Q&A: George W. Bush
The President discusses Aggies and Horns, his Rangers days and his sports idol
President George W. Bush has been a Texas sports fan since he was a young child. He grew up in the West Texas town of Midland, where his family moved from Connecticut when he was two. The former governor and onetime managing partner of the Texas Rangers recalls his excitement at seeing the first issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED at a friend’s house in 1954. On the occasion of the magazine’s 50th anniversary, he sat down with SI’s Don Yaeger to talk about sports and the Lone Star State.
SI: Why is Texas such a big sports state?
GWB: First of all, the weather is pretty darn good, so people can stay outside a lot. The main sport is football, and it’s probably because years ago high schools became the center point of the small towns. High school football became the thing to do on a Friday night.
The elementary school I went to was in front of Midland Memorial Stadium. And Wahoo McDaniel was the Midland High football star. He went on to [Oklahoma] and then played linebacker for the Jets, and then became a professional wrestler. I remember as a kid watching Wahoo McDaniel play football.
SI: What’s your favorite Texas rivalry?
GWB: I’d have to say the Texas- Texas A&M football game. It’s the kind of game where all records go out the window because of the intensity of the rivalry. When Texas A&M comes to Austin to play, the Aggie band and the Corps of Cadets march down Congress Avenue, which is the main street, to the stadium. The whole series is full of tradition. Plus they’re good games, generally.
SI: You’ve been quoted as saying that as an athlete you peaked in Little League.
SI: Tell me about your Little League career.
GWB: Well, I was a pretty good catcher. In Midland we lived right behind an old buffalo wallow that they’d converted into a Little League park, so all I had to do was walk out our backyard, and there I was in the field. And I played for hours. You hear the stories about the mother leaning out the door screaming for the son to come back for dinner—that was me. The other thing I remember about Little League is that my mother was at every game. She was the scorekeeper and, believe it or not, actually didn’t yell a lot at me or the umpires.
SI: How did you become a baseball fan?
GWB: Well, my dad and mother were fans. I was born my dad’s sophomore year in college, and he was a baseball star. And Mother would take me to the games. I can remember being a little guy and going through his scrapbook, looking at the box scores for the Yale team. And I remember playing catch with him.
SI: At Yale you were a pitcher, right?
GWB: I was a middle reliever my freshman year. And I was mediocre at best. And then I went on and played rugby my senior year.
SI: As a boy did you have a role model who was an athlete?
GWB: I was enamored with Willie Mays because of his speed, his power. He was such a charismatic ballplayer. When I went to visit my grandparents, who lived in Greenwich, Connecticut, my Uncle Buck took me to the New York Giants game at the old Polo Grounds, and I saw Willie firsthand and then followed him from that point on.
SI: What was your best move with the Texas Rangers?
GWB: Convincing the citizens of Arlington [to build The Ballpark in Arlington]. It changed the franchise.
SI: What was your worst move?
GWB: Some of our trades coming down the stretch. Of course the [1989 Sammy] Sosa deal [with the White Sox] has to be one of the alltime failed trades. The idea was to get Harold Baines to help kick-start the offense. Sammy was a young ballplayer, and the front office came to the conclusion that while he could be a good ballplayer, he’d be nothing like Juan Gonzalez.
SI: Do you still root for the Rangers?
GWB: It’s a tough year to root for them, but I do. And the Astros. You know, we moved to Houston in ’59, and theAstros came shortly thereafter. I used to go to a lot of Astros games and was an Astros fan for a long, long time.
SI: What’s your favorite college team, besides Yale?
GWB: [Laughs] Let’s see, that’s a tough one with these guys [his staff, many of them Texans] in here. I like the Texas teams, let me put it to you that way. I’m somewhat partial to the University of Texas, because when I was governor, I spent a lot of time in the gym [there]; that was a place where I could go work out and be alone, if I needed to be. And I got to know [football coach] Mack Brown and Jeff (Mad Dog) Madden, the strength coach. I got to see the insides of the program and became very fond of the men that were involved with the program. But I also like A&M a lot. And the truth of the matter is, I root for all Texas teams.
SI: Who’s your favorite baseball player today?
GWB: I’d probably say some of the old Rangers, guys I got to know. Pudge [Rodriguez], for example. I like Raffy-Rafael Palmeiro. You know, one of my favorite ballplayers of all is Julio Franco. Great hitter. He was gracious enough to invite Laura and me and our twins to his wedding at his house in Arlington. The girls will never forget it. They still think about him.
SI: The Washington Post wrote a story that baseball helped give people a sense of you as more of a regular guy. Do you agree with that description? Or do you think that, because some people look at your family and think—
GWB: Yes, elite.
GWB: I don’t know. As The Washington Post has since found out, I don’t sit around trying to analyze myself a lot. I hope people saw me as a good businessman and somebody who, when given a responsibility [to run the Rangers], upheld the responsibility.
SI: You were pretty famous for sitting in the stands.
GWB: I sat in the stands, signed autographs, tried to make the park as fan-friendly as possible. There was many a day when you’d be sitting there about the seventh inning [and fans would be yelling], “More pitching, Bush!” That’s all part of sport.
SI: Who’s the best Texas sportswriter ever?
GWB: I’d say Blackie Sherrod was one of the greats. I’ll tell you, though, [sitting in the dugout, talking to sportswriters before the game] was one of my favorite moments. You know, [Gerry] Fraley and [Randy] Galloway and [Phil] Rogers—I can’t remember all their names. But we’d sit around and talk baseball. It was really a good relationship.
And occasionally I would get on Randy Galloway’s talk shows. You know, “Bill from Garland: ‘Well, that Bush is such a lousy…. Why won’t you sign so-and-so?’ ” And I’d kind of wink at Galloway and go on and answer the question. Again, that’s all part of building a franchise.
SI: Alex Rodriguez is making $22 million more this year than you are— what do you think of that?
GWB: That’s right. What Babe Ruth said—that line, “He’s having a better year.” Alex Rodriguez is a fine person, a great ballplayer. History will decide whether or not he was worth the price. I guess if—when—the Rangers win a pennant, it will be worth it.
SI: When will they win one?
GWB: Well, they have a pretty interesting-looking [team]. They just need-listen, it’s the same old worry we’ve always had, depth in the pitching staff. They have some good young arms, it looks like, who need a little seasoning. But they’ve got a heck of an infield.
SI: Who do you talk sports with?
GWB: Around the office [I used to talk with former press secretary] Ari Fleischer, a huge Yankees fan. I needled him about the Yankees. My brother Marvin is a sports fan, and we love to talk sports. Barney, the dog, when we’re watching a ball game [laughs]. He’s the only one who sits there and watches the games with me. I probably watch, try to catch part of a ball game, five days a week. After work, if I’m reviewing a speech or just want a little downtime, I’ll have the ball game on in the background. Some people like to listen to opera—I like to have the ball game in the background.
SI: Any interest in getting back into baseball someday?
GWB: I don’t think so. I will always be a fan, and I don’t know what I’ll do. I ran into Joe Morgan, who was one of my favorite ballplayers when he was with the Astros, and he asked me would I think about being a commissioner, and my immediate answer was no. And I think it’s probably true.