Presidents, baseball and stats at Pittsburgh-based convention
Franklin D. Roosevelt not only wielded his influence to insist Major League Baseball played on, he directed the mailing of game recaps and box scores to troops overseas to boost their morale during World War II.
Richard Nixon in one year was offered two of the most influential jobs in baseball — commissioner and union leader — only to turn them down to pursue another high-profile gig (the U.S. presidency) three years later.
One the most memorable moments of the George W. Bush presidency was when he threw a perfect strike to a roar of approval from New York Yankees fans seven weeks after the 9/11 attacks.
One of Ronald Reagan's first jobs after he graduated college? Announcing Chicago Cubs games off the ticker for an Iowa radio station.
“Baseball has been our national sport, and the presidency is the national office,” author and historian Curt Smith said. “They're both institutions. So it's only natural that they would be so intertwined.”
Smith can remember being about 7 years old more than a half century ago when his family got its first encyclopedia. And what were the first two sections he turned to on while sitting on the front porch of his family home in upstate New York?
“I would go to biographies of presidents — Lincoln and Washington and Roosevelt and Eisenhower and Wilson and others,” Smith said in a telephone interview. “And I would read about baseball, too.”
A former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush and a senior lecturer at University of Rochester who teaches a course in presidential rhetoric, Smith wonders how he authored 17 books before he wrote “The Presidents and the Pastime.”
“You think of American men and women, many if not most of them have an opinion on sports and politics,” Smith said after touring the Roberto Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. “We may not know as much as we think we do, but we always have an opinion, and we think we do. President X a boon or a bum, and the same goes for your favorite baseball team, or about which shortstop is better or why this manager should be fired and about a billon other things.”
Smith is just one of myriad baseball historians, scholars, analysts and devotees in town this week for the annual convention of the Society for American Baseball Research. The 48th SABR convention — the second time it's been held in Pittsburgh — began with organizational meetings and registration Wednesday but kicks off in earnest Thursday morning with opening remarks delivered by Pirates president Frank Coonelly.
The annual think tank gathering of baseball analysts runs through Saturday at the downtown Wyndham Grand hotel and includes dozens of speakers. And it's not all stats, as can be attested to by Smith, who brags that in a recent MLB Network appearance he said, “Analytics, schamalytics.”
Other speakers include sessions with longtime Pirates official scorers Bob Webb and Evan Pattak, a panel on the Pirates' 1979 World Series title featuring pitchers John Candelaria and Grant Jackson, and Latino baseball experts on “The Life and Legacy of Roberto Clemente.”
Smith is moderating a “media panel” that includes current Pirates broadcasters Joe Block, Steve Blass and Greg Brown and former longtime play-by-play man Lanny Frattare.
Many SABR convention attendees will join Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, Pirates director of baseball informatics Dan Fox and others at PNC Park on Friday in advance of the Pirates games against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The official tagline of SABR promotional material for the event perhaps says it best: “The most passionate and knowledgeable baseball fans in the world are coming to Pittsburgh this week!”