(This story is adapted from my 2013 book, "And Then I Met....")
As a 14-year old boy attending the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami, I waited in line to shake hands with President Richard Nixon on the last night of the convention, but my turn never came. In 1988, I came within a heartbeat of meeting him when he spoke at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, but again I suffered a near miss. Twenty years after Miami, my chance came finally. However, when I did meet Nixon, it wasn't over politics—it was over baseball. That was 30 years ago today, and it remains a fond memory.
In 1972, Nixon and his son-in-law David Eisenhower (grandson of President Eisenhower) collaborated in selecting their Major League Baseball all-time "dream teams." Twenty years later, they updated their selections and unveiled them at a fundraising event for Nixon's presidential library in Yorba Linda, California. Tickets for the luncheon cost $200 each; $500 donors received a special "Dugout Club" pass for a private reception with Nixon and his retired baseball player guests. After waiting decades to meet Nixon, I refused to let the opportunity pass. Despite the steep price, for the first (and last) time in my life I bought a $500 ticket to something.
• • •
On a table inside the Nixon Library I found the former president's private schedule left behind by an errant staffer. In flipping through it, I saw that he planned to depart Santa Barbara by helicopter at 9:30 a.m. and fly to Yorba Linda Middle School, where a car would pick him up and drive him to the "Eureka Entrance" of the Nixon Library. Once there, staff would escort him to the Marriott Room for makeup and rest before doing an interview. Whoever prepared the memo anticipated his comfort: handlers were directed to have Diet Pepsi, ice, yellow legal pads, and pens available for him in the room while he awaited the program's start time.
After checking in, I went to the lower-level Olin Room for the Dugout Club reception. As I entered, I heard a familiar voice to my left. I turned and saw Nixon entering the nearby Marriott Room with library director John Taylor and several private security guards. Amazingly, none of the arriving guests recognized Nixon as he lingered in the doorway receiving a last-minute event briefing from Taylor.
A few minutes later, Nixon entered the Olin Room with David Eisenhower for the private reception. He addressed the guests briefly, saying that he preferred to reserve his remarks for the luncheon program. He thanked everyone for coming, and then he took his place in the receiving line.
I was one of the first people to meet him. When my turn came—finally!—Taylor introduced me to him as "Judge Rogan."
"Nice to meet you, Judge," he said as he gripped my hand. Then, looking at me closely, he said, "Are you really a judge? You look too young!"
"Bless you for that, Mr. President," I said, and then the photographer memorialized my $500 moment.
While welcoming guests, Nixon often wiped beads of perspiration from his brow and upper lip. Despite the uncomfortably warm temperature in the room, he smiled and greeted everyone, and he made a point to speak with each child moving through the line with their parents. Despite the "no autograph" rule printed on the reception and luncheon invitations, he signed every card, baseball, scrap of paper, and photograph thrust before him while ignoring library staff attempts to fend off the requests. I overheard one boy complain to his father that Nixon signed his baseball "RN" instead of penning a full signature. "That's the way he signs his name," the father growled, "so shut your ungrateful mouth and be glad you got it."
Following the private reception, ticketed luncheon guests assembled under an outdoor tent erected near the parking lot. American flags lined the stage decorated in red, white, and blue. A banner revealed the updated selections for the "Nixon–Eisenhower All Time Baseball Greats." A box of Cracker Jack served as each table's centerpiece, and the Los Angeles Dodgers organist played baseball-themed musical selections. Behind a rope line waited dozens of young boys in Little League uniforms, along with hundreds of additional spectators and fans hoping to see Nixon and the baseball stars when they entered.
Library director John Taylor introduced each current and former baseball player individually: Johnny Bench, Bob Feller, Brooks Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Johnny Mize, George Kell, Rollie Fingers, Maury Wills, Buck Rodgers, and Tony LaRussa; also introduced was Babe Ruth's daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens. Nixon stood at the tent entrance awaiting his cue. When it came, a standing ovation greeted his entry while the USC marching band played a medley of patriotic tunes. He smiled and shook hands as he walked to his table. Once he took his seat, Roger Owens, the vendor famous for throwing bags of roasted peanuts with deadly accuracy (and with rocket-like speed) to customers at the Los Angeles Dodgers Stadium, threw a bag to Nixon from 100 feet away. Nixon caught it on the first attempt.
