There is a famous picture making the rounds since the death of President George H.W. Bush on Friday. It’s an extraordinary archive which still holds a place on honor in Yale’s athletic department.
Taken on June 5, 1948, before a Yale-Princeton game, it depicts a meeting at Yale Field of Babe Ruth and Bush, the Bulldogs captain and first baseman. They are shaking hands, exchanging pleasantries.
Near death, The Babe was there to hand Bush the final manuscript of “The Babe Ruth Story” which Ruth had co-written with a journalist named Bob Considine. He was donating it to the university.
“Meeting Babe Ruth on Yale Field was a trill that stays with me,” Bush said many years later. “He was cancer-riddled. His voice was more a croak than a normal voice. But he radiated greatness and I was privileged to have been asked to go out to home plate and meet him.”
After the ceremony, Bush asked Ruth to come to the Yale dugout where he shook the hand of every player. And then Bush slugged a double in the sixth inning of a game the Bulldogs won 14-2.
The man who changed baseball with a man who someday would be president of the United States.
Baseball wasn’t a hobby for President Bush. It was an obsession. He loved the game from the time he picked up a bat for the first time when he was five. He loved its nuance, its pace and he loved it until the end of his life.
In one of the many reembraces of President Bush this week there was an anecdote about a piece authored for the 1990 World Series program.
“You never forget your first love. For me, that was Barbara (his wife of 73 years),” wrote the president. “But a close second is baseball.”
If you’ve watched the Houston Astros on television over the last few years, you’d occasionally see the president and Barbara sitting in the first row behind the plate, sometimes eating a hot dog, usually keeping score.
He wasn’t there to be seen. He was there to root for the Astros. And the team loved his company.
“President Bush was a great American who devoted his life to serving his country. He epitomized class and dignity and was a true patriot,” Astros owner Jim Crane said in a team release. “The Houston Astros had the great privilege of hosting President Bush and his wife Barbara at Astros games for many years. As loyal fans, they stuck with us through the challenging years and were there to celebrate Houston’s first World Series championship in 2017.
“Game 5 of last year’s World Series is considered the most memorable and dramatic game in Astros history. What made it even more special was that President George H.W. Bush and his son, President George W. Bush, were on the field that night taking part in the first pitch ceremony.”
Fox News recalled that in 1991, Bush gave Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio the “President’s Award” in honor of the 1941 season when Williams hit .406 and DiMaggio had his 56-game hitting streak. That night, they all went to the Baseball All-Star Game in Toronto.
“The whole plan was to get The Kid and Joe aboard Air Force One and just listen to their stories,” said Bush.
During his time at Yale, which he entered after completing his military service, Bush led the Bulldogs to their first two College World Series in 1947 and 1948. Believe it or not, those games were played in Kalamazoo, Mich.
He wasn’t an especially good hitter and didn’t have power. In his 76 career games, he hit .224 with just one home run – a 370-foot shot against the University of Connecticut – with 28 RBIs. But was nifty around the first base bag, with fielding percentages of .971 and .993 in his two seasons,
When Bush arrived at Yale in 1946, the baseball coach was Red Rolfe, a former Major League pitcher. Rolfe had replaced Hall of Fame pitcher Smokey Joe Wood, who became Yale’s manager in 1924. Rolfe left Yale to join the Yankees as Joe McCarthy’s third base coach and was replaced by Ethan Allen, a career .300 hitter in 13 MLB seasons.
After beating out a number of candidates, Allen gave Bush – then known as Poppy – the first base job when the Bulldogs opened the season against UConn.
He singled to left to drive home Yale’s first run, added another hit and walked to start the game-winning rally in the eighth inning. The Huskies first baseman that day was Walt Dropo, the AL’s 1950 rookie of year with the Red Sox.
Bush also loved soccer, but couldn’t play during the fall of 1946 because he was sick with malaria. But he returned to health in time for the baseball season and the Bulldogs were 16-7-1 and won the Eastern Intercollegiate Baseball League title.
He kept his glove throughout his career as a diplomat and politician. And when he became president, he put it in a drawer in his Oval Office desk, proudly showing it off to anyone who wanted to see it. He had it on when the threw out the first of the 1983 season. And he didn’t stand 10 feet in front of home plate. He was on the pitcher’s mound.
The following year, then 60 years old and Ronald Reagan’s vice president, he participated in an Old Timers game and singled off Milt Pappas, a longtime MLB starter. He also made a sterling defensive play at first on a hard-hit ball by Orlando Cepeda.
In 2015, Yale celebrated its 150th baseball season and Bush met with the team in Texas, answered questions and took a photo with the team.
“I’m not big on giving free advice for the simple reason that it’s usually viewed as being worth was paid for it,” Bush told the team. “That said, I would encourage each and every young man who might attend Yale to play ball and do the things my mother taught me a million years ago: do your best, share credit, focus on the team. It’s not fancy, but it worked for me.”