Where Do You Think You’re Going? Calvin Coolidge, The First Lady Grace Coolidge, Baseball, and Grief

Baseball has all kinds of fans, from the casual observer who may catch five games a year to the die hard who will watch every game no matter what. However, no fan gets more attention than the celebrity fan. Dan Ennis tells us about the game’s first celebrity fan, First Lady Grace Coolidge.

“Without a life, who fears death?

Even the season is out of season

unless we relish baseball, daydreaming

a game each night; then the morning paper”

–Donald Hall, “The Tenth Inning”

When you read about First Lady Grace Coolidge  – and who doesn’t? – you learn two things very quickly: First, she was as outgoing, charming and approachable as her husband Calvin was dour, taciturn, and distant; Second, she was an ardent baseball fan, rooting for the Washington Senators when she lived in the nation’s capital, and supporting the Boston Red Sox in her later years when she lived in New England. She was The First Lady of Baseball,” he was “Silent Cal.” Dig a little, and you learn a third thing: Her baseball fandom was laced with grief, and her husband suffered for it.

Grace Coolidge’s love of baseball was one of the reasons First Lady aficionados (You’d be surprised!) rate her among Dolly Madison, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Abigail Adams as the most beloved presidential spouses. It was the Roaring Twenties and baseball was moving into those prime Ruthian years attendance was up, scoring increased (and you know what that means), and the center of Washington, DC high society the First Lady was a regular at the ballpark. It is not unreasonable to believe that Grace Coolidge’s endorsement of baseball as a respectable diversion helped cement the sport’s place as the “national pastime.”

There are two anecdotes, oft repeated, that demonstrate just how devoted Grace Coolidge was to baseball.The first is frequently deployed to show readers that the lady really knew did know the game: Here it is as related by Bill Nowlin of the Society for American Baseball Research:

In 1949, Philadelphia A’s pitcher Joe Coleman was speaking at a community event in Northampton, Massachusetts, and was asked whether or not anyone had ever made an unassisted triple play in the World Series. He had to admit he didn’t know – but Grace Coolidge, the former First Lady of the United States, quietly replied, “Yes, Bill Wambsganss, Cleveland infielder, in the 1920 Series.”

By the time this story circulated in American newspapers, Mrs. Coolidge was already a widow and known throughout New England as a dedicated Red Sox fan and particular friend of Joe Cronin. The anecdote gained new life thanks to the internet, and the internet uses it as shorthand for, “Grace was a real baseball fan.”

The second story is even more widely repeated, and it appears in almost every account of the Coolidge White House to illustrate the difference in temperaments between Mrs. Coolidge and the President. When the Washington Senators made the 1924 World Series, the President and First Lady decided to attend a game. Their appearance is described by Joel D. Treese of the White House Historical Association:

On October 4 the Coolidges joined 35,760 fans for game one of the [1924 World] series. The score was tied 2-2 in the ninth inning when President Coolidge resolved that it was time to return to the White House. When he rose to leave, the First Lady, resplendent in her “good luck” necklace of seven ivory elephants, snapped, “Where do you think you’re going? You sit down,” seizing his coattails to emphasize her point. Coolidge obeyed and stayed on to see the Giants win in extra innings.

This story is emblematic of the couple Calvin disinterested and distant, Grace warm and engaged; the President indifferent to the outcome of the game, the First Lady root-root-rooting for the home team. Notice this World Series photo: Calvin Coolidge is throwing out the first pitch with a grimace. Grace Coolidge, to his left, is smiling and rocking a fabulous hat.

Doubt me?  Here’s a photo from 1925; Coolidge still wearing his sober “throwing- out-the-first pitch” face:

The Senators (known in those days as the “Griffmen”) tried to use the First Couple to promote the team, putting a picture of the President and First Lady on the cover of the 1925 program. You can see that familiar Calvin Coolidge expression he’d rather be somewhere else, and he’s not enjoying his first-pitch duties:

Standing beside him, Grace Coolidge is delighted. The First Lady loved the Grand Old Game… perhaps to excess. The story of Grace Coolidge insisting her husband stay until the end of that game on October 4, 1924  the anecdote that invariably presents Grace Coolidge as passionate and the President as a downer reveals that Grace Coolidge was kind of a bully, dragging Calvin to the ballpark even when he wanted to be alone.

On June 30, 1924, Calvin Coolidge Jr., the First Couple’s teenaged son, was playing tennis on the White House lawn. He developed a blister. Within a week he was dead of a staph infection.

Already known as for his taciturn New England affect, the President’s mourning was notably restrained. The New York Times, covering the boy’s funeral, summarized the President’s demeanor as “stoical.” The White House physician noted that, after the funeral, the President started sleeping a great deal by some accounts eleven hours per night, plus afternoon naps. He met less and less with his cabinet. He is now thought to have been suffering from clinical depression. A Vermont Calvinist, the President even doubted his faith, writing, “I do not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House.”

Grace Coolidge’s reaction was nearly the opposite. Prior to her son’s death, she’d been known as the vivacious counterpoint to Silent Cal, an outgoing, warm, and welcoming White House hostess. She’d characterized her own marriage as the combination of two people of “vastly different temperaments and tastes,” and as her husband withdrew, Mrs. Coolidge maintained the public face of the White House. She attended the Republican National Convention wearing white, rather than mourning black. She wrote (and later published) a poem about the loss of her son, confident that he was no longer in pain.

She turned to baseball.   

Ludwig M. Deppisch, M.D., in The Health of the First Ladies: Medical Histories from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama, points out that in the aftermath of her son’s death, Grace Coolidge, “discovered that the ‘summer game’ was a source of fun and enjoyment.” She regularly attended Washington Senators’ games, sitting near the dugout. Jean Hastings Ardell, in Breaking Into Baseball: Women and the National Pastime, also suggests that Grace Coolidge became a particularly passionate baseball fan upon the death of her son, speculating that the First Lady, “found respite from her grief at the ballpark.”

