Presidential sport

Boldly above the fold on the front page of the Sunday 23rd of April's New York Times was a neat presentation of passport style photos of the 20 people -- 18 of them men -- who the Times, in its unquestioned wisdom, declares to be President Donald Trump's 20 best buddies. The Times calls them his "touchstones" adding, "Many of whom he consults at least once a week."

Most of them might be called the usual suspects, wheeler-dealers from the fields of business, politics, high finance and family. But also there -- smack dab in the middle, mind you, and the only sportsman in the bunch -- is our own Bob Kraft, ruling patriarch of the invincible local football team.

While this may greatly comfort diehard partisans of Patriot Nation it can only inspire a bit of a smirk from those of us who go back far enough to recall the original Bob Kraft as the amiable if anxious little guy who for years came begging hat in hand for any chance of a ticket of admission to the inner circle of New England Sports, even if but merely as the purveyor of something called "Team Tennis." Bob Kraft has come a long way, Baby.

The Times notes Mr. Kraft allegedly remains a Democrat but has gleefully defected because the Donald has been nice to him and utterly adores his football team, which may be as good a reason as most people seem to have for picking a president nowadays. Fresh evidence of the depths of this curious romance came just days ago when the President, shunting aside all the vicissitudes of his Presidency, rolled out the red, white and blue carpet for Owner Kraft and his team, showering them with praise bordering on the mawkish.

For reasons you won't find specified in the Constitution, celebrating sports championships at the White House has become an obligation of our heads of state. We managed to get by without them most of the first couple centuries of the Republic's existence but since the ascendance of Richard Nixon as Chief Jock it's been essentially demanded and with stray exceptions -- Jimmy Carter comes most to mind -- our Presidents have been delighted to accommodate them. Long steeped in sport -- with strong connections to wrestling, boxing, golf as well as football -- Mr. Trump comes to the role naturally and can be expected to play it gleefully for as long as he's in charge. But if he works at it hard enough, he just may overplay it.

You can understand what's in it for the players and especially the owners, all billionaire businessmen. Bob Kraft well understands tight connections with the Big Guy will be good for his brand no matter how his friends and neighbors may have voted. But what's in it for POTUS? Foreign leaders have doubtless pondered this point with some confusion when trying to figure out what makes us tick. Good luck!

It's a game within the game and not without risks for the president. In 1931 -- not a very good year -- a beleaguered Herbert Hoover graced the World Series with the presidential presence and was hardly seated in Philadelphia's old band-box, Shibe Field, when the boos began cascading about him mingling with a chant that soon became fairly deafening. Was it jobs they were demanding at the height of the Depression, or even a square meal? Not quite! "We want beer," is what they were spouting, again and again. "We want beer!" It being as well the height of Prohibition.

With customary grit Hoover ignored them. But when word of another Washington crisis looming forced him to leave early, the chanting resumed as the Presidential entourage crawled away. "We want beer!" The times were different. Baseball was deeply embarrassed.

Perchance, that rather awkward precedent was heavily on Mr. Trump's mind when he rather bluntly declined an invitation to throw out the first ball at the Washington Nationals opener; long a sacred traditional duty presidents haven't lightly spurned since William Howard Taft inaugurated the gig in 1912. Mr. Trump had little better to do that day but was in the middle of a terrible week, with controversies flaring all about him. Insiders suggest he ducked the game because he feared getting his brains booed out at the ball yard. Not a good excuse!

Taft loved baseball. He could have been the game's first commissioner had he wished. Instead, he held out for the Supreme Court and MLB got stuck with Kenesaw Landis. Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding were also fans who'd played the game as kids. Ike delighted in hobnobbing with his favorite Senators, Mickey Vernon and Eddie Yost. True Baseball men, the two Bushes were very comfortable at the ball park.

But none of the prexies was a bigger fan than Dick Nixon. He would come early and stay late, hobnob lengthily with Senator's owner Bob Short, and give Ted Williams tips on how to manage. When he was wandering his wilderness years out of work in politics the owners eyed him as a potential Commissioner and the players wanted him to run their new union. He was sorely tempted.

In retrospect, it's clear he'd have been better off had he acquiesced. To Baseball.

- Clark Booth is a renowned Boston sports writer and broadcast journalist. He spent much of his long career at Boston’s WCVB-TV Chanel 5 as a correspondent specializing in sports, religion, politics and international affairs.