During lunch, a small ring of private security guards kept a watchful eye on Nixon as he chatted with his tablemates. During a break, John Taylor waved me over to Nixon's table. During our brief chat, I showed the former president a rare item from my political memorabilia collection: a campaign brochure from his 1950 U.S. Senate race against Helen Gahagan Douglas. It bore the caption, "Let's Elect Congressman Richard Nixon United States Senator—The Man who Broke the Hiss-Chambers Espionage Case."
"Where on earth did you get this?" he asked as he studied the vintage flyer. He pointed to the young picture of himself on the cover and looked at it for several seconds. When I asked jokingly if he had used his high school yearbook picture for it, he laughed. "It sure looks like it!" he said. "This pamphlet takes me back a long, long time." He picked up a pen and wrote his signature across the front of the brochure.
A sudden line of people wanting autographs formed behind me, and I don't think he enjoyed another bite of his food. He signed for fans throughout the rest of the luncheon. With him setting the example, the baseball players got into the signing act, too. Only Johnny Bench did so grudgingly, griping to fans about them breaking the no-autograph rule.
After lunch, David Eisenhower began the program by announcing the Nixon–Eisenhower picks for the greatest ballplayers, and he explained their reasons for each selection. Eisenhower then invited each visiting player to join him onstage for commentary.
Johnny Bench remembered playing one game in 1968 and seeing Eisenhower and his fiancée (later wife) Julie Nixon in the stands. "I only had eyes for Julie that day," Bench quipped.
Other players shared brief insights: Bob Feller described his lost playing time because of his military service in World War II ("At least we won that one!"). Rollie Fingers compared modern pitchers to those in his heyday, Tony LaRussa shared his philosophy of what it takes to keep a great team together, and George Kell talked about his years as a third baseman for the New York Yankees. Harmon Killebrew reminisced about meeting President Dwight D. Eisenhower at a baseball game in 1959. Turning to David Eisenhower, he said, "Your grandfather asked me to sign a ball for you that day. I asked him to sign one for me. We traded autographed balls, and I still have his."
"And I still have yours!" Eisenhower replied.
Maury Wills told of driving to Tijuana with friends in the mid-1970s. After a few drinks, he and his friends decided to stop by Nixon's San Clemente home and ring the bell. "Let's see if Dick is home," he said in jest. He had no expectation of seeing Nixon, but when the gates opened and a staffer ushered his group into the former president's study, they all registered shock. "Mr. President," Wills noted, "you were bigger than life then, and you still are."
Eisenhower asked Wills what it takes to win a baseball game. Before Wills could answer, Nixon walked to the stage and answered for him: "Steal!" he thundered.
When Nixon rose to speak, the 79 year-old former president received another standing ovation. Two aides removed the lectern that the previous speakers had used and replaced it with a stand-alone microphone. In his later years, Nixon eschewed notes and made a practice of speaking extemporaneously.
In his opening remarks, he mentioned the presence of Anaheim Angels manager Buck Rodgers and his recent injury while riding in the team's bus. "Now you know why I am opposed to busing," he quipped. "And I want you to know I always root for the home team. I want the Angels to win the World Series while [owner and former cowboy star] Gene Autry is still around."
For almost 30 minutes, he reminisced about his love for baseball and sports. He said he attended his first baseball game in 1925 and became addicted ever since. His love of baseball even affected his thinking on signing autographs. "I signed lots of autographs today," he noted. "I try never to refuse a request, and I will tell you why. Back in 1942, I was eating dinner with my wife, Pat, in a restaurant in New York. Seated across the room from us was the legendary baseball star Babe Ruth. Pat went over to Ruth and asked him for his autograph for my little brother Eddie. As busy and as famous as the Babe was, he took the time to sign that autograph. When I came to a position in my life where people wanted my autograph, I have always tried to remember that if Babe Ruth had time to sign an autograph, then so do I."
