Sixty years of presidential experiences

Sixty years of presidential memories

Sixty years ago, I "covered" my first -- and only -- presidential inauguration.

My parents and I were invited to the ceremonies for President Harry S. Truman on Jan. 20, 1949. Truman had first taken the oath of office in a somber setting on April 12, 1945, following the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

But this celebration was with all the pomp and circumstance, held on the East Portico of the Capitol and expected to draw the largest crowd in the history of inaugurations.

As we prepare for Tuesday's inauguration of Barack Obama, with maybe 3 million expected, I keep thinking back to that long-ago week in Washington, D.C. For some eerie reason, those impressionable moments for the 12-year-old have gained renewed importance.

I easily recall how giddy we were to make the trip from Delaware to Washington that January in 1949, but for me, there was a catch. In order for me to be excused from school for the week, Bessie Matthews, my sixth grade teacher, ordered me to write a detailed report on the inauguration and accompanying activities we attended.

Little did I know then that this would be the first news story I'd write and would lead to a career in journalism that has made it possible to interview six sitting presidents and visit the White House and Oval Office on many occasions, and even to fly aboard Air Force One.

I probably should have known. As I sat with my parents about 20 rows from where Truman was administered the oath by Chief Justice Fred Vinson, I was fascinated by those professionals covering the event. I kept looking up over my shoulder at the elevated platform where news reel cameras and photographers were recording the inauguration.

Yes, there was even a TV camera in their midst, because this was the first inauguration in history to be televised. It was supposed to have been watched by a record 10 million viewers.

For much of the ceremony, which lasted an hour before the parade, I was probably more captivated by the media than by all the dignitaries wearing their stovepipe hats and winter coats seated next to Truman.

So, my sixth-grade assignment was to report what I saw. I'll never forget how I started the story, which, thank goodness, wasn't written on deadline. I was always a fan of Damon Runyon, so it was fitting it began this way:

Barack Obama

On a mostly sunny and windy afternoon, with a crowd of 600,000 chilled by a biting wind, President Harry S. Truman took the oath of office during Thursday's inauguration on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

If that beginning was weak, the body of the story was probably even worse, although I thought it was great. Maybe not of Pulitzer caliber, but I was satisfied, and so was Ms. Matthews. Truman spent much of his speech comparing Communism to democracy, concluding that actions from the Communist philosophy were a threat to free nations.

Why has that somewhat forgotten 1949 event suddenly become more important, created more meaning for me? Maybe it's because of the ties to my home state of Delaware. Vice-president-elect Joe Biden and I are friends. I've known him since he was a New Castle (Del.) County councilman in the early 1970s, was his neighbor in the 1980s and often made the Amtrak trip to Washington with him when I was USA Today's baseball editor.

As Obama's train stopped in Wilmington on Saturday to pick up Biden and his family, it occurred to me how excited my late father, a bank president, would have been to witness such an historic occasion.

It was because of him I attended the 1949 inauguration, stayed at the Willard Hotel and was able to visit the White House a few days before the ceremony to meet and shake hands with Truman. One of my dad's closest friends was J. Allen Frear Jr., a U.S. senator from Delaware, who arranged the entire trip.

And maybe that with Obama becoming the the first black president it triggers a thought from 1949. During the week leading to Truman's inauguration he and wife, Bess, announced (and ensured) that minorities were welcome to attend all events and stay in Washington hotels. This was 1949 and had never before been possible.

I obviously never talked baseball and sports with Truman.

But as my 50-plus-year career in journalism has evolved, I've learned that nothing relaxes presidents more than getting away from their "day" jobs to chat about fun and games.

I was enormously impressed and smitten with our country's highest office in 1949, but never dreamed its doors would open for a sports reporter and form lasting memories during those conversations.

Richard Nixon told me, "I always wanted to be a sports writer, which is what I would have done had I not gotten into this [politics]. I envy you guys."

Gerald Ford's sport was football (and golf), but he knew my No. 1 love was baseball and wrote that on a picture he sent me once.

Ronald Reagan talked about how he recreated Chicago Cubs games for a Des Moines radio station in the 1930s.

One of the most meaningful responses I got during an interview was from Bill Clinton. I asked him if he had been president in 1947 and called Jackie Robinson to congratulate him on breaking the color barrier what he would have said.

"First of all, I would have thanked him," Clinton said, "because even then I think people knew this was something big, even those who didn't fully understand the implications of it. Secondly, I would have commented not only on his baseball skills, but also his character, dignity, determination and willingness to endure rejection."

I've known George W. Bush since he owned the Texas Rangers and have talked baseball with him numerous times at the White House.

Actually, my first trip to the Oval Office as a reporter was to interview George W.'s dad.

His aides told me I had just 20 minutes. I was over my time and getting nervous, but Bush didn't want me to leave. Finally, he got up from behind his desk and started rummaging through a drawer.

"Here it is," he finally said, his eyes bright. "My McQuinn Trapper!"

He put the first baseman's mitt on his right hand and pounded the pocket several times with his fist. "I used this glove my three years [1946-48] at Yale," he said. "I wasn't a good enough hitter to be a big league player."

I reminded him of that day when he invited me to accompany him to the 1992 All-Star Game in San Diego aboard Air Force One.

Yes, those vignettes are lasting and so important to me.

Maybe they would never have happened had I not "covered" the inauguration of Harry S. Truman in 1949.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.