Was Watergate Retribution For Richard Nixon's Inactivity In 1971?
[November 8th] -- With all due respect to President George W. Bush, Richard Nixon was the Oval Office's most rabid baseball fan. During his years in congress [1948 - 1952], the legislator from California would often duck out of meetings and head over to Griffith Stadium to watch the Senators play. He once told Senators' manager Ted Williams that he had watched more than 200 games at the old park during the 1950's.
The then vice president spoke out against Calvin Griffith's move of the Senators to Minnesota, and was ecstatic about the city receiving a replacement expansion franchise the following year.
When he lost the 1960 presidential election, he returned to his home state of California, and began to follow the new Los Angeles Angels, owned by his friend Gene Autry, and spent many nights in the owner's box with Autry and his family. By 1968, though, the was again ready to run for national office. He returned to Washington in 1969 as the president of the United States.
Nixon was a familiar face at RFK Stadium during the 1969 season, the lone highlight of the expansion Senator's decade in Washington. Ted Williams was the new manager, Bob Short the new owner. the team's 86 win season renewed hopes in a city decimated by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy the previous year. Resurrection City was gone from the mall and blacks and whites seemed comfortable with each other for the first time in years. Most Washingtonians believed that Nixon would keep his campaign promise and get the country out of Vietnam.
It was a hopeful time for all.
Things change quickly, however. Especially in D.C.
By 1971, Bob Short, underfunded to begin with, was having real financial problems, and he began floating the idea of moving the team if the D.C. Armory board, which had oversight authority for RFK Stadium, wouldn't negotiate a new lease that would have ended up being little more than legalized theft. The acrimony reached the sports page of the Washington Post as both sides hammered the other throughout the summer.
On July 1st, Roger Ailes, then a Republican strategist, contacted an aide to Bob Haldeman and suggested that it would help the president's image if he got involved in the Short - Armory fight. Ailes thought that some "federal assistance" might end the standoff and save the team. By mid August, fans were beginning to worry that Short might actually move the team. Virginia Senator William Spong wrote Nixon, asking him to meet with Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich to come up with a plan to block any potential move. The Post's sports editor, Marty Zad, asked the president to use "the power of the presidency" to help stop the move. Ultimately, all hopes of a "presidential pardon" came to an end on September 7th. Herb Klein, White House director of communications, told Zad that it would be "inappropriate" for the president to get involved in a private financial matter. The following week, Nixon made his first and only public remarks regarding the matter, saying that he would be "heartbroken" if the team were to move to Dallas.
Now assured that there would be no last minute Oval Office intervention, Major League Baseball voted 10-2 to allow the team to relocate to the Dallas - Fort Worth area. The two dissenting votes were Brewers owner Bud Selig and the Baltimore Orioles. The vote was announced on September 21st.
Nixon was right; he had no "legal" authority to stop the move. But in the rest of the world, away from the beltway, "moral" authority is something used when "legal" authority isn't available. Nixon might have been able to apply enough pressure to force Short to sell the team to someone better able to run the team. It wasn't the fault of the Senators' fans that Major League Baseball chose an underfunded owner with a history of moving professional sports franchises to run the team. Nixon's position as the leader of the free world was strong enough to scare the Russians and subdue the Egyptians, so why wasn't it strong enough to put a little "scare" into Bowie Kuhn and the baseball boys?
Is it a coincidence that just a year after refusing to help the Senators, Richard Nixon's world came tumbling down around him? Sure it is.
He spent the next two years fighting the media, the Democrats, and ultimately, his own base until he was finally forced to resign in August of 1974. Watergate was payback from the baseball Gods. In 1948, Harry Truman threatened to draft striking railroad workers into the Army if they didn't go back to work. He knew he couldn't, but he didn't care. Both sides caved and the workers returned to their trains.
Nixon could have done the same thing. Draft Bob Short. Draft Bowie Kuhn. It would have worked. Scare them all. Isn't that what Washington D.C. is all about?