Nixon said the first home run he ever saw hit in a baseball game was in the 1940s when Joe DiMaggio smashed one out near the stands where he sat. "But the greatest player I ever saw," he added, "was Jackie Robinson. In fact, Jackie was the greatest all-around athlete ever. He could have played professional football, basketball, or been an Olympic athlete. One of my fond memories was in attending a UCLA–Oregon game with Jackie."
Nixon recalled attending another game with legendary New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel. "Had Casey lived," Nixon joked, "I might have made him Secretary of State. The first rule of politics is to confound the opposition. When Casey spoke, nobody could understand him! Only he could understand himself."
He noted that this year (1992) all the major presidential candidates (Republican George Bush, Democrat Bill Clinton, and Independent Ross Perot) were left-handed. "So it is settled," he concluded, "that our next president will be a southpaw. Any baseball man will tell you that left-handers tend to be a little wild. Our next president will be a left-hander, but we hope he isn't wild and that he will emulate one of baseball's best left handers and hit home runs for America the way Babe Ruth hit them for the New York Yankees!"
He returned to his seat amid another ovation. Jo Lasorda, wife of Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, presented him with one of her husband's jerseys. As the luncheon adjourned, he joined the players onstage for a group photograph. Guests surrounded Nixon, and he remained for another 20 minutes shaking hands and signing autographs.
With the event over, I went inside the library to tour a special exhibit of baseball-related presidential memorabilia. About an hour later, as I was viewing George H.W. Bush's first baseman's mitt from his days as captain of the Yale baseball team, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, "I still say you look too young to be a judge!" I turned. There stood a smiling Nixon as he gripped my hand and thanked me for coming.
"Mr. President," I teased, "it's that sort of narrow thinking that kept you from becoming governor of California!"
He roared at my joke. "You might be right!" he replied.
Before leaving, he signed for me an engraved White House vignette with his famous "RN" initials. Unlike the little boy earlier in the day, I was not disappointed to receive the abbreviated version of his autograph—the in-person signature I waited 20 years to collect.
• • •
Eighteen months later, on January 20, 1994, I attended a private reunion with Nixon and all of his living cabinet members on the 25th anniversary of his presidential inauguration. At the end of Nixon's remarks that day, his administration alumni joined him onstage for a group photograph. When the program adjourned, Nixon stood at the side of the stage greeting guests and signing autographs. I was in his receiving line and (yet again) just about to meet him when my friend Bob Finch, Nixon's former Secretary of Health education, and Welfare (and the man who gave me the ticket to the event) called me aside to introduce me to some of his former White House colleagues. While I spoke with Bob and his friends, Nixon's security detail led him away. Once again, I had missed meeting Nixon, which was becoming a monotonous habit.
My disappointment evaporated when Bob gave me some great news. He said that he had talked to Nixon about me earlier that morning and of my oft-frustrated desire to meet him to discuss his career in politics and seek his advice for a contemplated future in elective office. Bob said that Nixon planned to return to the library for an intimate dinner with a few friends on June 16, and that the former president had invited me personally to join him. "Nixon told me to tell you that at your dinner, you can ask him questions until you get bored!" Bob said.
Finally, my chance to not just meet Richard Nixon, but to spend time talking with him, would come, and the opportunity couldn't be timelier. A little more than a month after this Nixon Library reunion, I stepped down from the bench and announced my candidacy for the California legislature in a special election to fill a vacant seat. I couldn't wait for the day to come.
• • •
When Richard Nixon left the stage at his presidential library on that 25th anniversary of his inaugural, he walked to the nearby courtyard to visit his wife's grave before departing. Three months later, he rested beside her. He died at age 81 on April 22, 1994 of complications following a stroke. The speech Nixon delivered at that anniversary celebration was his final public address. Sadly, our June 1994 dinner never occurred.
Once again, I had missed him.