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January 22, 2013

Skewed Left

The Best of FDR's Baseball Correspondence

by Zachary Levine

Just when you begin to lose faith—when you’ve waited in enough interminable lines for a driver’s license renewal or when you’ve watched Congress operate for about four seconds—you’re reminded that your tax dollars come with some good stuff, too. Like pretty much unlimited access to U.S. Presidents’ personal and official files.

January is a quiet time of year at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, as it is at most upstate New York tourist attractions. Not only did that mean a solo tour of the 98-year-old house, but it also meant relatively solo access to the research room in the visitors’ center. So it was an optimal time for sifting through FDR’s old junk, and let’s just say old 32 was a bit of a hoarder.

The collection has thousands of documents sorted by topic and by year, and a friendly docent would be happy to bring any of them to you. And all of his correspondence was saved, so naturally, the president who was in office for more World Series than any other (12, seven won by his hometown Yankees and Giants) would have a lot of baseball-related documents.

As with any hoarder, the stuff was mostly crap. It was a lot of requests for signed baseballs, presidential appearances at baseball events, and youth team equipment donations. But amid the banality were some real treasures.

Please enjoy the baseball highlights of FDR’s personal and official files, completely available to be viewed by anyone. I’ve split them into five sections, starting with his most important—the decision to keep baseball going during World War II, highlighted by the “Green Light Letter” to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

I. Baseball in wartime
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Landis quickly had to make the decision about whether the show would go on in 1942, and ultimately, the call was up to him. Roosevelt made it clear, however, that he was in support of “play ball,” and ball would indeed be played during all four years of U.S. involvement in World War II.

A couple of notes about the “Green Light Letter:” It was the only item I found that was noted as a copy, as it is probably the most famous and important piece of the baseball collection and is not available to the public. Also note that FDR encouraged the continuation because in part, “Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half…” Oh, the old days. (Click to expand this image and all subsequent images.)

This would not be a one-year issue: as the war escalated, these decisions would be faced year after year. Before the 1943 season, Washington Senators president Clark Griffith sent a letter to President Roosevelt’s secretary Stephen Early lobbying him to promote the then-eight-year-old concept of night games to keep the day-time workers entertained in wartime. OK, it might also have been good for business.

A more powerful letter came to the White House from a staff sergeant in the United States Marines. “I have discussed this matter with several other Marines and we all believe this we all feel that that baseball should continue this year and if possible, for the duration of the war. Baseball keeps our spirits up, gives us something to talk about and promotes sportsmanship.”

II. Baseball fan clearinghouse
Apparently, one of the duties of the president beyond heading the executive branch and serving as commander-in-chief of the military is acting as a sounding board for the type of nonsense that society would later assign to sports talk radio hosts.

Here’s some of the best baseball fan-mail that FDR received, starting with my favorite—a threat from the Brooklyn First Committee before the Dodgers headed to slaughter in the 1941 World Series.

So if you have a revolutionary idea—like interleague play would have been 62 years before its actual inception—and have nobody who will listen, what do you do? Send your idea to the President of the United States. Maybe he can do something about it.

Ditto if you’re a bus boy from Toledo and want to see the top major-league ballplayers play the Negro League All-Stars.

Or if you’re a suburban Philadelphian and have a suggestion for the new commissioner of baseball when Landis was hospitalized (he would die three weeks later): just ask the President.

And how do you separate yourself from the dozens of requests the President gets for sponsoring youth teams? Do as this Virginia team did and offer to name the team after the NRA. (“N.R.A.” in this case presumably refers to the National Recovery Administration rather than the National Rifle Association.) The request was not honored, but points for ingenuity.

III. Presidential perks
If answering letters from fans was one annoying responsibility of the presidential staff, there were perks, too. The White House was flooded with passes to attend any game of FDR’s choosing—National League, American League, minor league…

Most of them were just sent to the office, but National League President Ford Frick wanted to deliver his personally in 1935.



A copy of his 1937 American League pass:

His 1941 Pacific Coast League pass:

And one from 1933 from the umbrella organization of the affiliated minor leagues:

But you can’t really expect a sitting president to be able to attend all these ballgames, can you? New York City high school student Richard de la Sota Jr. didn’t expect him to, so he asked the President if he could use the pass instead to go to New York Giants games.

IV. Bane of the BBWAA
The most pathetic part of President Roosevelt’s baseball files is the fact that he kept his annual rebuffs of the BBWAA, which annually asked him to speak at their events. So monotonous was this dance becoming that one year, BBWAA honcho and renowned New York World-Telegram writer Daniel M. Daniel decided to employ a roundabout tactic.

He wrote a letter to Griffith, the Senators president, asking if he would persuade Roosevelt to speak to the baseball writers’ dinner gathering.

Wrote Daniel to Griffith: “Instead of going to the usual place, to get the usual begoff, I am asking you to use your influence to induce the President to make this short talk as a recognition of what baseball means.”

Griffith followed through, asking Roosevelt via his secretary.

And it was met with yet another rejection. Baseball writers are nothing if not persistent.

Daniel was known for blurring the line between being a writer and an active participant in baseball negotiations. (His SABR biography tells a story of his persuading Babe Ruth to sign a new contract with the Yankees.) Here we see him trying to broker a meeting between Roosevelt and the Yankees in addition to their press contingent.

Amid all the rejection we did get one gem out of this bizarre and largely fruitless tango. In his 1937 RSVP in the negative to James P. Dawson of the New York Times, Roosevelt gets long-winded and ends up discussing what his favorite kind of baseball games are.

FDR was no fan of the pitchers’ duel, preferring a game “that guarantees the fans a combined score of not less than fifteen runs, divided about eight to seven.”

He obviously got what he wanted. He’s the President. The season that had just ended upon the transmission of that letter is still the second-highest scoring season of the modern era, with 5.2 runs per team per game. Leave the 2-1 games to misanthropes like Taft.

V. The best of the rest
A 1943 letter from Representative William J. Miller of Connecticut’s first district proposing June 26 as a National Baseball Day because it’s the birthday of Abner Doubleday, allegedly the inventor of the game a century before. The letter proposes tying the day to sales of war bonds—maybe a well-intentioned model for the MLB holiday branding of 2013.

Here’s an ambitious sports editor in Omaha looking for a “scoop” on how Roosevelt’s arm is feeling ahead of a ceremonial first pitch. If “Pitcher Frank” isn’t the best way to address the sitting U.S. President, I’m not sure what is.

Roosevelt could not attend the opening of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1939, but he did send remarks to be read.

A good deal of FDR’s personal file on baseball was dedicated to the correspondence with his friend Lowell Putnam of Pawling, N.Y., 25 miles southeast of Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park where the president made an estimated 12-15 trips a year during his presidency. It seems Roosevelt’s staff and Putnam’s staff squared off in a ballgame at regular intervals through the nation’s hard times and the perils of aging. The invitation and response from Roosevelt are both outstanding.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

Related Content:  History,  Fdr,  President,  Franklin Delano Roosevelt,  Letters

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