A Kid in the White House

Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series
Written by: Matt Kelly

Twenty years ago, Ken Griffey Jr. captured the hearts of Presidential campaign voters

After nearly a year on the campaign trail, Super Tuesday has arrived. Thirteen states will cast their primary votes March 1, and the major candidates from both sides of the aisle – along with an assortment of super PACs – have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in political advertisements.

This year’s crop of presidential hopefuls is long on personality. But their ads don’t have quite the same home-run pop as those of another former “candidate”; a man whose unlikely run for President captivated the grandstand electorate 20 years ago.

Of course, baseball fans know that one major election has already been decided this year. Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza punched their tickets to Cooperstown as the newest members of the Hall of Fame back on Jan. 6, with Griffey rocking a record 99.3 percent of the BBWAA vote. But back in 1996, Griffey was also hoping to win over voters, albeit in a slightly more tongue-in-cheek way.

Fans who grew up in the 1990s will undoubtedly recognize the significance of a “Griffey in ’96” button housed in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s collection. It’s a perfect symbol of Griffey’s popularity by 1996, when he announced his presidential candidacy in a fictional television ad campaign with Nike.

There were a number of hurdles standing between The Kid and the White House. Time constraints were certainly one of them, as he was trying to lead the Mariners back to the playoffs and beyond where his magical American League Divisional Series performance had led them the year before. The U.S. Constitution was another – it states that the President must be at least 35 years of age, and Griffey was only 26.

Despite these minor quibbles, some major names from the political world and beyond were inspired by Griffey’s platforms of more home runs and endless games of pepper. Political strategist James Carville, who had successfully advised President Bill Clinton’s victory just four years before, seemingly switched to the outsider Griffey over the incumbent in ’96.

“People don’t want someone coming out of left field,” said Carville, a Democrat, in one Nike ad, “And they sure don’t want someone who plays too far right. Griffey’s in the center (field), perfectly positioned.”

The candidate’s staff got a major boost with the addition of campaign manager George Clinton – yes, that George Clinton, of Parliament-Funkadelic music group fame. It turns out the colorful singer thought Griffey could bring a lot to the table.

“Junior has everything you look for in a President,” Clinton explained. “The power of a young Teddy Roosevelt, combined with the throwing arm of a Roberto Clemente. He knows what this country needs.

“My name might be Clinton,” he continued, “but I know what I’m talking about. Vote Griffey.”

The Seattle superstar tabbed the Mariners mascot, Moose, to be his running mate – a move Clinton said showed “his consideration for animal rights.” He also showed strong electability among Hall of Famers:

He is a fabulous American hero, and there hasn’t been anyone like him since, well, Reggie Jackson."

Reggie Jackson on Ken Griffey Jr.'s White House prospects

But maybe Griffey himself summed up his campaign best when he said, “We need someone who can hit a Mark Langston overhand curve ball.”

Bill Clinton, as expected, was re-nominated for the Democratic ticket, while Bob Dole carried the Republican primaries. But as the summer wore on, ‘Griffey in ’96’ bumper stickers began popping up on the highways, as did roadside rallies in battleground states. On the diamond, Griffey was delivering on his home run promise, smashing his way to a then-career high 49 round-trippers. Meanwhile, Nike copywriter Hank Perlman was seeing a perfect opportunity for baseball to represent the desires of American voters.

"Consciously or subconsciously, we are holding up a mirror to the political process and the way that pop culture and politics comes together in our country," Perlman told The Washington Post. "We want people to write in (Griffey’s) name. I think we'll do well in the South, I'll think we'll do well in Seattle."

Despite his overwhelming popularity, Griffey, like any presidential candidate, had his detractors. Republican candidate Steve Forbes opined, “I think Ken Griffey is spending too much time on the field, and not enough time on issues, like the flat tax.” Meanwhile, rapper Ice-T claimed Junior’s campaign was “nothin’ but a big marketing scheme” (though Nike Chairman Phil Knight quickly downplayed that notion).

Candidate Griffey even faced opposition within his own party – the baseball party, that is – when Nike rival Fila put forth its own candidate: Hall of Famer Eddie Murray. In the first national ad appearances of his career, the quiet Murray let the voice-over artists do the talking in a series of “attack ads” against the younger slugger.

“Fact: In 1977, Eddie was putting on his first uniform,” said one commercial. “His opponent? His jammies.”

In the end, the good-natured back-and-forth was a winner for all parties. Nike enjoyed a sales boost for its Air Max Griffey cross-trainer sneakers while Fila continued its rapid rise in the industry. Junior, meanwhile, did not win the election – instead choosing to focus his attention on the season’s stretch run. His campaign did, however, help raise his national profile right before his incredible 1997 AL MVP season and 1998 home run chase with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. He even received something that not even his advisors Clinton or Carville could have envisioned: An actual write-in vote in the 1996 Rhode Island Democratic Primary.

It seems at least one Rhode Islander was convinced by Griffey’s campaign mantra: “We’re not a nation of individuals, we’re one big American League.”

Matt Kelly is the communications specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series