El­egy for an Eli

Yale man and base­ball cap­tain, Bush never for­got his alma mater

Greenwich Time (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - JEFF JA­COBS

JEFF JA­COBS: Yale man and base­ball cap­tain Bush never for­got his alma mater.

NEW HAVEN — When­ever vis­i­tors ar­rived at Ray Tomkins House, Tom Beck­ett would step out­side his Yale of­fice and bring them to a nearby wall. Around them would be a trea­sure trove of ath­letic plaques, tro­phies, cups, even a Heis­man in honor of Larry Kel­ley and Clint Frank.

Yet it would be a pho­to­graph that Beck­ett would be so eager to share.

“Clearly, they’d rec­og­nize Babe Ruth,” said Beck­ett, who re­tired in June af­ter a quar­ter cen­tury as ath­letic director. “But then I’d say, what about the Yale man in uni­form re­ceiv­ing the man­u­script from the Babe? I’d tell them who it is was and they’d be blown away.”

The Yale man is George H.W. Bush, cap­tain of the 1948 base­ball team. On the week­end of Bush’s pass­ing, at age 94, there is some­thing ir­re­sistibly Amer­i­can about that iconic pho­to­graph.

Here was one of the big­gest, most ro­bust, in­sa­tiable ath­letes in Amer­i­can his­tory, liv­ing his fi­nal

days with cancer, hand­ing the man­u­script of his autobiography, “The Babe Ruth Story,” to a young man with “YALE” across his chest at Yale Field. George Bush was al­ready a war hero, a com­bat pi­lot shot down over the Pa­cific. He was not yet 41st pres­i­dent of the United States.

“All of us at Yale have such re­spect for Pres­i­dent Bush,” Beck­ett said. “All of us in ath­let­ics know how much he cared about us. It’s a tough, tough day to know we lost a spe­cial man.”

“He and his wife were Amer­i­can trea­sures,” Yale coach John Stu­per said. “They tran­scended pol­i­tics. Ad­mired by people of all po­lit­i­cal stripes. If you look at Pres­i­dent Bush’s ca­reer, there was vir­tu­ally noth­ing he didn’t do. Amer­ica has never had a more faith­ful and loyal ser­vant.”

It was April 2001 when Bush reached out to Beck­ett. It was the school’s ter­centen­nial and Bush wanted to see if he could take a visit to Yale Field.

“It hap­pened that we were hav­ing a prac­tice that day, and he said, ‘Tom, would it be OK if I talked to the boys?’ ” Beck­ett said. “Coach Stu­per was ad­dress­ing the team on the third-base line and we were com­ing in from that side. So his back was to us.

“The team saw Pres­i­dent Bush and his Se­cret Ser­vice team and they were trans­fixed. So John sud­denly turned around. Wow, it was a tremen­dous mo­ment.”

It was the first time Stu­per, the for­mer ma­jor league pitcher, met Bush. He vis­ited with the team for 15 min­utes.

“He thanked them for tak­ing great pride in their ef­forts in both the class­room and on the field,” Beck­ett said. “He was so hum­ble and car­ing. It was great.”

Bush wrote Beck­ett a note af­ter­ward to thank him.

“He said he was so in­spired that he wanted to suit up,” Beck­ett said.

Bush had suited up for Yale from 1945 to 1948. He helped lead the Bull­dogs to the fi­nals of the Col­lege World Se­ries against Cal in 1947. A few weeks af­ter that pregame photo with Ruth — Babe do­nated his man­u­script to the Yale Li­brary — Bush would help lead them

back to the na­tional cham­pi­onship game against USC. Bush had a nick­name in those days, one that car­ried on within his fam­ily. He was Poppy.

In 2015, when Yale played at Texas A&M, the team met Bush at his pres­i­den­tial li­brary. The team saw the bat and glove he used at Yale.

“Ev­ery time he talked to the team, he was al­ways cu­ri­ous how many play­ers we had from Texas,” Stu­per said. “We al­ways have a good num­ber. He would go around to the Texas guys, ask­ing what city they were from. He al­ways wanted to meet the cur­rent cap­tain.”

