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November 6, 2012

Wezen-Ball

Athletic Supporters

by Larry Granillo

Early last month, ESPN: The Magazine released the results of a survey they had conducted among players from each of the four major American sports. Unsurprisingly, the responses showed the wealthy athletes leaned to the right on the political spectrum. For example, the group as a whole said they would vote for Mitt Romney in today's election by a margin of 64.5% to President Obama's 22.9%. Major league baseball players were even more unanimous in their support of Romney, favoring the governor 81.8% to the president's 4.6%.

Apparently, the release of survey results like these would not have always been so ho-hum-predictable. In 1968, amid the highly contested election between Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and George Wallace (among many others), the New York Times detailed the support many of the nation's athletes were throwing around that summer. Describing the varied groups of athletes standing behind the two lead candidates, Robert Lipsyte wrote this:

The Democrats are not in the Republicans' league [with regards to the stature of players supporting their candidates], belying the old aphorism that the owners of teams vote G.O.P. and their players ride the donkey. Bonuses and investment portfolios have made every rookie somewhat conservative.

The emphasis is mine. According to Lipsyte then, it was at one time considered a truism that players would lean away from the conservative stylings seen in last month's ESPN: The Magazine survey and its like. Tally up another change on the ledgers for Curt Flood and the abolishment of the reserve clause!

As for those 1968 athlete endorsements, they really were all over the block. The trend had actually begun in 1960, when the "Dick Nixon Sports Committee" was formed, with reports of 54 athletes supporting the vice-president in his bid against the Massachusetts senator. That 1960 group included Ted Williams, Harmon Killebrew, Jim Lemon, and Roy Sievers on the baseball side, with Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, and Frank Gifford among those from the other sports. Jackie Robinson also endorsed Nixon in 1960, but it's unclear if he was part of the "Sports Committee". Nixon carried the support of some of these stars over to 1968 while attracting still more. Most notably, Williams was joined by Wilt Chamberlain, Joe Louis, and Jack Kemp (who would later run for vice-president himself alongside Bob Dole in the 1996 presidential election).

Robinson, meanwhile, had changed his support to that of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. Also on Rockefeller's team were ballplayers Orlando Cepeda, Jose Torres, and Hank Aaron. Torres and Aaron, however, had initially stumped for presumptive Democratic candidate Robert Kennedy before his death. For Hubert Humphrey, the man who took Kennedy's place on the ticket, the pickings were slim. Dean Chance and a young O.J. Simpson gave their support to the vice-president.

Support was also there for the lesser candidates. Jim Bouton, then pitching in minor league Seattle after a demotion, was said to support Eugene McCarthy along with Bill Briggs, the Washington Redskins defensive end. George Wallace had endorsements from Dickey Moegle, a hero of the 1954 Cotton Bowl, and former Detroit catcher Frank "Pig" House. Even Ronald Reagan had NFL quarterback Y.A. Tittle on his side (but only after Jack Kemp left the Reagan camp for Nixon's).

With this overwhelming show of support from professional athletes came something we still see much too often today: sports metaphors and comparisons. The candidates trotted out their athletic pedigree (Reagan's college football, Nixon's time as a "reserve lineman", Rockefeller's soccer, and so on). The best story was from Humphrey, who was "an habitue of baseball locker rooms, which he enters in a dead run, his great forehead glowing, his lips pursed into a fixed smile." Humphrey was even banned from the Chicago White Sox locker room in 1967 "in a rednecked, but apparently unpolitical, gesture." The best metaphors, however, came from Eugene McCarthy.

McCarthy, who played hockey, football and baseball in college, is not known for devout fandom, but leads all the contenders in the use of Sportspeak.

While other candidates say "It's a brand new ball game" at every political wind-shift, McCarthy has uttered such sophisticated comments as, "Nixon is the kind of boxer who keeps pulling up his trunks to increase the foul area" and "Rockefeller might beat you, 3-2, and you might beat him, 9-1; now, Nixon might throw some sliders and even a few spitters, but you know what he's got and you'd beat him, 6-4."

Well, "best" might not be the right word there. However you slice it, though, it's nice to know that, aside from a shift in political leanings that may not have even been true to begin with, not much has changed in how politicians, athletes and even fans interact around election time. Thank goodness it only happens once every four years.

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