Perhaps the most pivotal decision Ronald Reagan made as a young man was to heed Horace Greeley’s advice to, “Go west, young man.”
In 1937, at the age of 26, Reagan went to California with the goal of breaking into the motion picture business. Reagan achieved his goal when he signed a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers after an audition. Over the next four decades, this journey would take him from Hollywood to Sacramento and, of course, to the White House.
What is most notable about Reagan’s life changing decision was that he didn’t seek fame and fortune in California because he was down on his luck. Far from it. Reagan had made a name for himself in the Midwest in radio, most notably as a broadcaster for the Chicago Cubs. In fact, when Reagan went for his audition he was accompanying the team to spring training.
If Reagan hadn’t secured a spot with Warner Brothers or any other studio it is quite possible he would have gone on to become one of the greatest baseball broadcasters of all time. Reagan’s name would have been up there with Red Barber, Mel Allen, Ernie Harwell, Vin Scully and Harry Caray.
A few months before leaving office, Reagan was honored at Wrigley Field. After throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, Reagan joined Caray in the broadcast booth to cover the action between the Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates. (As you might expect, the Cubs lost 10-9.) Then after leaving White House, Reagan shared the broadcast booth with Scully for an inning during the 1989 All-Star Game in Anaheim. Reagan was on hand to call Kansas City Royals outfielder Bo Jackson golf a Rick Reuschel pitch for a monstrous homerun to straight away centerfield.
Here’s something you should know about the early days of radio in baseball. There was a lot of resistance to it. Baseball owners thought that if games were broadcast on radio no one would actually come out to the ballpark to see the game. To give you an idea of how ambivalent baseball owners were about radio back then the broadcasters were not actually at the ballpark. Rather they would call the game from a remote location and rely on a ticker tape for the play by play. Color commentary was left to the imagination. Reagan was certainly no exception. He called Cubs games on WHO radio in Des Moines, Iowa.
Suffice it to say, the ticker tape didn’t always work as it should and Reagan had to rely on his wit as was the case one afternoon when the Cubs were playing the archrival St. Louis Cardinals who had Dizzy Dean pitching and a unusually long at bat by Cubs shortstop Billy Jurges. Well, I’ll let Reagan tell the story as he told it during a White House Luncheon for Members of the Baseball Hall of Fame on March 27, 1981:
What isn’t in the record book is Billy Jurges staying at the plate, I think, the longest of any ballplayer in the history of the game. I was doing the games by telegraphic report, and the fellow on the other side of the window wa a little slit underneath, the headphones on, getting the dot-and-dash Morse code from the ballpark, would type out the play. And the paper would come through to me – it would say,”S1C.” Well, you’re not going to sell any Wheaties yelling “S1C!” (Laughter) So, I’d say, “And so-and-so comes out of the wind-up, here’s the pitch, and it’s called a strike, breaking over the outside corner to so-and-so, who’d rather have a ball someplace else and so forth and backed out there.”
Well, I saw him start to type, and I started-Dizzy Dean was on the mound – and I started the ball on the way to the plate — or him in the wind-up and he, Curly, the fellow on the other side, was shaking his head, and I thought he just – maybe it was a miraculous play or something. But when the slip came through it said, “The wire’s gone dead.” Well, I had the ball on the way to the plate. (Laughter) And I figured out real quick, I could say we’ll tell them what had happened and then play transcribed music. But in those days there were at least seven or eight other fellows that were doing the same ball game. I didn’t want to lose the audience.
So, I thought real quick. “There’s one thing that doesn’t get in the score book,” so I had Billy foul one off. And I looked at Curly, and Curly went just like this; so I had him foul another one. And I had foul one back third base and described the fight between the two kids that were trying to get the ball. (Laughter) Then I had him foul one that just missed being a home run, about a foot and a half. And I did set a world record for successive fouls or for someone standing there, except that no one keeps records of that kind. And I was beginning to sweat, when Curly sat up straight and started typing, and he was nodding his head, “Yes.” And the slip came through the window, and I could hardly talk for laughing, because it said, “Jurges popped out on the first ball pitch.” (Laughter)
Only three days after relaying this anecdote, Reagan took a bullet that just missed his heart. No doubt his good spirits which rested on a foundation of wonderful memories such as the one described contributed to his swift recovery.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Reagan looked back on his broadcasting days with the Cubs with tremendous fondness and had he not made it in Hollywood he would have enjoyed a Hall of Fame career as the voice of the Cubs.
But then who would have assured us we have a rendezvous with destiny? Who would have dared called the Soviet Union an evil empire? And who would have told Mr. Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall?
On the 100th anniversary of his birth, I think it is safe to say that America is grateful he passed that audition.
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