Originally created 06/11/04

Ronald Reagan: Above all, the Gipper was a good sport



Ronald Reagan wasn't the first United States President to recognize the advantages of aligning himself with competitive athletics. That tradition dates back to at least 1892, when Benjamin Harrison became the first President to attend a major league baseball game.

William Taft expanded on the theme, delivering the ceremonial first pitch that launched the 1910 season. Later that day, the 300-pound President inadvertently birthed the seventh-inning stretch when he stood up to stretch his legs. Thinking he was leaving, fans stood up out of respect. Seeing that he wasn't, they sat back down.

Dwight Eisenhower golfed the 1950s away. John Kennedy was a touch football maniac. Richard Nixon had a bowling alley in the White House, and diagrammed a play for Washington Redskins coach George Allen, suitable for use in Super Bowl VII.

Jimmy Carter jogged.

They helped pioneer the concept of the presidential sportsman. Reagan perfected it.

His first paying job after Eureka College was as a sportscaster with NBC working in Iowa. One of his assignments was to re-create Chicago Cubs games from a studio, using accounts of the game delivered by telegraph.

In 1937, while in California covering spring training, Reagan signed with Warner Brothers and began a career in acting - another vocation that would serve him well in politics.

Reagan's first big role as an actor was playing ill-fated Notre Dame football star George Gipp in the 1940 classic, Knute Rockne, All-American.

Gipp did for Reagan what Augie Galan never could, spring-boarding the young actor to fame and prominence. Reagan even appropriated Gipp's nickname. Half a century after the movie, Reagan was still being referred to as The Gipper.

In time, Reagan left acting for politics, was elected governor of California, and later President. He hit his stride as American's First Fan.

Reagan invited scores of newly minted championship teams to the White House Rose Garden. Invariably they showed up with one of their own uniforms, bearing No. 1 and the name "Gipper" on the back.

He also popularized the congratulatory telephone call to the winning locker room. When Baltimore beat Philadelphia to win the 1983 World Series, Reagan called the triumphant (and lubricated) Orioles in their clubhouse.

The phone was passed around until it came to catcher Rick Dempsey, apparently several bubbles deep into his celebration.

"Mr. President," Dempsey said, "you tell those Russians we're having a great time over here playing baseball."

In 1984, Reagan addressed the opening ceremonies at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. In 1988 he came full circle. On Sept. 30, he threw out not one but two ceremonial first pitches before a Cubs-Pittsburgh Pirates game. He broadcast an inning and a half, then left after three.

"You know," he told announcer Harry Caray, "in a few months I'm going to be out of work and I thought I might as well audition."

He never did return to broadcasting. His retirement was marred almost immediately by the onset of Alzheimer's disease, which detracted from his quality of life and contributed to his death Saturday at age 93.

Looking back over Reagan's life as a presidential fan, and a sportsman in the truest horse-riding, wood-chopping sense of the word, Rick Dempsey's sentiment resonates as powerfully now as it did then.