Memories & Dreams: Baseball Figures & Politics

By Marty Appel

Who is the only New York Yankees player to ever serve in Congress?

If you answered Pi Schwert, who caught 12 games for the 1914 and 1915 teams, you are one fine trivia fan.

Schwert was one of just a handful of baseball figures who went into politics and served in elective office after their careers. As it happened, his 1915 cup of coffee with the Yanks coincided with the arrival of a new team owner, Jacob Ruppert, who had himself served four terms in the House of Representatives.

Long before Col. Jacob Ruppert became co-owner of the New York Yankees, bought Babe Ruth, created the first Yankee dynasty, and built Yankee Stadium, he was a United States Congressman from Manhattan whose German accent (he was American born) appealed to voters in his district and helped propel him to Washington.

He had been a senior aide on the staff of Gov. Roswell P. Flower of New York for three years, getting a taste of politics and deciding to run for elective office. He may have had a role model in New York Metropolitans president Joseph Gordon, who was elected a State Assemblyman. Gordon would later be president of the New York Highlanders, the original name for the franchise Ruppert would purchase.

A Democrat, Ruppert served from 1899-1907, during the presidencies of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, choosing not to run for re-election for a fifth term. His landmark piece of legislation was establishing free trade with Puerto Rico, a practice that exists to this day, and which set a model for US trade relations with its territories.

Ruppert returned to Ruppert Brewery, which had been founded by his father, and then purchased the Yankees on December 31, 1914. In 1915 he became president of the brewery.

Ruppert is a baseball figure whose political career predated his involvement in the national pastime. The others – and it isn’t a big list – entered the political world afterwards, using, in some cases, the celebrity that baseball had afforded them.

“Having name recognition and being a sports ‘hero’ only helps so much,” notes Bobby Richardson, the Yankees second baseman of the ‘50s and ‘60s who lost in a bid for Congress after his career. “I had a certain popularity in my state, and my Yankee career made me well known, but it was a Democratic district, was always a Democratic district, and while I did better than previous Republican candidates, it wasn’t mean to be. It was the year Jimmy Carter won the presidency, and southern Republicans didn’t fare well. ”

One sports figure who didn’t quite need the sports identification to succeed was George W. Bush, who was part of the group that bought the Texas Rangers. At the time, he was the son of the President of the United States, George H.W. Bush.

George H.W. Bush played baseball at Yale and had baseball bloodlines. The “H.W.” in his name stood for Herbert Walker. His uncle, Herbert Walker, was treasurer of the New York Mets when the team was founded in 1962.

The younger George Bush was the managing general partner of the Rangers ownership, at a time of greatly increasing value for baseball franchises.

His original $800,000 investment in April 1989, came to be worth a reported $15 million by 1998, money he was able to use to help finance his political career with a successful run for governor of Texas. After two terms as governor, he was elected the nation’s 43rd president. His baseball ties were evident when he instituted t-ball games on the White House lawn with Cal Ripken as “t-ball commissioner.”

The most prominent player to move into politics was a very prominent player indeed – Hall of Famer Jim Bunning, who pitched no-hitters in both leagues (including a perfect game), and starred for Detroit and Philadelphia, making seven All-Star teams. Bunning, active in the Players Association while in baseball, was elected to Congress from Kentucky in 1987 and served in the House until 1999 until moving onto the U.S. Senate, where he is now in his second term. Despite the demands of his office, Bunning still loves his baseball connections and is a frequent visitor to Cooperstown for Induction Weekend. His Washington office is decorated with memories of his sterling career.

Before Bunning, it was Wilmer, “Vinegar Bend” Mizell who walked the halls of Congress following a playing career.

Mizell, an All-Star in 1959 while with St. Louis, was a left hander who also pitched for the 1960 world champion Pirates and the legendary expansion Mets of 1962. He grew up in Vinegar Bend, Alabama, good enough for him to earn his nickname. After his playing career, he settled in North Carolina, his wife’s home state, where he did public relations for Pepsi-Cola Bottling. His speeches around the state earned him a following, and in 1966 he was elected Chairman of his local Board of Commissioners. A year later, he was asked to run for the local Congressional seat by the Republican Party of North Carolina, and he won, becoming the first player- turned Congressman since Schwert in 1941.

Twice Mizell was re-elected until losing in 1974, when President Ford named him Assistant Secretary of Commerce. He made another attempt at his old seat in ’76, but like Richardson, went down to defeat in a big Democratic year.

In 1969, professional baseball celebrated its Centennial with a big gala in Washington, and Mizell was in his glory, welcoming former teammates and colleagues and serving as one of the principal hosts to the pomp and circumstance surrounding the All-Star Game and White House reception. President Nixon, a big baseball fan, loved talking baseball with Mizell.

Fred Brown did not have much of a baseball career, but his name is in the Baseball Encyclopedia, an accomplishment most would love to claim. An outfielder from Somersworth, New Hampshire, Fred played 9 games for the Boston Beaneaters in 1901-1902, accomplishing four hits in 20 at bats. Dartmouth educated, he went on to a far more distinguished career in politics.

A Democrat, he served as mayor of Somersworth and then as U.S. attorney for New Hampshire. From 1923-25, he served as Governor. After one term he became a member of the state’s Public Service Commission, and was then elected to the U.S. Senate in the Roosevelt landslide of 1932. He served one six-year term, and after failing to be re-elected, was named Comptroller General of the US by FDR, and then a member of the Tariff Commission.

Another successful baseball to politics crossover came from John K. Tener, who had pitched for Baltimore (American Association), Chicago (National League) and Pittsburgh (Players League) from 1885-1890, compiling a 25-31 record. He was secretary of the Brotherhood of Professional Players (hence, his jumping to the Players League). While with Cap Anson’s White Stockings, he was part of the world tour Anson led in 1888-89

Born in Ireland and trained as an accountant, Tener entered banking after the Players League folded. In 1908, he was elected to Congress as a Democrat from Pennsylvania, serving one term before agreeing to run for Governor. He won that election and served a four-year term, while simultaneously agreeing to return to professional baseball and to serve as the eighth National League president (1914-1918).

Pius Schwert, the Yankee turned Congressman, served in Congress from 1938-41, representing the Buffalo, NY area. He was a graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, served in World War I, and worked in banking and county government. He died in office during his second term in Washington. Schwert hit .208 during his brief major league career.

Tommy Byrne, an American League pitcher, served as Mayor of his hometown of Wake Forest, N.C. from 1973-1987. An All-Star in 1950 and a member of two Yankee championship teams, Byrne was with the Yankees (1943, 1946-51, 1954-57), the St. Louis Brown (1951-52), the Chicago White Sox (1953) and the Washington Senators (1953), compiling a lifetime record of 85-69. He lost the final game of the 1955 World Series, 2-0 to Johnny Podres, when Brooklyn won its only world championship.

Bobby Avila., who spent 11 seasons in the big leagues, became Mayor of Vera Cruz, Mexico, his hometown, after his career before leaving politics to serve as president of the Mexican League. Avila spent most of his career with the Cleveland Indians, where he was a 3-time All-Star and led the league with a .341 batting average for the 1954 American League champions. He also played for Baltimore, the Boston Red Sox, and Milwaukee.