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Tip O'Neill -- a baseball guy

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As a young congressman, he played first base for the Democrats in their annual congressional game against the Republicans and, whenever the Red Sox were playing in Baltimore, he'd organize expeditions to watch them play. It made no difference how you voted, if you rooted for the Sox you were welcome to jump on board.

Dick
Flavin

This week, Dec. 9, to be specific, marks the 107th anniversary of the birth of Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, Jr. of Cambridge, Massachusetts. It's now 33 years since he stepped down as speaker of the house and more than a quarter of a century since his death. Before our memory of him fades further into the shadows of time, it is worthwhile to take one more look at one aspect of his life. Whether you agreed with him philosophically or not, there is no disagreement that he was one of the political giants of twentieth century America. But this column is not about politics -- it's about sports; and Tip was an avid sports fan.

He especially loved baseball and was a devout Red Sox fan for all his life. Even the sobriquet, "Tip," had its origins in baseball. The original Tip O'Neill was an outfielder, mostly with the St. Louis Browns (later renamed the Cardinals) in the 19th century. Among other things, the first Tip won the Triple Crown in 1887. He was called Tip because of his uncanny knack of fouling off pitches until he got the one he wanted to hit. Lots of young boys were nicknamed Tip in the early 20th century, and the O'Neill kid from Oxford Street in North Cambridge was one of them.

Young Tip remembered the exact date of his very first Red Sox game for all of his life: July 1, 1920. The reason he remembered was because on that day the great Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators threw a no-hitter; only an error by second baseman Bucky Harris prevented it from being a perfect game. Tip, only seven years old and at Fenway Park for the first time in his life, assumed that no-hitters must have been a common occurrence. But, of his 417 lifetime victories, it was the only no-hitter that Walter Johnson ever pitched, and in more than 70 years of watching baseball games, it was the only one that Tip O'Neill ever saw.

As a young congressman, he played first base for the Democrats in their annual congressional game against the Republicans and, whenever the Red Sox were playing in Baltimore, he'd organize expeditions to watch them play. It made no difference how you voted, if you rooted for the Sox you were welcome to jump on board.

He was not one of those fans who jabbered away during ballgames, paying only cursory attention to what was happening on the field. He paid strict attention and carefully marked his scorecard on every play. In the days before pitch counts were carefully kept, along about the sixth or seventh inning he might turn to those around him and say of the pitcher, "Gee, this guy must be tiring, he's already thrown 138 pitches." Those with him would look at one another in wonder, amazed that he would be aware of such a stat. The reason was that one of his other favorite pastimes was playing cards and he had taught himself to keep careful count of which cards had been played from the deck. He did the same thing with pitches. And votes in congress. His garrulous personality disguised his sharp, disciplined mind. Most politicians spend their time trying to convince others that they are the smartest people in the room. Tip's genius was that he covered it up.

He and Ronald Reagan famously had their Six O'Clock Rule; that partisan battles would cease at that hour and they would be free to enjoy one another's company. The arrangement was aided greatly by their mutual love for baseball. Reagan had announced Chicago Cubs games via telegraphic transmission on radio station WHO in Des Moines, Iowa, and he had many well-crafted stories of those days. Tip had as many Red Sox stories, and the two of them would swap them as the night wore on. Next morning they'd be back at the ramparts, battling tooth and nail with each other. That is not to say that they were ever bosom buddies, but they genuinely liked one another, and baseball was an area of common ground.

As improbable as it seems, Tip had a warm relationship with George Steinbrenner, the bombastic, and easily-agitated, owner of the Yankees. Steinbrenner was a donor to Democratic causes back when Tip began his rise through the ranks and into the house leadership by taking over the chairmanship of the Committee to Re-elect a Democratic House. Like so many others, Steinbrenner was captivated by his blend of warmth and Irish blarney. Tip O'Neill might have been rooting for the enemy but the red carpet was always out for him at the old Yankee Stadium.

Like generations of Red Sox fans, he was mesmerized by the hitting prowess and pure star-power of Ted Williams, yet it would be many years before they would meet. When Ted was just a rookie in 1939, Tip was a young state rep. In 1953, when Tip was entering congress for the first time, Ted was getting his plane shot down in the skies of North Korea. And in 1960, when Ted belted a home run in his final at-bat in the big leagues, Tip was still a back-bencher in congress, not yet having begun his rise to the speakership. That the two were not political bedfellows amounts to an understatement of gargantuan proportions. Ted was as famously conservative as Tip was liberal. When, in 1991, both were given the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award, the nation's highest civilian honor, by another baseball guy, former Yale University first baseman, George H. W. Bush, Tip and Ted studiously avoided drawing the other into anything resembling a political discussion. Tip's Irish charm was on full display, as was the full wattage of Ted's charisma. When the ceremony was over, they both agreed that, politics aside, the other was "a helluva guy."

Amen to that.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.



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