Today we bring you Jim Murray’s column from July 15, 1976, when he was invited by President Ford to the White House so he could accompany the President to the MLB All-Star Game.
THURSDAY, JULY 15, 1976, SPORTS
Copyright 1976/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
A Day With the Next Ambassador to Cincinnati
WASHINGTON — I have been to ballgames with truck drivers, stevedores, guys with tattoos and their own bowling shirts. But I never went to a game before with a guy who could pick up a phone and start a war. I’ve been with lots of guys who could start a fight, though. I’ve even been with some rich guys who owned their own plane. But never one who had his own air force.
I’ve had police escorts before — but never friendly ones. I’ve been in lots of locker rooms. But never with anybody where the players wanted to get his autograph.
It all began with a phone call Monday. It was from the White House. That had to be a first in my family, too. Would I like to come to Washington and be the President’s guest and fly up with Mr. Ford in Air Force One to the All-Star game in Philadelphia and back?
We’ll, what are you going to say, “No, I gotta get a haircut that day”?
Besides, as I told my wife, he probably needs me. I mean, I’m as ready to help my country as the next guy. “Probably a knotty problem with Angola,” I assured her. “Kissinger’s behind this.”
“How are you flying in and where are you going to stay?” she wanted to know. “That’s top secret,” I told her. “Classified. The Communists will probably be monitoring all our calls. Don’t even tell your sister. I expect I’ll be staying at the White House. The President will want me nearby for consultation.”
“What will the President want with you?” she wanted to know. “He already knows the infield-fly rule.”
I made a reservation at the Hay-Adams Hotel across the street from the White House, just in case they wanted me to slip past the press. “If the White House calls, just patch them right through.” I told the desk.
The call did come through from the White House. I was told to report to the West Lobby, from where I would be driven to Andrews Air Force Base to board Air Force One.
The cop at the gate did a good job of pretending not to know who I was. “Your driver’s license, please. Take it out of the plastic,” he ordered. I thought for a minute I was going to get a ticket.
The President had surrounded himself with some of the best global brains for this mission. Joe Garagiola, the old catcher, who reports that the first thing to go with an old ballplayer is the hair — then the legs. There was Ernie Banks, ‘Mr. Cub’, the Bluebird of Happiness, who could think of something nice to say about the Johnstown Flood. “Ernie thinks Nixon just had a bad homestand,” Garagiola chirped. Then, there was David Israel, sportswriter from the Washington Star; John Underwood, from Sports Illustrated; and myself, the expert on Far Eastern affairs.
When the President summoned us to his quarters on the plane, he was dining on Coquille St. Jacques, a stomach-tester of lobster, crabmeat and cream sauce in a shell, and two scoops of chocolate chip ice cream. I don’t know if the country is in good hands, but it’s a good stomach. I had a beer.
The conversation veered around to the mess at the Olympics. But the President stopped short of asking me what to do about it. Well short of it.
I decided to lead into Angola gingerly. “Mr. President,” I said. “did you ever tackle Pug Rentner!” Mr. Ford, you see, was a bare-headed center from Michigan in the ’30s, and Pug Rentner has always been one of my favorite football names. Not necessarily player, just name. With a name like Pug Rentner, you don’t have to be good. I think they put Pug on the All-American team from Northwestern largely because they just wanted to have that name in there.
“Many times, Jim,” the President told me. “But I got this eye kicked open by Jay Berwanger.” He fingered one eye. “Or was it this one?” he wondered, fingering the other. “I didn’t think Jay Berwanger ever got tackled,” I told him. Besides, if Jay Berwanger ever kicked open my eye, I would have it bronzed.
When we landed in Philly, it was clear the President was saving me. Possibly for a briefing with Kissinger later.
We went down to the locker room, where Johnny Bench and Pete Rose were surprised to see me in the Presidential party. “What in the world is he doing with you?” Pete blurted. “Well,” I told him, “He’s looking for a vice-president, isn’t he? Anyway, I may be ambassador to Cincinnati.” I told Pete to be sure not to clap him on the back or to show him how to slide. Steve Garvey wanted to meet the President’s son, Jack. I handled the introductions smoothly.
We were hustled up to the box of the Phillies’ owner, Ruly Carpenter, where we sat behind bullet-proof glass for the game. The President joined us after he threw out the first ball.
I had to admire the way he steered the conversation away from me. You would never have guessed that I had been flown into Washington for anything more important than a ballgame. Statesmen don’t rush things.
Finally, it came. In the seventh inning, the President leaned back. “Jim,” he said, “tell me something.” (“Here it comes.” I thought. “Probably, India, at first, and then the whole Far East.”) The President pointed. “Who’s that at shortstop? He’s in a Dodger uniform.” I looked. “That, Mr. President, is Billy Russell. One of the fastest runners in the league. Hard to double up.”
Billy Russell promptly hit into a double play. He was out at first by 45 feet.
Ernie Banks was not waiting to be asked. “Look at that Cedeno,” he told the President, pointing at the batter. “With that stance, he’s never going to hit the ball out of the infield.” Cesar Cedeno promptly hit a ball 600 or 700 feet over the left-field fence. “Yah!” shouted Garagiola. “You change his stance, Ernie, and he hits singles to right field! Bah!” The President laughed uproariously. “I hope he gets better advice from his Cabinet,” someone offered.
The next day was to be the President’s 63rd birthday. So, on the way home, we all gathered in Air Force One to cut a big cake and sip champagne. Ernie Banks forgot the words to “Happy Birthday To You.”
At the door, the President shook hands with all of us and thanked us for coming. “Jim,” he said to me. “I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to talk more.”
“I’m in the book, Mr. President,” I told him.
After all, he knows where to reach me.
Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times
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