In an Oval Office desk drawer, President George Herbert Walker Bush always kept a well-worn George McQuinn model Rawlings first baseman’s mitt. It was his constant reminder that on the way to becoming leader of the free world, he had been captain of the Yale baseball team.
The glove did not always stay hidden, as a dusty keepsake. On April 3, 1989, a few months into his term, he took it out, brought it with him to Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium and put it on when he became, according to the Society of American Baseball Research, the first president to throw a ceremonial first pitch from a mound.
That image was one of many that came to mind in the hours after the death Friday night of one of America’s most sportsmanlike chief executives. There were photos of Bush with all kinds of ballplayers, from Babe Ruth to Yasiel Puig. There were tributes from the golf world, where people considered him a member of the game’s first family, the grandson of the man for whom the Walker Cup is named.
Astros owner Jim Crane recalled “the great privilege of hosting President Bush and his wife Barbara at Astros games for many years.” Jack Nicklaus, a golfing friend of the 41st President, said on Twitter, “Yes, kinder and gentler than most.”
Long before he set his mind to trying to win elections, Bush was focused on winning ballgames. As a New Englander, he was a Red Sox fan. When he achieved the nation’s highest office, he conferred the Presidential Medal of Freedom on his favorite player, Ted Williams (Bush himself was ultimately given the same honor, from fellow baseball fan Barack Obama).
Bush’s college baseball career began after he served with distinction in World War II. He helped Yale reach the first two College World Series, in 1947 and 1948. In his debut, he outhit, 2-0, the Connecticut first baseman Walt Dropo, who would go on to be the American League Rookie of the Year. Early in the 1947, Yale played Fordham in a game that saw Bush play against Rams centerfielder Vin Scully, the future longtime voice of the Dodgers. Late in the 1948 season, Bush accepted Ruth’s gift of a manuscript of “The Babe Ruth Story.”
The first baseman’s college career .224 average did not pave the way to Cooperstown or even a major league tryout. But his experience did spark a lifelong love for baseball, which proved to be a family trait. His uncle George H. Walker Jr. was an original minority owner of the Mets. Bush’s son George W. was a partner in the Texas Rangers before becoming the 43rd U.S. president.
As vice president, the elder Bush wore a Mets jacket as he fired home the ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day at Shea Stadium in 1985 (Gary Carter’s Mets debut). Before Game 5 of the 2017 World Series, which Crane called “the most memorable and dramatic game in Astros history,” he handed the ball to his son, who delivered the honorary pitch.
It was golf that brought his greatest distinctions, notably induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011. He considered fast play his trademark, joking that he held the course record at Cape Arundel Golf Club in Kennebunkport, Maine: “One hour, 20 minutes.” Even though he was not a scratch player like his father, Prescott, George H.W. did win the club championship in 1947.
“While he certainly enjoyed a life of duty and service to his country, I think the recognition he received from the world of golf meant more to him than many of his accolades,” Hall of Fame president Jack Peter said in a statement. “To the family and friends of President George H.W. Bush, we are deeply sorry for your loss. Rest easy, Mr. President.”
Bush was an ambassador for golf, following the example set by his grandfather, George Herbert Walker, former president of the U.S. Golf Association and driving force behind the Walker Cup, a prestigious biennial match between the U.S. and Great Britain and Ireland. After leaving the White House, he served as the first honorary chairman of The First Tee, a program designed to get young people, especially minorities, interested in golf.
He received the USGA’s Bob Jones Award as well the PGA America Distinguished Service Award and the PGA Tour’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He made and reinforced many friendships on golf courses, and did it with dispatch.
Arnold Palmer once said, “I am a great believer in moving pretty fast around a golf course. Well, President Bush made sure that happened.”