Willie Morris and George H.W. Bush: A friendship

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Courtesy of Willie Morris family

George H.W. Bush signed and sent this photo to Mississippi author Willie Morris as part of their ongoing correspondence. In the photo, taken in 1948, baseball legend Babe Ruth donates his autobiography manuscript to Yale University, represented by its baseball captain, Bush, who would become the 41st president of the United States. Ruth died two months later.

George H.W. Bush, 41st president of the United States, was a New Englander by birth, educated at Yale, and transplanted to Texas. He was wealthy, politically conservative and a staunch Republican.

Writer Willie Morris was born in Yazoo City, educated at the University of Texas and Oxford, England. He never was wealthy. He was a liberal Democrat.

Rick Cleveland

Despite their decidedly different backgrounds and politics, Bush and Morris were friends. For all their differences, they shared two passions: sports, baseball in particular, and books. They also shared at least one trait: They were letter writers – and that was how they came to know one another. They were pen pals. And they shared friends: Mississippi congressmen Thad Cochran (later a Senator) and the late Sonny Montgomery.

Morris died in 1999, far too soon, at the age of 64. He would have turned 84 last week. Bush died last Friday at age 94. Funerals for Bush are today (in Washington D.C.) and Thursday (in Texas).

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In the photo above, taken on June 8, 1948, baseball’s all-time legend Babe Ruth, stooped and ailing from cancer, hands the manuscript of his autobiography to Yale baseball captain George Herbert Walker Bush, the team’s first baseman, who was 23 at the time.

Ruth would die only nine weeks later.

Forty-two years later, President Bush would send a signed copy of the photo to Mississippi writer Willie Morris, as part of their on-going correspondence that apparently began when Bush was a U.S. Congressman in 1968 and lasted until the time of Morris’s death in 1999.

Their correspondence, much of it stored in the Willie Morris special collections at the Ole Miss Library, gives us a window into both men, as thoughtful as they were intelligent. Both dearly loved baseball.

Their correspondence apparently began in 1968, a year after Morris’s heralded memoir North Toward Home was published in 1967. Bush wrote Morris what amounts to a fan letter.

The letter begins:

Dear Willie Morris,

We have never met, and I am sorry about that. I have just read “North Toward Home.”

Bush goes on to give a book report – a review, really – of Morris’s book. A “fan letter book report,” Bush calls it.

Willie Morris

The author Willie Morris has a warm sense of humor – it makes things come alive. He loves people and sport, and though he is now a high-powered New York literary type, he still cares. I doubt he will forget what a line drive double to left feels like.

Bush nailed Willie Morris right there: warm, funny, loves people and sport. And it seems, from reading Bush’s letters to Morris, those same words also could accurately describe our 41st president.

Later in that first letter, Bush writes: I know a lot of the people in this book. I agree with the author on some of them, but I’d probably disagree with him on some conclusions. I have agonizingly concluded that many among the most dedicated liberals can be suspicious and uncompromisingly arrogant. … I am inclined to feel he reserves his strongest criticism for the conservatives without laying it on those liberals who are so damned sure they are right. The right wing is guilty of this, but so, I feel, is the left. Willie Morris is kinder to the left.

That is as contentious as Bush gets.

In conclusion, North Toward Home is a great and sensitive book. In a way it is a hopeful book …. Willie Morris makes you want to have a beer with him and talk. He doesn’t sound scary and big use words. End of report.

Bush concludes that first letter: Should you come to Washington, I would like to buy you lunch and introduce you to a couple of young congressmen (Republicans at that) who care – George Bush.

Their correspondence continued through Bush’s terms in congress, his vice-presidency for eight years and then his presidency.

In one of vice-president Bush’s letters, written on the back of an itinerary, he writes of his appreciation for Morris’s book Always Stand In Against the Curve.

The Willie Morris family

President George H.W. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch before a baseball game between the Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays in April 1990 at Toronto’s Skydome. He later autographed this photo and sent it to Willie Morris.

Bush writes: Pardon the stationery. I’m riding on AFII with Prime Minister Ghandi. He’s resting. I am reading Stand in Against the Curve.

In that letter, Bush writes about his participation in an old timers game at Denver when he batted against his hero, Warren Spahn. I hadn’t swung a bat in years, never under the arcs. I popped up. Then I lined a single off Milt Pappas.

Later, Bush writes: I called my kids, all grown men, to tell them. They didn’t care at all. Never mind, I’ll never forget it.

In Bush’s letters and notes to Morris, he sometimes wrote of the pressures and demands of his job, mixed with his appreciation of sports and Morris’s work.

On Jan. 7, 1990, just before taking over the presidency and just after reading Morris’s Good Old Boy, Bush wrote: Tough days ahead, but I am now getting excited about moving down the hall and getting to work. If it weren’t for the damned deficit, I’d be kicking up my heels and feeling like a spring colt. I do feel the potential out there for a more peaceful world is pretty good. I’ll work hard, after a proper review, to move our relations with the Soviets along on a prudent course. I am very impressed with Mr. Gorbachov. . . . At home I’ll push for a kinder, gentler nation, but for those who measure that solely in terms of federal money there may be disappointment (deficit, deficit, deficit).

Bush closes: Why unload all this on you when I simply write to say “Thanks and good luck!” Sincerely, George Bush.

JoAnne Prichard Morris, Willie’s wife, recalls fondly how her husband enjoyed the back and forth with Bush. “Clearly, they enjoyed one another’s company, even if it was mostly in letters,” JoAnne Morris says. “Anyone who knows anything about the politics of either Willie or Bush knows they mostly disagreed. But they had common ground in sports, particularly baseball, and in their love for books and people.”

Willie and JoAnne did visit the White House in 1990 at Bush’s invitation for a state dinner for the king and queen of Jordan. They arrived at the east gate at the White House where secret service required two forms of identification. Willie’s old friends will love this: He used his driver’s license and his ACLU membership card.

“We really did have a good time,” JoAnne says.

On the way out, Willie told Barbara Bush: “It was a long way to come to dinner, but it was worth it.”

Willie often sent Bush books – and not only his own. He sent Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and, naturally, the 1990 edition of  Baseball Encyclopedia and The Art of Baseball. Later, he sent his own It’s Only a Game.

In thanks, Bush sent Willie a special edition Topp’s baseball card of Bush at Yale. In December of 1992, near the end of his presidency, Bush wrote: Dear Willie, Sonny brought me It’s Only a Game. Thanks for the book. Thanks for the kind inscription. Now on the future – I wish I’d taken a seminar or two on writing from Prof Willie Morris. The book goes with me on long flight today. I hope our paths cross in ’93, a year that will see great change for Barbara and me – a year that I hope is a happy one for you.

 

P.S. Willie, here is a baseball card, one of a hundred. I want you to have it. I saw where one was priced at several thousand. Don’t choke on my batting average.

 

We can only imagine Willie’s laughter at that last line. And we can only wish we could read Willie’s side of all this correspondence.

At a time when politics and politicians can be so vile and vicious, we also long for kinder and gentler times and for a more dignified and civil discourse.