Radio, Baseball, and the Gipper

Before he treated a chimpanzee named Bonzo like a child, pleaded the Notre Dame football team to win just one for the Gipper, and told Mr. Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, Ronald Reagan was a baseball announcer.

Reagan called baseball games for WOC in Davenport, Iowa.  Started by Robert Karlowa as an experimental station in 1907, WOC later fell under the aegis of Bartlett Joshua Palmer, a chiropractor following in his father’s pioneering footsteps in chiropractic healing.  The University of Iowa’s Biographical Diction of Iowa web site details B.J. Palmer’s radio endeavors:  “In 1922, he obtained a license to operate station WOC in Davenport— the call letters stood for “World of Chiropractic”— purportedly the second radio station licensed to broadcast in the United States.  That venture expanded in 1929 to include WHO in Des Moines, and was incorporated as the Central Broadcasting Company, an NBC affiliate.

“The first WOC broadcasts were made from the living room of the Palmer home at 828 Brady Street in Davenport.  Broadcasts included lectures, musical programs, and many other programs.  The main purpose of the radio station was to advertise the chiropractic school and clinic, and B.J. was remarkably successful at that.”

Reagan’s audition for WOC took place in 1932.  “He had to stand in front of a microphone in a studio and make up a game,” explained William Gildea in his 2004 article “Former President Had A Passion for Sports” in the Washington Post.  With extraordinary detail and excitement in his voice, he recounted much of the fourth quarter of a game in which he played for Eureka— only in his fictitious version, Eureka won a game it actually lost.”

Reagan became the voice of sports for WHO before he launched his movie career in Hollywood in 1937.  Announcing the Chicago Cubs games allowed Reagan to develop his oratorical gifts, which served him well as an actor and a politician.  Sometimes he broadcast games on site.  Gildea stated, “More often, though, he was tucked away in the studio, recreating the games, using his imagination to flesh out the minimal description of the action available to him from the dots and dashes sent from the ballpark by a telegraph operator to the telegraph operator sitting across from him.

The future president’s involvement with the National Pastime continued in Hollywood.  In the 1952 movie The Winning Team, Reagan portrayed baseball icon Grover Cleveland Alexander.  Co-starring Doris Day as Alexander’s wife Aimee, The Winning Team ends on the climactic note of Alexander’s performance in the 1926 World Series featuring the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Yankees.  It went seven games.  In the 7th inning of Game Seven, Alexander struck out Yankee powerhouse Tony Lazzeri to end the last viable Yankee threat.  Alexander kept the 8th and 9th innings scoreless, giving the Cardinals a 3-2 victory and the championship.  In a career spanning 1911 to 1930, Alexander compiled a 373-208 record, including four consecutive seasons of 30 or more wins.

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library web site cites a 1983 quote capturing Reagan’s passion for baseball:  “I really do love baseball and I wish we could do this out on the lawn every day.  I wouldn’t even complain if a stray ball came through the Oval Office window now and then.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on November 15, 2014.

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