We knew President Obama had love for the NBA. He flexed his rock and rim prowess on several occasions. The NFL’s Super Bowl Sunday is epic and the prez always has a pick. His NCAA Tournament Bracket is also always official. A self-proclaimed Chicago White Sox fan, The President added another first to his list of historical achievements by becoming the first sitting president to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY on Thursday. In its 75-year history the museum has attracted more than 160 million visitors, but Obama is the first U.S. Commander-in-Chief to enter the hallowed baseball grounds.
Obama, led on a tour by Baseball Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson and accompanied by Hall of Famer Andre “Hawk” Dawson, took in exhibits ranging from “Diamond Dreams,” highlighting the role of women in baseball, to “Pride and Passion,” chronicling the history of African Americans in the sport. He held the bat of icon Babe Ruth who once bragged about becoming the first player ever to make more money than the president. He clutched the ball thrown by President William Howard Taft in the first-ever presidential first pitch in 1910. He also inspected a pair of shoes worn by controversial baller “Shoeless” Joe Jackson.
The real reason for the president's trip was to promote international tourism and highlight the benefits it generates. President Obama noted that tourism generates $1.5 trillion in economic activity and supports nearly 8 million jobs. Obama, who welcomed travel and tourism industry CEOs to the White House in the morning before flying to New York State, undertook a couple of executive actions Tuesday aimed at bringing more visitors to the United States.
During Obama's 16-minute address in front of a capacity house, he touted Cooperstown as an example of an ideal destination for visitors while baseball was used as a metaphor for society.
"I love baseball. America loves baseball. It continues to be our national pastime," Obama said. "And for any baseball fan out there, you've got to make a trip here. But as much as I'd like to talk baseball all day -- and with Chicago legend Andre Dawson, The Hawk, here today it's hard not to want to talk baseball all day long -- I'm actually here to talk about jobs."
Coincidentally, Obama's appearance coincided with the 75th anniversary celebration of the Hall of Fame that officially pops off this Memorial Weekend. It’s sure to bring a truck load of people to the museum as some of baseball’s most beloved and “clean” superstars - Frank “The Big Hurt” Thomas, pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and managers Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Tony La Russa - will be enshrined in July.
Growing up on the cold streets of Chi-Town made Obama quite familiar with legend Thomas.
"I promised Frank Thomas I'd check the place out before he's inducted in July," Obama joked.
This year’s sterling HOF class is like a release from Cooperstown prison for most baseball fans. MLB’s 2013 Hall of Fame crop had a historic list of potential candidates, but because steroid users and suspect soldiers are considered lepers by the voting body, nobody got in (Except for three members posthumously elected by the “Who-Were-These-Cats?” Veterans’ Committee). For the first time in 16 years, none of the eligible players were named on 75 percent of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA) ballots.
Among the 37 players in the mix, there were at least eight whose eye-bulging stats would, under normal circumstances, instantly and definitively immortalize them as all-time greats: Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Craig Biggio, Jack Morris ('80s stud, unrelated to steroids, but getting jerked nonetheless), Curt Schilling and Jeff Bagwell were among the obvious "steroids era" snubs.
This season had to be different. The HOF couldn’t afford another year without a potent and popular induction class. It’s detrimental to the appeal, growth and financial stability of the museum.
According to Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark, the museum is already reaping the benefits of Obama’s arrival and the impending HOF ceremonies. She says that attendance is up 64 percent from the same time a year ago.
How ironic. When the chips are down, people are struggling for employment and the President is running out of options, he turns to America’s former pastime to once again – as it has throughout American history – help lead the country out of a rut. The sport that people say is fading as a staple of American culture was lauded by our president as a valuable and necessary example of the possibilities of our nation.
"Creating jobs isn't always easy,” Obama said. “But standing here and looking at over 150 years of our country's history, baseball describes our history in so many ways," he said . "We're reminded of all the obstacles we've overcome to get here. This Hall has memories of two World Wars that we fought and won."
"It has memories of color barriers being broken, Jackie Robinson's uniform and the record of his first season as a Dodger . It shows us the history of communities that we built across the new continent and ways we connected with our country and our world. And how women athletes started getting the recognition that they deserved."
"So we've faced challenges before. But we don't respond with cynicism, and we can't respond with gridlock. Every generation faces tough times. But in the words of the great Yogi Berra, they're just déjà vu all over again. We know we are up to these challenges."
Obama’s Cooperstown appearance does more than boost his social profile with baseball fans. It’s another co-sign of the sport’s significance to American culture. At a time when MLB consists of nearly 30 percent international players, home grown, grass roots initiatives such as the RBI program and different urban baseball programs are essential to the sport's survival as a top choice U.S. athletic endeavor.
The historical significance of the sport is what makes presidents and world leaders reference it with such reverence. Former President George Bush Jr. owned the Texas Rangers at one point. He often threw out the first pitch at Rangers games.
And baseball, Obama reiterated, is a powerful symbol for the country at large.
"Just as our parents and grandparents faced challenges a lot tougher than the ones we face, and just as they went ahead and built an economy where hard work was rewarded and responsibility was rewarded and opportunity was open to all people, we can do the same," he said.
"They passed those values on down through the generations. They passed them down to us. And when you come to the Baseball Hall of Fame, part of what you're learning is that there are some eternal, timeless values of grit and determination and hard work and community. Not giving up and working hard. Those are American values, just like baseball."
Say what you want about diamond-mining, its place in American society is secure and needed. Just ask The President.