Bill Clinton photo

Interview With Chris Berman of ESPN in Queens

April 15, 1997

[The President's remarks are joined in progress.]

The President. And if he hadn't done what he did and Branch Rickey hadn't done what he did, PeeWee Reese hadn't run the team like he did, it would have been a very different world. But Jackie Robinson—you know, someone—maybe fate has a way of doing that in history, but he was—he had the unique blend of talent and character to do what he did. And it's made a real difference.

It made a real difference to the way people thought about race. I think that's more important than the fact that he was a great baseball player because baseball really was our national pastime then, too, and there was no competition from highly televised pro basketball or pro football or anything else. It was the thing. And so it was—as important as it was, and 3 years later basketball was integrated and other things happened—this was a huge deal. Most Americans now can't even imagine how big a deal it was.

This was the year before President Truman signed the order to integrate the Army. This was a huge deal.

Mr. Berman. It was really 15 years plus before marches in the sixties. I mean, it was so far ahead of its time——

The President. Almost a decade before Rosa Parks. And it was baseball, so it was a statement about America. Anything you said about baseball in the forties and the early fifties, it was a statement about America.

Mr. Berman. By the way, Olerud is at first base with a single; one out. But Bernard Gilkey is up.

The President. He's doing better in New York, isn't he, although——

Mr. Berman. Well, he's in another——

The President. But he's hitting well again, and it's good. It's been a good move for him.

Mr. Berman. It kind of got a little stale for him in Toronto.

The President. Yes. It's good for him.

Mr. Berman. Did you ever get up to see Jackie Robinson play? I don't know how many Cardinal games you went to. Arkansas was a good drive from there.

The President. Only one time when I was a child. My father took me on a train to St. Louis to watch a game, but they weren't playing the Dodgers. But we didn't get a television until 1956, but it was right after the '55 season, right after the Boys of Summer. So for 2 years I sat transfixed in front of my television set. And tonight we had a contest in the place where I'm sitting to see how many people could remember the names of people on the '55 team— how many names you could remember. I quit at seven. And I hadn't even thought about it since. And I still remember the first time I saw Jackie Robinson, with that hitch in his swing and the way he ran sort of almost—on television it looked almost like he was bent over. It was an amazing thing. I remember just being transfixed by it.

Mr. Berman. Well, you have these images all—the old crystal set, right, which was how you followed your baseball. And so many people did, certainly, in the fifties. When you finally saw him, or now that you've seen him afterwards on the old newsreels, et cetera, was that the image you had of him as a boy listening on the radio, or was he more impressive in person?

The President. More impressive in person. But I used to do my homework at night listening to the Cardinals games on the radio. So I— I probably shouldn't say, it's a bad example for students of today.

Mr. Berman. We all did it; we all did it.

The President. But I did. And so, he was better than I thought he would be. He was beautiful. He was fabulous, watching him.

Mr. Berman. You're excited about this evening, aren't you?

The President. I am, it's very important. I think that it's also good for baseball. This night will capture the attention of America and make everybody forget about some of the things they didn't like that happened the last 2 years and make people fall in love with baseball again, I hope.

Mr. Berman. As we did the night of the Cal Ripken thing.

The President. Yes, we did.

Mr. Berman. I have to ask you this. It's April 15th. Are your taxes done?

The President. Yes. Paid them all.

Mr. Berman. Because I might be able to get you an extension.

The President. I don't think I ought to. I've got to set a good example, you know. [Laughter] I'm surprised all these baseball players shook hands with me tonight. They make more money than Jackie Robinson did, so they probably weren't very happy to see me tonight. [Laughter]

Mr. Berman. Oh, I think they were. I think you honored everybody with your presence. Thank you for joining us.

The President. Thank you. I'm glad to be here. Thanks.

NOTE: The interview began at 8:45 p.m. at Shea Stadium. In his remarks, the President referred to civil rights activist Rosa Parks. He also referred to Executive Order 9981 of July 26, 1948 (13 FR 4313). The press release issued by the Office of the Press Secretary did not include the complete opening remarks of the President.

William J. Clinton, Interview With Chris Berman of ESPN in Queens Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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