Baseball's Role in the Life of JFK
Here a frail 28-year-old John F. Kennedy, still not fully recovered from injuries sustained in 1943 when his PT-109 was struck by a Japanese destroyer in World War II, poses at Fenway Park in Boston in April 1946 with Ted Williams and Eddie Pellagrini of the Red Sox and Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers. The neophyte J.F.K. is about to face nine opponents in a Democratic congressional primary — and he is seeking the reflected glory of being seen in the proximity of baseball stars.
Touch football games at Hyannis Port were known to be a big tradition for the Kennedy family, but the national pastime was woven through J.F.K.'s life, both as genuine baseball fan and as politician.
During the early 1950s, when his injured back allowed, Kennedy, a right-hander, played softball with fellow senators, including the Democrats Mike Mansfield of Montana and Henry Jackson of Washington. In October 1959, before declaring for president, he courted the powerful mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, by joining him to watch the White Sox play the Los Angeles Dodgers during the World Series at Comiskey Park.
Campaigning in Milwaukee the autumn before the 1960 Wisconsin presidential primary, the 42-year-old J.F.K. accosted 38-year-old Stan Musial, who was waiting for the St. Louis Cardinals’ bus, and said, “They tell me you’re too old to play ball and I’m too young to be president, but maybe we’ll fool them.” In the fall of 1960, Musial — who, though he had previously backed the Republican president Dwight Eisenhower, liked Kennedy personally and was eager to see a fellow Catholic in the White House — stumped for Kennedy in nine states.
Despite years of trying, Kennedy had no such luck with Williams, a fellow Bostonian described by his biographer Ben Bradlee Jr. as “a big Nixon man”; Williams would lunch with Richard Nixon, the Republican vice president, when the Red Sox came to Washington. In October 1960, while landing at the Miami airport to address the American Legion, Kennedy spied Williams across the tarmac and told his man-of-all-work David Powers, “Dave, look, there’s Ted! … The son of a ***** is wearing a Nixon button.”
Before making his first pitch as president on opening day at Washington’s Griffith Stadium in 1961, Kennedy — whose 97th birthday would have been next week — practiced throwing a softball in the White House Rose Garden and was clearly chagrined to encounter a young press aide, Barbara Gamarekian. “Obviously he hadn’t intended anyone seeing him out there,” she recalled in a 1964 oral history for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, “and so he felt sheepish about it all and ducked his head and said hello.”
By the last full day of President Kennedy’s life, dreams for American baseball stadium architecture had moved far beyond J.F.K.'s old red-brick haunt at Fenway. On Thursday afternoon, Nov. 21, 1963, flying into Houston, the president could see beneath him, out of Air Force One’s windows — if he looked — the rising steel superstructure of a new kind of baseball park. It was called the Astrodome.