March 29, 2023

Positively POTUS

October 29, 2022 by · Leave a Comment 

A few years ago, the Rangers had a minor leaguer called Benjamin Harrison. I saw him play a few games at Double-A Frisco (Texas League) and was rooting for him to make it to the Show. Since President Benjamin Harrison was the first President to attend a major league game (on June 6, 1892), it seemed fitting that someone with the same name would one day be a major league player.

Harrison made it as high as Triple-A Oklahoma City of the Pacific Coast League, but the best he could hit was .221 in 2008 and .218 in 2009, and that’s no way to earn a promotion. Since he turned 28 after the latter season, his chances of moving up were slim, and indeed he never made it.

Had Benjamin Harrison made it to the big leagues, he would not have been MLB’s first Presidential namesake – and, no, I’m not talking about Grover Cleveland Alexander, Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, or William Jefferson Clinton.

U.S. Presidents, like baseball players, are treasure troves for trivia buffs. Also, Presidents, like baseball players, often fail to live up to expectations. Inauguration Day is like Opening Day, but as time passes, reality trumps expectations more often than not.

Historians have an informal rating system for Presidents. Obviously, the ratings are subjective, and you can start plenty of arguments as to which President was the greatest or who belongs in the Top Ten. Occasionally, there is a consensus. Everyone piles on Warren Harding, for example. To those with short fuses and memories, the “worst President ever” is whoever happens to be in the White House at the time.

Like ballplayers, Presidents have numbers, currently from 1 to 46. The numbers were particularly handy after George W. Bush was elected (I think) and was sometimes referred to as 43 to distinguish him from his father, George H.W. Bush, No. 41. The two Bushes, like all Presidents, have retired but their numbers will never be retired. Unlike baseball, numbers need not be retired because no future President will ever be assigned the same number.

Rating MLB players named after Presidents, however, is less likely to excite controversy because none of the players approached greatness. A few had fair-to-middling careers but most were of little consequence.

Let’s begin at the beginning with Washington (No. 1), not only first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League, but a right fielder with the Chicago White Sox in 1935 and 1936. Sloan Vernon Washington acquired the nickname George from minor league fans.

I suppose he could as easily have gotten the nickname Seattle or Tacoma (Yakima would have been a dandy nickname for a ballplayer), but it just didn’t shake out that way. Both Baseball Almanac and Baseball Reference list him as George, so even if the name doesn’t appear on his birth certificate, I think he is qualified to appear in this survey.

Washington turned pro in 1931 with the McCook Generals of the Class D Nebraska State League. He was buried in the low minors during the depths of the Depression but, like his namesake at Valley Forge, he refused to get discouraged!  He worked his way up the ladder till he reached the White Sox in 1935 at age 27. His MLB career was over a little more than a year later – yet he persevered in the minors!

After three years of service during World War II, he returned to the low minors at age 39!  He played with Texas minor league teams in order to be close to his East Texas home town of Linden. He finished his career with the Gainesville Owls of the Class B Big State League in 1950.

President John Tyler (No. 10) is not particularly well known today, even though the 1840 campaign slogan of “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” still resonates somewhat. Tippecanoe referred to Whig Presidential candidate William Henry Harrison, victorious commander at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, and Tyler was his running mate.

Tyler went down in history as the first Vice President to rise to the highest office in the land after the death of the President (Harrison was in office just one month before he died). Movie fans, take note: Tyler was a dead ringer for Peter Cushing. If you don’t believe me, Google him and see for yourself.

Like baseball’s George Washington, baseball’s John Tyler slogged his way through the low minors during the Depression, arrived on the scene at an advanced age (28), and had a brief MLB career (59 total at bats as a spare outfielder for the Boston Braves in 1934 and 1935). Nicknamed Ty Ty (that had to be embarrassing for a grown man), he returned to the minors and remained there through age 38 in 1945. After hitting .157 in 51 at bats with the Syracuse Chiefs of the (then) Double-A International League in 1945, his career was over. It’s safe to assume no one played “Hail to the Chief” when he retired.

