Maybe President Obama should have won the MVP for helping the New York Yankees defeat the Philadelphia Phillies in last fall’s World Series. Though he didn’t throw a single pitch or step into the batter’s box to face Cliff Lee, Obama’s presence in the White House may have been crucial to the Yankees return to glory. That’s because Obama is a Democrat, and baseball’s “Nixon Curse” stipulates that the Yankees won’t win a World Series with a Republican in the White House. Granted, this curse doesn’t have anywhere near the longevity of the Curse of the Bambino, which kept the Red Sox from winning the World Series for 86 years, or the Billy Goat Curse, which continues to haunt the Chicago Cubs, who haven’t won a World Series since 1908.
Here’s how the Nixon Curse began. In 1974, Yankees owner George M. Steinbrenner was indicted in federal court for making illegal contributions to President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. To avoid jail, Steinbrenner pled guilty to two criminal counts and agreed to pay a $15,000 fine. Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended Steinbrenner from Major League Baseball for two years (later reduced to 15 months). The day before he left office in 1989, President Ronald Reagan pardoned Steinbrenner.
But Steinbrenner’s illegal activities may have created the Nixon Curse. Consider: in 1976, when Republican Gerald Ford was president, the Yankees made their first World Series appearance in 12 years. The reigning world champions, the Cincinnati Reds (the Big Red Machine), humiliated the Yankees by sweeping them in four games. That November, voters ousted Ford in favor of Democrat Jimmy Carter. Under Carter, the Yankees won the World Series in 1977 and 1978 by beating their old rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers, twice.
The Yankees and the Dodgers met again in the 1981 World Series. But by then, Republican Ronald Reagan had become the nation’s 40th president. After losing the first two games, the Dodgers beat the Yankees in the next four to win the series. The Yankees spent the next seven years of the Reagan presidency and the four years of Republican George H. W. Bush’s administration shut out of the postseason.
Bill Clinton recaptured the White House for the Democrats in 1992, and the Yankees began to improve. After a decent season in 1993, the Yankees were in first place in 1994 when the players’ strike, which resulted in the suspension of the rest of the season, cut short their postseason hopes. In 1996, the Yankees beat the favored Atlanta Braves in six games to win their first World Series in 18 years. In Clinton’s second term, the Yankees won three consecutive World Series from 1998 to 2000.
The Yankees remained competitive when Republican George W. Bush became president but failed to win a World Series during his two terms. In Bush’s first term, the Yankees lost the World Series in 2001 to Arizona Diamondbacks and 2003 to the Florida Marlins. In 2004, the Bronx Bombers experienced one of the most humiliating defeats in baseball history when the hated Red Sox came back to win the American League pennant (and later their first World Series since 1918) after trailing the Yankees three games to none. In Bush’s second term, the Yankees were eliminated in the first round of the postseason three years running, from 2005 through 2007, and failed even to make the postseason in 2008, Bush’s final year as president.
And then, just like that, in Obama’s first year in office, the Yankees returned to the top of the baseball world, winning their 27th World Series title last November.
Of course, skeptics dismiss the Nixon Curse. They point out that before Nixon became president, the Yankees had already won more World Series with Democratic presidents than Republican presidents. The pre-Nixon World Series tally for the Yankees is 13 with Democrats and seven with Republicans. The disparity can be attributed to the fact that the Democrats controlled the White House for 20 years (1933-1953), an era when the Yankees had some of their greatest teams.
In addition, after losing the World Series in 1963 and 1964, the Yankees went into a long period of decline. They finished in last place in 1966 and didn’t make the postseason for another 10 years. This decline didn’t begin with a Republican in the White House, but with two Democrats, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
Finally, the Yankees’ resurgence in the mid-1990s probably had less to do with Bill Clinton’s election than with changes in the franchise that sportswriters and fans had clamored for since the 1970s. First, Steinbrenner stopped changing managers every year and reduced the number of times he ripped managers, coaches, and players in the press. Second, the Yankees groomed young prospects through their farm system such as Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, and Jorge Posada, instead of trading them away for players past their prime or who would never have a prime. (Remember Scott McGregor for Ken Holtzman in 1976 and Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps in 1989?) Third, the Yankees made shrewd trades that brought players like Paul O’Neill, David Cone, Tino Martinez, and Scott Brosius to the Bronx. Under manager Joe Torre, the newly acquired players and the blossoming young prospects gelled as a team and gave birth to a new Yankee dynasty.
If the Nixon Curse does exist, it creates a conflict for fans. For most of my life, I’ve lived in the Bronx, one of the most Democratic counties in the United States. Bronxites, who haven’t supported a Republican presidential candidate since 1924, are no doubt thrilled that Democratic presidents seem to increase the Yankees’ chances of winning a World Series. In my case, however, I’m a conservative Republican. While I want the Yankees to win every year, I don’t want a Democrat in the White House. How many Yankee World Series championships should I be willing to do without to prevent appointments of liberal justices to the Supreme Court and higher taxes?
I’m not alone in my dilemma. What about those registered Democrats in Queens who root for the Mets and baseball fans in blue states such as Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois, Minnesota, and California? Should they secretly hope for the election of Republican presidents to prevent the hated Yankees from winning another World Series?
I won’t sell out my principles and vote for Obama in 2012. However, since he will be president for at least three more baseball seasons, I can be grateful to him for possibly helping the Yankees build another glorious dynasty. As for the president’s liberal policies, I can hope that both public opinion and Congress (which will probably have more Republicans soon) will keep them in check. I also realize that like any “curse,” the Nixon Curse will exist only until it’s finally broken, which I hope will be in this decade.