Thursday, July 4, 2013

Nixon's No-Hitter

Dave Righetti strikes out Wade Boggs
Richard Nixon was heading to Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1983, and it was going to be a great day. The Yanks were playing their arch rivals from Boston. His son-in-law and fellow baseball obsessive David Eisenhower was along. It was the 47th anniversary of Nixon's first major league game (Yankees v. Senators) and the 44th of ALS-stricken Lou Gehrig saying that he was "the luckiest guy in the world" as he bade farewell to Yankees fans in their hallowed cathedral in the Bronx.

Nixon had hinted he would have big news for his writing bench, Marin Strmecki and me, and that was exciting, too.

It was also a special day because Nixon said no one had to wear a coat and tie. He wore them almost everywhere, and when we were along, so did we. We would be in Yankees owner George Steinbrenner's box, where an under-dressed Nixon usually wouldn't have been caught dead. The photo below shows him and me at a game the prior September, also in Steinbrenner's box and dressed as though we were attending a funeral. But since it was going to be about 90 degrees in the Bronx that July afternoon, he didn't want us to be uncomfortable, and he especially didn't want to look less formal than his son-in-law and aides.

Not as much fun as the no-hitter
But I said it was a great day, and if you're a baseball fan, you know why: Yankee left-hander Dave Righetti's no-hitter, the first that  megafans Nixon and Eisenhower had seen live.

The seats were great, too, but they would have rather been in the stands. Two years later, Nixon gave up his Secret Service protection, one reason being that the bodyguards on his payroll instead of the Treasury department's were less resistant when he said he wanted to sit among the hoi polloi. In the owner's box, Yankees executives, former players, and journalists had a tendency to drop by to say hello, and while Nixon was gracious, he just wanted to watch the game.

When we reached the seventh inning without a Boston hit, Nixon told us to make sure he was left alone. Baseball people are even more superstitious than politicians, so everybody understood. He spent the time whispering to Eisenhower, who later recalled a boisterous top of the ninth because of some concerns about manager Billy Martin's defensive moves. Marin and I were sitting right behind Nixon, and I remember him being absolutely still during all three outs, as though any wrong move would jinx it. When Righetti struck out Wade Boggs ("with a high inside fastball," Nixon remembered when writing about it seven years later; Righetti says it was a slider away), he jumped to his feet, cheered, and gave us all high fives (a presidential first and last for me).

His sweaty face glowed with perfect joy as he turned to leave. But then it was back to business. Taking Marin and me aside, he handed us a yellow legal pad with a handwritten outline he'd completed the day before. We would spend the rest of the summer turning it into prose. Nixon self-published it that fall as Real Peace, a diplomatically worded but unmistakeable repudiation of Ronald Reagan's ideologically inflexible policy toward the Soviet Union and on arms control. Soon after that project, Marin went to work for Jimmy Carter's NSC chief, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and then with the mujaheddin. During the second Bush's administration, Donald Rumsfeld asked Marin to reassess and realign the Pentagon's Afghanistan tactics and strategy.

Arthur and Honey
My gifts being humbler, I remained on the fan-in-chief's squad many more years, as did his last chief of staff and my future wife and co-author, Kathy O'Connor. Our brushes with baseball greatness continued. Kathy became friends with Steinbrenner's affable associate, former sportswriter Arthur Richman ("Do you need any money, honey? Can I send you some money?"). They're shown in Anaheim in 1997, when the Yankees were visiting for one of their periodic drubbings by the Angels. A few years later, Richman invited Kathy and me to dinner, when he told us about being on the road with the Mets' Darryl Strawberry as he battled addiction.

Back in 1983, just a few weeks after Righetti's no-hitter, Billy Martin accused Kansas City Royals slugger George Brett of having too much pine tar on the handle of his bat. No, we weren't there for that one. But when umpires sided with Martin and gave the Yankees the game, Nixon sent Brett a letter bucking him up. Notoriety gave Nixon deep reserves of empathy for the notorious, and in this case, his instincts were sound. The AL brass sided with Brett.

Nixon wrote hundreds of letters to athletes. He didn't mind that they often didn't write back. What young man constantly on the road without a social secretary actually knew how to? A couple of months after the pine tar incident, I answered the phone while working late in Nixon's Manhattan office. "President Nixon sent George a nice letter, and I don't think he replied," said Ethel Brett, his mother. "Would you please tell him thank you?"


Norris Battin said...

Great story, John (but, minor point, I think Strawberry was an outfielder.)

Happy 4th!!


Fr. John said...

Good catch, Norris. Easy to fix errors on-line, huh? Many thanks. A blessed 4th to you.