Zachary Taylor (No. 12), Old Rough and Ready, was not the first general/war hero to be elected President, but he might be the most obscure today (at least relative to the likes of Washington, Jackson, Grant, and Eisenhower). Taylor made his reputation during the Mexican War (fought from 1846 to 1848), which was not a defining conflict in American history, but we did get a lot of real estate as a result of that dust-up in the southwest. Hard to say how good or bad President Taylor might have been, as he was only in office for about a year and four months, starting in March of 1849, before he died.

Taylor’s baseball counterpart was born when the General/President’s reputation was at its peak. I can’t say for sure that the ballplayer was named after General/President Taylor, but the odds are in favor of it.

At any rate, baseball’s Zachary Taylor played just 13 games for Baltimore of the National Association in 1874. Not much to see here, folks, but it is interesting to  note that the team was then called the Canaries, not the Orioles!

While we’re on the subject of Zachary Taylor, we should also mention Zack Taylor, who had a 16-year playing career as a catcher starting in 1920. Playing for all three New York teams, as well as the Braves and the Cubs, he hit .261 (748 for 2,865) during his career. The one-consonant difference in the first name technically disqualifies him, but his SABR biography notes that even though his given name was James Wren Taylor, the stepdaughter of a teammate in Chattanooga hung the nickname on him and it stuck.

Today Zack Taylor is better known, though hardly world-famous, for his managerial career. Ironically, given General Zachary Taylor’s military success, Zack Taylor’s leadership in the field was less than impressive. On the other hand, during the Mexican War, General Zachary Taylor commanded the likes of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses Grant, Stonewall Jackson, and a number of other young officers who achieved prominence during the Civil War, while Zack Taylor managed the St. Louis Browns. ‘Nuff said.

Speaking of the Browns, that’s the team James Buchanan pitched for in 1905, compiling a 5-9 record via a 3.50 ERA. He got a late start in pro ball, beginning with the Fort Worth Panthers of the (then) Class D Texas League at age 26. After his brief tenure in MLB, he went back to the minors at age 29, and there he remained through 1911, retiring with the Topeka Jayhawks (Western League, Single-A) after going 14-16 in 1911.

Buchanan’s career barely rises to the status of footnote in baseball history, but that legacy may be preferable to that of his Presidential counterpart. For the most part, James Buchanan (No. 15) gets poor ratings from historians because he failed to defuse tensions during his administration, resulting in seven states seceding from the Union, and setting the stage for the Civil War after Lincoln was elected.

Now we flash forward 100 years from James Buchanan to John Kennedy (No. 35). President Kennedy, popularly known as JFK, made his debut on January 20, 1961. Baseball’s first John Kennedy (JIK, based on his middle name of Irvin) played his inaugural game with the Philadelphia Phillies on April 22, 1957.

JIK played in five games as a shortstop and went 0 for 2. That was hardly Presidential, but since it was four years before JFK took office, the subject never came up. Despite his minuscule MLB career, JIK went down in history as the first black player in Phillies history.

Baseball’s second John Kennedy (we’ll call him JEK, since his middle name was Edward) evinces a surprising number of connections with his Presidential counterpart. He actually made his debut during the administration of JFK!  Even more fitting, he made that debut with the Washington Senators!  Even more to the point, JFK had been a senator (from Massachusetts) before he became President!  You’d better believe it, Ripley – if not, you can look it up!

JFK’s inaugural speech was notable for the memorable phrase, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”  JEK also made a statement his first day on the job. On September 5, 1962, during the first game of a double-header against the Twins at D.C. Stadium, JEK entered the game in the bottom of the sixth inning as a pinch-hitter for pitcher Ed Hobaugh – and hit a solo home run off Dick Stigman!

Now flash forward to May 20, 1969, when JEK took the field as a member of the Seattle Pilots, who were playing in Washington that day. It was his first appearance in Washington since 1967. In his absence, D.C. Stadium had been renamed RFK Stadium as a salute to JFK’s late brother!