But what is often forgotten in the retelling of the, “Where do you think you’re going?” story is the context of a boy’s death. The 1924 World Series was played in the midst of a period in which the President was undergoing intense psychological suffering. One report noted that in the weeks after his son’s death:

[T]he grief-stricken president suffered from hypersomnia, sleeping as many as 15 hours out of every 24, whereas earlier, he had slept about nine. He ate incessantly after his son died, even to the point of abdominal distress. He suffered a sharp loss of energy, always felt tired, complained that he was too old for his years, and sometimes appeared to be on the verge of collapse.

It wasn’t as though Calvin Coolidge didn’t like baseball. He played the game as a boy. He just couldn’t match his wife’s white-hot public passion for the game. For a man who was in the throes of private grief, the prospect of extra innings  innings in which he would be required to further maintain his mask of composure were not appealing. Reflecting on the period directly after the death of young Calvin, the President wrote, “Sustained by the great outpouring of sympathy from all over the nation, my wife and I bowed to the Supreme Will and with such courage as we had went on in the discharge of our duties.” Baseball was one of those duties.  

When the Senators won the World Series that year, the respective reactions of Mr. and Mrs. Coolidge seem to confirm the contrast in their personalities. The chief historian of the White House Historical Association describes the scene after the Senators won the deciding game:

Exultant fans half-carried Walter Johnson to President Coolidge, who told him, “Nice work. I am glad you won.”

The first lady’s response was cheerier. “She jumped up and down with both feet,” said The Sporting News, “waved her arms, yelled, called out to Walter Johnson … The picture of sedateness on her arrival, she left as rumpled, as tired, and as happy as the thousands of other fans.”

The reactions read differently when we remember that a child was dead: the President numb, the First Lady in a cathartic frenzy.

The First Couple lost their son on July 7, 1924. The boy’s body was buried in Vermont on July 10. Between that day and October 4, 1924, when Grace Coolidge pulled the President back into his seat at the World Series, Calvin Coolidge was undergoing immense emotional suffering. And yet newspapers from those gloomy weeks of 1924 report the following:

On July 31, the President and First Lady took in a “Negro Ball Game.”

On September 5, the Washington Senators visited the White House.

On September 13, the First Couple attended a charity baseball game between “the police and firemen.”

On September 29, the Griffmen clinched the pennant while in Boston, and the First Lady, listening on the radio, carried the news the President. Calvin Coolidge dutifully rearranged his schedule, moving an Army ceremony so he could be free to attend the opening game of the World Series.

On October 1, the President and First Lady greeted the Senators at a parade celebrating the pennant.

If indeed the President was clinically depressed, a physical wreck, and neglecting his official duties, the steady stream of baseball-inspired appearances must have been a kind of torture. Maybe all those photographed grimaces (and occasional forced smiles) were his only defense from a world pressing around him. Meanwhile, the First Lady, praised in a recent study as the image of “an utterly natural woman whose unpretentious personality was easy for the average person to identify with,” was using baseball for her recovery.

Anyone who has lived with a flinty New Englander (and “flinty” is choice among the adjectives applied to New Englanders) knows that the messy emotions escape via alternate routes. Robert Frost wrote about how grief can change a face “from terrified to dull” thus New Englanders invented the Red Sox. Calvin Coolidge, born in Vermont, an adult resident of Northampton, Massachusetts, pushed his grief down and kept hold of his stony composure.   

Grace Coolidge suffered the unthinkable loss of a mother, the death of a child, and filled her days with baseball. But her comfort – the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd – was too public a grieving for her introverted husband. Calvin Coolidge got a few days to accept the loss of his son in quiet Vermont, but within a week of the funeral he was back in the capital, dutifully accommodating his wife’s sudden obsession with baseball. Years later he admitted that the death of his son took the joy out of life, and this was a man who didn’t start off with a large reserve of joy.

After Calvin Coolidge died in 1933, and until her own death in 1957, the widowed First Lady was a visible and enthusiastic Fenway Park regular. She had a lifetime pass courtesy of the league office and, in 1946, she became a talisman for the Olde Towne Team. Invited onto the field for a photo op with Sox manager Joe Cronin, she chided the photographers for taking too long. “This man is busy,” she proclaimed, referring to Cronin.   

A few years later, with the Red Sox in the thick of the 1949 pennant race, The Boston Globe headline shouted, “Mrs. Grace Coolidge Rootin’ Our Sox Home.” She was the precursor of – and model for – the now-familiar “celebrity superfan.”

Her health deteriorated in the 1950s, and the Red Sox honored her on May 28, 1955 – a home game against, fittingly, Washington. The Sox lost, and a scroll honoring Mrs. Coolidge was accepted by proxy. In 1957 Grace Coolidge was hospitalized. The  Boston Globe ran a story about her illness, noting that her poor health had left her homebound, “forced to give up her favorite pastime travelling to Boston frequently to root for the Red Sox.”

When she died later that year, most of the obituaries mentioned her dedication to the Red Sox. The Boston Globe noted that Grace Coolidge fell in love with the game during the 1924 season, forced her “austere husband” to sit down and stay for extra innings during the 1924 World Series, and was opposed to the intentional walk.    

 


Follow Dan on Twitter @DeanDanEnnis.

Additional References:

The New York Times (7/11/1924)

The New York Times, (7/20/1955).

The Boston Globe, (10/10/1946)

The Boston Globe, (9/11/1949)

The Boston Globe, (5/28/1955)

The Boston Globe, (3/3/57)

The Boston Globe, (7/14/1957)

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