JFK series: Hennepin County attorney Mike Freeman’s father’s boss was President Kennedy

by Howard Lestrud

ECM Political Editor

There are not too many people who can claim that their father’s boss was former President John F. Kennedy.

Mike Freeman, 64, the Hennepin County attorney,  can make that claim. His father, former Minnesota Gov. Orville Freeman, served as secretary of agriculture under Kennedy and former President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The younger Freeman has some fond memories of his father’s service in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

President John F. Kennedy
President John F. Kennedy

He especially remembers going to a baseball opening game at D.C. Stadium in Washington, D.C., on April 9, 1962, between the Washington Senators and the Detroit Tigers. Kennedy threw out the first pitch preceding that game. This game saw the debut of the new D.C. Stadium, home field for the fledgling Senators, in their second season as the American League’s second Senators franchise.

Kennedy asked then Secretary Orville Freeman and Mike Freeman, then 13, to join him in the presidential box. Orville Freeman and his son arrived late due the secretary’s meeting with Congress on a business issue. Because of their late arrival, they were unable to be seated in the presidential box, which was full.

Mike Freeman did get a chance to shake the president’s hand and then went with his father to special folding-chair seating on the field. During the game, won by the Senators, 4-1, the umpire tossed used balls to an area near the younger Freeman. He managed to field one and kept it as a collector’s item.

An artists rendering of Orville Freeman.
An artists rendering of Orville Freeman.

An Associated Press story by Frederic J. Frommer recounted Kennedy’s involvement in opening day ceremonies: Charlie Brotman, the longtime public address announcer for the Senators, handled the logistics of Kennedy’s opening-day toss. Brotman recalled looking for the president in the dugout before the 1962 opener, but not finding him anywhere.

“And so now I’m panicking a little bit,” Brotman said. “I went down the passageway from the dugout to the locker room to see if he’s there. Midway down the passageway, there is President Kennedy, smoking a big cigar, all by himself, no security, no friends, just relaxing and having the time of his life. And I said, ‘Mr. President, it’s time to go to work.’ He said, ‘OK,’ snuffed out the cigar, and I escorted him to the box seats. And he had a wonderful time.”

Brotman reported that Kennedy looked confident as he made the toss from behind the Senators dugout, surrounded by then Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress. But he was not as self-assured when a foul ball came screeching into his box.

According to The New York Times, as the towering foul headed toward Kennedy in the fourth inning, his special assistant and longtime friend David Powers blocked the president and the ball bounced off the top of the dugout. The Times’ front-page headline the next day said Kennedy was “Good Pitch, No Field.”

Realizing his son was upset with him for being late for the game, missing some of the opening ceremonies and being unable to sit in the presidential box, Orville Freeman apologized to his son that night and invited his son to go with him the next Saturday to the White House to visit the president. Orville Freeman was meeting with Kennedy to discuss agriculture issues.

First item on the agenda was to have the president sign the baseball Mike Freeman picked up at the opening game. He today cherishes that collectible.

Mike Freeman remembers the president asking him about school and said he could sit on a love seat while he and Orville Freeman talked agriculture. The younger Freeman said the discussion went on for about 40 minutes. Kennedy and his cabinet chief talked about the wheat bill and surpluses.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, whose father, Orville Freeman was Secretary of Agriculture under President John F. Kennedy.

“I knew my father was plenty smart, but I was amazed at how smart the president was about agriculture,” Mike Freeman recalled.

Following the discussion, Kennedy asked the younger Freeman what he thought of the meeting. He told the president how impressed he was about his knowledge of agriculture issues. The president’s reaction, according to Mike Freeman, was: “Orville, you trained your boy well.”

Mike Freeman was elected to the Minnesota Senate in 1982 and served there until 1991. He was elected Hennepin County Attorney in 1990, serving until 1999. He again ran and was elected county attorney by a wide margin in 2006, after incumbent Amy Klobuchar chose to run for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Mark Dayton. Last fall, Klobuchar was elected to a second term in the U.S. Senate.

Freeman ran twice unsuccessfully for governor of Minnesota – in 1994 and in 1998. Freeman received a B.A. from Rutgers University in 1970 and a J.D. from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1974. He and his wife Teresa have three children.