I wouldn’t dare attempt to match the eloquence displayed Wednesday at Grace Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids by Donald Rumsfeld…
“There’s an old saying in Washington that every member of Congress looks in the mirror every day and sees a future president. Gerald Ford was different. I suspect even after he was president, when he looked in the mirror, he saw a citizen.”
…or Jimmy Carter…
“‘For myself and our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.’ Those were the first words I spoke as president, and I still hate to admit they received more applause than all the other words in my inaugural address.”
…or Richard Norton Smith…
“President Ford used to joke he was charismatically challenged. Whatever he lacked in charisma, he more than made up for in character.”
…but after being treated to a series of remembrances that were solemn and stirring, warm and wonderful, I feel compelled to add a tiny something extra on behalf of Jerry Ford, the 38th president of these United States.
He was a winner.
Gerald Ford may have been an “accidental president” and not have won a national election to attain his high office, but he was a winner in his home district in Michigan. He triumphed over an entrenched incumbent in his first Republican primary and then won election and re-election a total of 13 times between 1948 and 1972. He won election as minority leader in the House in 1965 and won his colleagues’ acclaim every two years after that through 1973. He won confirmation as emergency vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned his post (during the deciding game of the Mets-Reds NLCS, it will never be forgotten) and, in the face of a vigorous internal challenge from a charismatic challenger, prevailed over Ronald Reagan to win the GOP nomination in 1976.
Most importantly, he and the Mets were winners together.
That is, the first time Gerald Ford and the New York Mets — who never crossed paths in any meaningful fashion of which I’m aware — contested their respective opponents on the same day, they hit the daily double.
On April 27, 1976, voters from both parties headed to the polls in Pennsylvania. In the midst of a rough nomination season, Ford easily outpaced challenger Reagan. Granted, Reagan did not campaign in the Keystone State, but delegates were delegates and a win was a win.
Back in New York, the Mets were playing the Atlanta Braves a day game at Shea. While political pundits awaited a definitive reading of the results from Pennsylvania, there were tea leaves turning in Jerry Ford’s favor everywhere in Flushing.
• Jerry Koosman started for the Mets.
• Jerry Royster was the Braves’ third baseman
• Jerry Dale was the third base umpire
• Jerry Grote scored the winning run.
Though they, like Jimmy Carter (who won on the Democratic side that day in PA), were from Georgia, the ’76 Braves offered a few Fordian slips beyond what fell from the Jerry tree.
• Their shortstop was D. Chaney, only a deep throw to first from the president’s chief of staff, another D. Cheney (who has terrible aim).
• Their staring pitcher was named Morton — as was the chairman of the committee to elect President Ford. Mr. Morton won 4, Mr. Morton lost 9 for the Braves that year. Mr. Morton went 0-1 for the White House at the same time. Both Mr. Mortons retired afterwards.
• Jimmy Wynn played for Atlanta, albeit without the WIN button Ford attempted to popularize in ’75 as a method to Whip Inflation Now. WIN buttons, alas, had far less pop to them than the Toy Cannon.
• As Ford sought to maintain the Oval Office, centerfield for the Braves was patrolled from the sixth through the ninth by Rowland Office.
The chief executive in the Braves’ dugout was Dave Bristol, a longer-tenured version of his Mets’ counterpart Joe Frazier. But making appearances for each team that afternoon were two future multiple-term world champion managers: Cito Gaston for Atlanta, Joe Torre (ouch) for New York.
It probably wasn’t of utmost concern to the afterschool gathering of 4,002 at Shea what Ford or Reagan or Carter were doing one state away. It was probably cause for great celebration that Bruce Boisclair drove home Grote for the winning run in the three-run ninth, a walkoff triumph for the briefly (10-7, 1-game lead) surging Mets.
Our boys wouldn’t hold their lead for long in 1976. Ford, on the other hand, put just enough distance between himself and his charismatic rival that evening to outlast Reagan’s rightward rush in states more friendly for what was then considered his fairly exotic brand of conservatism.
When the president was officially nominated in a squeaker on August 18, the Mets were in Los Angeles and lost…in a walkoff.
The Mets were done by the time the fall campaign heated up. They went home 86-76, mired in third place. Jerry Ford’s most memorable statement in the general election was that Poland and other Eastern European countries did not suffer under the thumb of Soviet oppression. In 1976, that was a little like saying there was no Phillies domination of the Eastern Division of the National League. Nevertheless, he steadily made up ground on Carter (who was setting a template for the not-quite-blowin’-it 2005 Chicago White Sox) right to the proverbial 162nd game before falling a run or two short.
If you’re an American citizen — even a National Leaguer — this has been a fascinating week, as fascinating as one can be without baseball or a baseball trade or a baseball rolling by as you’re walking down the street. (Gads, I miss baseball.) A new governor in Albany…a new majority in both chambers of the legislature in Washington…a new Speaker of the House of Representatives named Nancy…and a President of the United States laid to rest with honor and praise three decades after he was barely nominated in his own right and barely rejected by the electorate as a whole the only time he sought its approval.
Growing up in the middle of the 1970s, bookended by the final corrosive lunges at power by Richard M. Nixon and M. Donald Grant, I watched the continuing ceremonies that marked the death of Gerald Ford and sort of waited for the punchline. Another funeral? Is he still dead? Is he going on tour? Is somebody going to drop the casket and is Chevy Chase going to burst out and let us in on the joke?
But it wasn’t like that at all. It was indeed solemn and stirring, warm and wonderful. Just like, as I’ve learned this past week, Jerry Ford himself.