This first appeared in The Hill on April 12th, 2010
President Barack Obama is often seen wearing a battered White Sox cap to let the world know he’s not just a baseball fan, but a dedicated follower of Chicago’s working-class, gritty South Siders rather than the more genteel cross-town Cubs.
Baseball, like politics, is not taken lightly by real fans, and particularly not by those who follow Chicago’s teams. Declaring one’s allegiance to one of these teams in Chicago is serious business. When the two teams squared off against each other in the 1906 World Series, Ring Lardner Jr., the greatest sportswriter of the day, warned Chicagoans of the dangers of walking into the wrong saloon.
I grew up a White Sox fan following the likes of Sherm Lollar, Minnie Minoso and Early Wynn. My father was a labor union organizer and therefore a White Sox fan; he insisted my brothers and I promise never to disgrace him by setting foot in Wrigley Field. I’ve kept that promise, although I was tempted some years back when I got tickets for an interleague game at Wrigley. After more than a little soul-searching, however, I sent my children and retired to a bar to watch my team whip the Cubbies on television.
I’d be the first to admit that I was less than overjoyed by Mr. Obama’s victory in 2008, but at least it put a fellow Sox fan in the White House for the first time since Richard Nixon was pulled in the late innings of his less-than-successful second term.
I was wrong. It turns out that our president knows about as much about baseball as he does about, say, the dangers of trillion-dollar budget deficits.
His oft-claimed devotion to “his” team runs at least as deep as his campaign commitment not to raise taxes on the sorts of middle-class and working people he would run into at Comiskey Park if he was the fan he claims to be.
The president tossed out the first ball at the Nationals’ home opener last week wearing his White Sox cap. He then adjourned to the broadcast booth for the sort of easy interview a politician expects on such occasions. After all, he was being interviewed not by a Fox News anchor or even Katie Couric, but by a retired pitcher-turned-sports announcer whom any baseball fan could handle without a teleprompter.
It all came apart when announcer Rob Dibble asked the president a simple question. Dibble politely asked, “Who was one of your favorite White Sox players growing up?”
His response says it all and is worth quoting in full: “You know … uh … I thought that … you know … the truth is that a lot of the Cubs I liked too.”
Compare President Obama’s knowledge of his favorite team with that of the late President Nixon, who grew up as a White Sox fan in Whittier, Calif., forced to follow his team on the radio. Nixon ran into Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman at an all-star game in 1960 and told him not only that he was a fan, but that Luke Appling was his favorite player growing up. Nixon went on to recall and comment on the team’s 1936 starting lineup. Holtzman wrote later that he wasn’t sure if Nixon was right, but went back to his office and checked. Nixon was dead right on all counts.
And it got worse for Obama. The president went on, after flubbing the easy one, to tell Dibble how much he’d always enjoyed “Cominskey Park.” Every sentient creature in Chicago, including diehard Cubs fans and aspiring politicians, must have rolled their eyes at that one.
Those are not the words of a White Sox fan. They are the words of a politician caught in the sort of double-talk that would bring Congressman Joe Wilson to his feet.
Presidents like to identify with baseball; some legitimately and others for effect. Warren Harding was part-owner of a minor league team and George W. Bush was president of the Texas Rangers. Herbert Hoover and George H.W. Bush played ball in college and Dwight Eisenhower played in the minors as a center fielder, while Ronald Reagan was a minor league broadcaster.
They all knew baseball and their affection for the game was real. Barack Obama wears a cap not because he loves the game or the team whose logo appears on it, but for effect. It’s time for him to lose the cap.
Cartoon courtesy of Brett Noel