With his passing at the age of 93 yesterday, Gerald Ford is being remembered today for his accidental presidency (he was the only US president in history never elected as president or vice president), and for his infamous pardon of Richard Nixon. But we should also take time to remember Ford as a sportsman and a baseball fan.
Although Ford is best remembered for his football exploits (he was a football star at Michigan in the 1930s), it is a little known fact that he was an even bigger baseball fan, and his dream growing up had been to become a professional baseball player:
“I had a life-long ambition to be a professional baseball player, but nobody would sign me.”
When Ford returned home from his service in the Navy during World War II, he became a huge fan of Women’s professional baseball. While the men had been away fighting, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League had started up (as immortalized in the film A League of Their Own) and was still flourishing. Ford’s hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan had its own team, the Grand Rapids Chicks, and Ford wooed his future wife Betty by taking her to Chicks games. Later Ford was often heard to remember those games fondly:
“Those gals played hard and skillfully and always put on a good show.”
In 1948, Ford was elected to Congress, and soon became the star catcher of the Republican baseball team. You see, back in those days baseball was so popular, that every year the Democratic congressmen would play a baseball game against the Republican congressmen on the Washington Senator’s home grounds, complete with uniforms and and large crowds. At right, Ford is pictured conferring with his batterymate, pitcher Glenn Davis (R-Wis), prior to the 1949 Republican/Democrat Game. As to why he was always the catcher, Ford said,
“I usually play the outfield, but everybody else refuses to catch so I’m stuck.”
As vice president, Ford was present at the game when Henry Aaron hit home run number 715 to break Ruth’s all-time record, and actually threw out the first pitch of that contest (pictured above). There was actually a minor battle of wills at the time between Reds GM Dick Wagner and Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn over whether the game would be interrupted to allow Ford to go onto the field and shake Aaron’s hand, but ultimately Kuhn prevailed and Ford was allowed to shake Aaron’s hand.
As president, Ford threw out the first two pitches at the 1976 All-Star Game, showing his versatility by throwing first righthanded to NL catcher Johnny Bench, and then lefthanded to AL catcher Carlton Fisk. No doubt remembering his own enjoyment of women’s pro baseball, Ford also signed into law a bill forcing Little League Baseball to allow girls to play ball.
And finally, of course, no piece on Gerald Ford would be complete without at least one of his trademark dumb Gerald Ford quotes, and there is indeed a good one having to do with the sport with which this blog is concerned:
“I watch a lot of baseball on the radio.”
Rest in peace, # 38!