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Watergate Was Nixon's Punishment For Not Stopping Senators Move

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Watergate Was Nixon's Punishment For Not Stopping Senators Move

(Photo is a copyright-free image produced by the United States government.)

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 Congressman 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, Nixon returned to his home state of California and became a fan of the newly created Los Angeles Angels, owned by his good friend and former western movie star Gene Autry.

After losing the White House in 1960 and the California govenor's office in 1962, Nixon remained a private citizen until 1968 when he beat Democrat Hubert Humphrey to become 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.

The Senators had a new look in 1969. The team had been owned by area stockbrokers James Johnson and James Lemon through the mid 1960's and they were able to absorb the team's staggering losses. Johnson, however, died in 1967 and Lemon sold the team to former Democratic National Committee chairman Bob Short a year later.

Short fired manager Jim Lemon and replaced him with Hall of Famer Ted Williams, and the team responded with an 86 win season, renewing hope 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 memory. Most Washingtonians believed that Nixon would keep his campaign promise and get the country out of Vietnam quickly.

It was a hopeful time for all.

Things changed quickly, however.

By 1971, Bob Short was having real financial problems. The great majority of the $9 million he used to buy the team was borrowed, leaving little cash to run the team. He began floating the idea in late 1970 of moving the team if the D.C. Armory board, which had oversight authority for RFK Stadium, would not negotiate a new lease.

The Armory board, however, couldn't possibly have agreed to the one-sided lease that Short demanded.

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 White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman and suggested that it would help the president's image if he got involved in the Short-Armory fight.

Ailes thought that Nixon's involvement might end the standoff and save the team. By mid summer, fans were beginning to worry that Short might actually move the Senators.

A meeting of American League owners was held in Detroit on July 1st to discuss the situation. Short told reporters that selling the team was his first choice, but he was asking for $12 million, $3 million more than he paid for the team just three years earlier.

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 intervention 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 stay, Major League Baseball voted 10-2 to allow the team to relocate to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

The two dissenting votes came from Brewers' owner Bud Selig and the Baltimore Orioles. This was surprising as Selig's team had moved from Seattle just a year earlier and the Orioles franchise would have greatly benefited from adding the city of Washington to its territorial claims.

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 to be 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 it. 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 (Short owned the Minneapolis Lakers and moved them to Los Angeles in 1960).

Nixon's position as the leader of the free world was strong enough to scare the Russians and subdue the Egyptians, so it was strong enough to put a little scare into Bowie Kuhn and Bob Short.

Is it a coincidence that just a year after refusing to help the Senators, Richard Nixon's world came tumbling down around him?

Perhaps.

He spent the next two years fighting the media, the Democrats, and ultimately, his own political base until he was finally forced to resign the presidency 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 legally do that, but that didn't stop him. Both sides caved and the workers returned to their trains.

Richard Nixon could have done the same thing.

Draft Bob Short. Draft Bowie Kuhn. It would have worked.

Scare the hell out of them all.

After all, isn't that what politics in Washington D.C. is all about?

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