more FBI leads that he has to figure out ways to cope with,” Haldeman dictated, referring to the White House counsel, who would later testify that Nixon was directly involved in the Watergate coverup.

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Still, Nixon continued to work on the baseball article the next day, as Haldeman described in a June 27 entry:

“The President got into quite a thing on his baseball piece he’s written for the AP, the all-time great teams. He dictated it Sunday afternoon and he’s spending an incredible amount of time today on the whole thing. Working out all the little details of which relief pitcher the American League prewar should be on, and all that sort of stuff. Kind of fascinating and not just a little amusing.”

That day — with White House domestic policy John D. Ehrlichman concerned about the “Watergate caper,” according to Haldeman — Nixon peppered Ziegler with questions about that AL relief pitcher, using Haldeman as an intermediary, a secretly recorded White House tape shows.

“The president said to ask you who the relief pitcher was for the American League prewar,” Haldeman said to Ziegler on a telephone call.

“Just a moment. The memo just came in, let me get it in,” Ziegler replied, then told someone in his office to get him a copy — “quickly.”

After retrieving the memo, the young press secretary said, “I’ve got three suggestions. . . . Either Hugh Casey or Mace Brown or Doc Crandall. Now, I have their games won-and-lost and so forth you may want to look over.”

Ziegler reads each pitcher’s record, which Haldeman repeats to Nixon in a monotone voice, as if he’s taking down a delivery order. Then Nixon can be heard telling Haldeman to ask Ziegler about a Pittsburgh relief pitcher, and the call descends into an unintentional parody of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First.”

Haldeman: “What was the name of the Pittsburgh relief pitcher, Face? What’s his first name?”
Ziegler: “Mace Brown? Mace Brown.”
Haldeman: “No, the Pittsburgh relief pitcher whose last name is Face?”
Ziegler: “I haven’t the slightest idea, Bob, I don’t know a goddamn thing about baseball (laughs). Mace Brown, however, did pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates.”
Haldeman: “We don’t want that one. Check that out. It’s a guy named Face. Pitched about 1950 for Pittsburgh.”
Ziegler: “But he wanted pre-war!”
Haldeman: “I’m asking a different question now: What is the name, the first name, of the Pittsburgh relief pitcher whose last name is Face?”
Ziegler: “All right, fine, good.”
Haldeman: “What is his first name?”
Ziegler: “Right on. I’ll get that right for you. Roger.”

Face’s first name, for the record, is Roy, and Nixon wound up choosing him as his post-World War II National League relief pitcher, while Mace Brown got the nod as the prewar NL relief pitcher. Both spent the majority of their careers with the Pirates and had nearly identical (and not particularly all-time worthy) ERAs of 3.48 and 3.46, respectively.

“Nixon’s mind collected data in the way that later generations would engage in rotisserie baseball,” said Naftali, the director of New York University’s undergraduate public policy major and co-author of “Impeachment: An American History.”

“This was natural to him. Whether it was learning the statistics of his favorite ballplayers or figuring out who might become secretary of state of some part of the Midwest, that’s how his mind worked.”

How one team became four

Although Nixon had been asked to name his all-time baseball team, the president took liberties and came up with four teams.

“To select a team of nine was just too hard for me to do,” he told Evans. His prewar teams started with 1925, when he first started following baseball in the sports pages as a 12-year-old boy; his other two teams covered the period from 1945 to 1970.

(“The President named 80 players to the nine positions which, in this period of galloping inflation, is still preposterous,” wrote Tim Horgan of the Boston Herald Traveler and Record American.)

Nixon’s story appeared in newspapers July 2, 1972. The Washington Post ran excerpts inside the sports section, with an AP byline, alongside a boyhood photo of a grinning David Eisenhower holding a baseball and sporting a Senators cap.

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But other papers published the whole story with the byline, “By Richard M. Nixon,” including the New York Times, which ran the piece near the top of the front of the sports section. The newspaper also teased the story on the front page, which had the news of John Mitchell resigning as Nixon’s campaign manager.

Nixon began the article by calling the assignment “about as difficult a task as a President or any other baseball fan could possibly undertake” but added that he got help from Eisenhower, “the most avid fan in the Nixon family.” The duo set out to write a list that would “stand up under the scrutiny” it would receive from sportswriters and baseball fans, the president wrote.

(Despite Nixon’s notorious contempt for journalists, he once stunned a White House reception full of 400 baseball VIPs, including Hall of Famers, all-stars and sportswriters, by telling them, “I just want you to know that I like the job I have, but if I had to live my life over again, I would have liked to have ended up as a sportswriter.”)

In addition to Ruth and Gehrig, his prewar teams included stars such as Joe Cronin, Joe DiMaggio, Lefty Grove and Hank Greenberg in the American League, and Rogers Hornsby, Dizzy Dean, Pie Traynor and Mel Ott in the National League. Nixon took a progressive view in selecting Satchel Paige as one of his AL pitchers despite the fact that Paige, the great Negro Leagues star, didn’t pitch in the major leagues until his 40s.

“Every baseball man I have talked to tells me that Satchel Paige in his prime was as fast as Lefty Grove or Bob Feller,” he wrote.

His postwar teams included American Leaguers Feller, Brooks Robinson, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson and Carl Yastrzemski and National Leaguers Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, Johnny Bench, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson.

Then there were the odd choices. Nixon admitted that “some sentiment enters into” his choice of Dick Groat — a good shortstop who had a lifetime batting average of .286 — as a reserve infielder. The president said that Groat was a roommate of his younger brother, Ed, at Duke University, and Nixon wrote he respected Groat as “fine player” and “leader of men.”

Bobo Newsom, meanwhile, compiled a lifetime 3.98 ERA but still earned a spot as one of five starting pitchers on Nixon’s prewar AL team.

“I must admit some sentiment in this respect since he pitched in Washington during the lean years when I attended baseball games as a Congressman and a Senator,” Nixon wrote.

‘New, Slow Boy on the Baseball Beat’

The day after Nixon’s story appeared, Red Smith of the Times panned it in a piece headlined, “New, Slow Boy on the Baseball Beat.”

“Allowing the cub two or three times as much space as a staff member would get, the New York Times published his essay in full Sunday, all 2,800 cliche‐ridden words,” Smith wrote. “Frankly, the new boy has a long way to go if he’s ever going to cut it in this department.”

He mocked Nixon for using personal considerations in the selections, such as choosing Harmon Killebrew as his AL postwar first baseman because an Idaho senator introduced him to the ballplayer when he joined the Senators as a teenager and Nixon was vice president.

“Above all, he's got to cover the assignment,” Smith wrote. “He was asked to pick his all‐time all‐star baseball team and he blew it. He picked four teams, with spares.”

The criticism didn’t stop Nixon. In 1992 — 18 years after he resigned as president — the 79-year-old Nixon and Eisenhower updated their picks at a fundraising luncheon at the Nixon Presidential Museum in California, an event featuring a host of Hall of Famers. The Post called it “a cross between the Academy Awards and an old-timers game.”

And yes, Roy Face again made the cut.

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