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Mitchell Has Held Interest in Sports for Half a Century : Baseball: Maine senator is leaving politics "to consider other challenges," perhaps as commissioner of the National Pastime.


Sen. George Mitchell, D-Maine, probably is going to be the next commissioner of baseball, but no stain on his character--or reservation about his suitability--is intended in noting that his earliest sporting influence came from basketball.

In the late 1940s, when Mitchell was a teen-ager, pro basketball had a slight toehold in Boston, and none at all in central Maine, where Mitchell grew up. But semipro basketball flourished. One of the best semipro players was John (Swisher) Mitchell, George's older brother, a small, deft ball-handling guard. Swisher, who starred at the University of Rhode Island, is said to be the only college player to hold Holy Cross' Bob Cousy to less than 10 points.

In those postwar years Swisher organized semipro teams that barnstormed through Maine. The players, mostly former college players, including another Mitchell brother, Robbie, were paid $50 or $60 a game and a hotel room. The youngest member of the entourage, however, was paid almost nothing and forced to carry equipment. Once, when a car broke down near the Canadian border, he was sent home on a bus. George Mitchell, short and slow afoot, was considered more a manager than a player. He didn't mind that. But he minded one aspect of the arrangement.

"I had to stay in the homes of the local promoters," says Mitchell, 60, the memory galling more than 45 years later. "My brothers and the other players lodged at the hotels. I guess my brother figured he could save a few dollars."

Money was indeed a factor, Swisher recalls. But so was seniority, as well as an incipient threat to young George's innocence. As Swisher tells it, Maine's small-town hotels were veritable dens of iniquity.

"George was low man on the Mitchell brothers totem poll," Swisher says. "Besides, my mother would have killed me if George had got corrupted."

Semipro basketball barnstorming may not have put much money in George Mitchell's pocket, and it did not gain him entry to the hotel rooms of his adolescent fantasy. But it enabled the future senator to get out of his hometown of Waterville and explore his vast home state.

"George always was outward looking, even then," Swisher says.

George Mitchell appears not to have changed much. This spring he announced he is leaving the Senate, at the end of his term, January 1995, "to consider other challenges." He also removed himself from the top of President Clinton's list to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. The reason he gave is he wants to focus on legislation.

Both decisions stunned the political world, but in George Mitchell's quiet way they made sense. As baseball commissioner, he will routinely barnstorm 28 major league cities. He won't have to carry equipment or be sent home if a car breaks down. He will lodge in the plushest suites in the most luxurious hotels and get the best seat in every ballpark. The teen-age boy inside of him should be fulfilled. At long last, he will be high man on a totem poll at the center of America's biggest and best party.

To understand why Mitchell might want to be baseball commissioner, you first must know that for millions of first-generation Americans, sports once was the transforming experience. In an earlier era, before multiculturalism became an end in itself, immigrant families strived to be American. When Americanism was in full flower, in Mitchell's youth, where did it exist more tangibly than at the heart of the national pastime? Who was more American than the commissioner of baseball?

"Sports have meant so much to this family," Swisher Mitchell says. "Sports lifted us up."

On a cloudy spring afternoon, Swisher Mitchell shows me the important places of his brother's youth. First, the old Lebanese neighborhood in Waterville, now a sloping green field and a parking lot between the Kennebec River and the Maine Central Railroad tracks. Here, Swisher says, their parents settled in the late 1920s. George Mitchell Sr., the orphaned son of Irish immigrants and adopted son of Lebanese immigrants, and Mary Saad, his Lebanese wife, had four boys and a girl. Paul, John, Robbie and George, the youngest boy, followed by their sister, Barbara. George Sr., who spoke fluent French and Arabic, held jobs as a laborer and janitor. Mary Saad, who never learned to read English, worked a graveyard shift in cloth mills.

When George was a small boy, they moved into a larger house on Front Street, on the other side of the tracks, closer to St. Joseph's Maronite Church, where George became an altar boy. During World War II, George and his friends sat on the Mitchells' front porch and waved to soldiers in the transport trains. The two-story frame house still stands, distinguished by its plainness and one curiously ornate leaded window.

Not far away lived the town's dominant ethnic group, the French Canadians, and farther on was a Jewish neighborhood. Ethnic peace prevailed, usually, and many of the town's ethnic youth congregated at a Boys Club to play basketball.

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