Af­ter Yale had amassed 34 wins in 2017 and scored its first NCAA Tour­na­ment win since 1992, up­set­ting Ne­braska and beat­ing Holy Cross be­fore fi­nally fall­ing in the re­gional fi­nals to Ore­gon State at Cor­val­lis, Stu­por got a mes­sage on the way home.

It was an in­vi­ta­tion to visit George and Bar­bara Bush in Ken­neb­unkport.

“He wanted to con­grat­u­late the men,” Beck­ett said. “So we got on a bus the next day and went to Maine.”

“It was such a spe­cial af­ter­noon,” Stu­per said.

The team spent an hour and half vis­it­ing and it was clear to Stu­per how much Bush kept up with Yale base­ball. It also hap­pened to be Bar­bara Bush’s 92nd and fi­nal birth­day.

“We prac­ticed on the bus singing ‘Happy Birth­day’ to Mrs. Bush,” Beck­ett said. “Af­ter we had the op­por­tu­nity to ser­e­nade her, she looked at Pres­i­dent Bush and said, ‘George, th­ese are won­der­ful Yale men. You’re a Yale man, why didn’t you ever sing to me?’

“He said, ‘Don’t you re­mem­ber back in the day I sang to you as a mem­ber of the choral group from Yale?’ She rolled her eyes and said, ‘Sure you did, George’ ”

They were one of the great love sto­ries, a mar­riage that lasted 73 years be­fore Bar­bara passed in April.

Bush loved the Astros. He loved golf, the Walker Cup named af­ter his grand­fa­ther. He parachuted out of planes on his 75th, 80th, 85th and 90th birth­days, be­cause once you’ve been dumped in the Pa­cific sur­rounded by sharks and the en­emy, what’s the worst that can hap­pen? He flipped the coin be­fore the Pa­tri­ots-Fal­cons Su­per Bowl in Houston. He threw out the first pitch from a wheel­chair in 2015 and 2016 and when he was too weak to do much more, he yelled “Play Ball!” af­ter his pres­i­dent son threw out the first pitch at the 2017 World Se­ries. When the Con­necti­cut Sports Writ­ers’ Al­liance awarded him the Gold Key in 1991, heck, he wanted to come to the din­ner — but the Se­cret Ser­vice thought it was a bad idea.

There’s a video clip and I just can’t get it out of my mind: Open­ing Day 1989 in Bal­ti­more and Ori­oles broad­caster John Miller in­tro­duced Bush to the crowd.

“He bats right-handed, he throws left,” Miller said. “He’s the 41st pres­i­dent of the United States.”

George H.W. Bush, red­striped tie flap­ping in the wind, climbed to the top of the Memo­rial Sta­dium mound. Like Jim Palmer. None of this toss it from half­way to home plate. He be­came the first pres­i­dent to throw the first pitch off the rub­ber.

Yet what is most strik­ing about the video is the glove on Bush’s right hand and the left hand of Frank Robin­son on the pres­i­dent’s shoul­der. The glove was the first base­man’s mitt Bush used while play­ing for Yale, still oiled and kept at the ready in his desk drawer in the Oval Of­fice.

This was 39 years ago, not 79; this wasn’t Nor­man Rock­well’s Amer­ica. Yet here was the pres­i­dent, a kid pound­ing his glove, the crowd giv­ing him a big ova­tion and Robin­son, the first African-Amer­i­can man­ager, ea­gerly pat­ting him on the back.

That scene seems im­pos­si­ble th­ese days. That’s what the coun­try has be­come. We’ve got­ten ugly. This is not meant as a nu­anced po­lit­i­cal point. Rather, it’s an ob­ser­va­tion on the death of a great Amer­i­can, a great sports­man, a great fam­ily man.

“He was a hum­ble per­son and a world leader all in one,” Beck­ett said. “He had this great abil­ity to let people know how much he cared.”

“In George Bush’s Amer­ica,” Ger­ald Ford once said, “ci­vil­ity is never con­fused with weak­ness, nor are po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences mis­taken for a holy war.”

Men like that, they deserve to throw the first pitch.

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