Since JEK had spent 1968 in the minors, he was probably glad to be back in the majors in 1969, even if it was with the lowly Pilots. In Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, JEK was lumped in with the “back of the bus” guys (Ray Oyler, Don Mincher, Jim Hegan, Rich Rollins, Gene Brabender, Marty Pattin, and Jim Gosger), distinguished for their sick sense of humor. Well, JFK was also noted for his wit.

In 1972 the Washington Senators, JEK’s old team, moved to Arlington, Texas. JEK was then in his third season with the Red Sox (fittingly, Boston was JFK’s home town). Before Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport opened, the Red Sox would have flown into Love Field, JFK’s final destination on Air Force One, and the point of departure for his remains after the assassination.

JEK retired with a career batting average of .225, but that was pretty standard for a utility infielder (his nickname was Super Sub) in those days. Unlike JFK, JEK did not go out with a bang but with a whimper. He hit a mere .215 (34 for 158) for Triple-A Pawtucket, and .133 for the Red Sox (2 for 15) that season. He announced his retirement before the end of the season, so his release was a mere formality. JEK had played 12 seasons in the majors, so he had nothing to apologize for.

Sadly, there was one missed opportunity about the JEK/JFK situation. Although he made his MLB debut in 1962, JEK started the 1963 season in the minors. Normally, this would hardly be noteworthy for so young a player, but it prevented a potentially great photo op, namely President John Kennedy throwing out the first ball to ballplayer John Kennedy on opening day (April 8 vs. Baltimore). By 1964, JEK was a full-time major leaguer with the Senators; alas, JFK was no longer available for opening day duties.

Curiously, other members of the Kennedy clan are represented among MLB players. You might remember Joe Kennedy, namesake of the political patriarch, who pitched for an assortment of teams (Devil Rays, Rockies, A’s, Diamondbacks, Blue Jays) from 2001 to 2007 and compiled a 43-61 record with an ERA of 4.79.

Bob Kennedy had a 16-year (1939-1957 minus 1943-1945) career and compiled 1,176 hits, playing mostly for the White Sox and the Indians. He was one of the infamous College of Coaches instituted by the Chicago Cubs in 1962. The following year he was named manager of the Cubs and remained in that capacity through 1965. He also managed the A’s during their first season (1968) in Oakland.

Ted Kennedy pitched in 1885 for the Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs) of the National League, and in 1886 for the Philadelphia A’s and Louisville Colonels of the American Association. He retired from MLB with a record of 12-21 at age 21. Returning to the minors in 1887, his 4-16 record with the Western Association Des Moines Prohibitionists in 1889 marked the end of his career. Guess you could say he met his Chappaquiddick that year.

With a bit of a stretch, even JFK, Jr. has a namesake, namely Junior Kennedy, who had a 7-year career as a utility infielder with the Reds and Cubs, retiring in 1983 with a .248 average.

Of course, we still have opportunities for more Presidential MLB players to appear on the scene. In fact, as I write these words, there may be a John Adams, an Andrew Jackson, an Andrew Johnson, a Jimmy Carter, or a Bill Clinton toiling away in the minor leagues.

A more intriguing possibility would be a former major leaguer being elected President. Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell and Jim Bunning both served in the House of Representatives, and the latter was elected to the Senate (from Kentucky). Yeah, I know Ronald Reagan used to re-create Cubs games, and he played Grover Cleveland Alexander in The Winning Team, but he is not a former player. I know Dwight Eisenhower played semi-pro ball in Kansas in 1911. And kudos to Bush 41 for playing in the College World Series and Bush 43 for owning the Texas Rangers, but that is not the same as taking up a slot on a major league roster.

You might remember former NFL quarterback Jack Kemp and former NBA player Bill Bradley were serious Presidential candidates. Given the fact that pro baseball goes back to 1869, it’s curious that no former MLB player has ever been a serious player in the race for the nation’s highest office.

Perhaps it’s just as well. For many people politics, not baseball, is the national pastime. And you know what they say about serving two masters.

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