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After graduating from Harvard cum laude. Fish declined an offer to teach history and government at his alma mater and served as secretary to his congressman father. Hamilton Sr. Once back home in Garrison, N.Y., Fish formed a baseball team that played every weekend in a field next to the sprawling family estate. "I broke into politics through baseball," Fish says. "Three or four hundred people would come every Saturday or Sunday we played, and that's how I got known. I played first base, we had a lot of good players, and we won most of the time. We even played in Sing Sing state prison." Fish served in the state assembly from 1914 though 1916 as a member of the Progressive Party, led by former president Theodore Roosevelt.
Assemblyman Fish had been friendly with state senator Franklin Delano Roosevelt of Hyde Park, a fellow Hudson Valley patrician and Harvard graduate. "We became great friends," Fish says. " Franklin Roosevelt was then a line Jeffersonian Democrat. Sometime after he became assistant secretary of the Navy in 1913. he came to me and said, "I want you to succeed me in the state senate. I'll get you the Democratic support, you have the independents, and most of the Republicans will vote for you anyway.' I said. 'Thank you very much. I'd love to do it. but I can't do it because I intend to enlist for the war.' "
Fish served as a captain in a National Guard unit that would become the legendary 369th Infantry, a black regiment from Harlem. During its training in Spartanburg, S.C., the 369th was stationed next to an all-white regiment from the Deep South. Ugly words were exchanged that eventually led to the southern regiment's threatening to attack the black soldiers. The lore of the 369th has it that Captain Fish offered to settle matters once and for all by challenging three officers to a fistfight.
"The newspapers said I challenged each of them to fight, but that was an exaggeration," Fish says. "The men from the southern regiment had said they would attack us. As captain. I served notice to my men that if we were attacked, we would light to the death. I trained all the men and armed them to attack. Late one night, someone, I don't know who, stupidly blew a bugle. My men came pouring out of their tents ready to fight and kill. I told them to stay where they were, and I went out to meet the southerners. I uncocked my pistol, went out and met several southern officers. Standing in the dark with my cocked pistol. I said. 'You must stop. My troops are under orders to fight to the death. It will simply be a massacre on both sides and one of the worst things to happen to our country.' There was no trouble."
In combat in France with the 369th, Fish won the Silver Star and the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action. When the war was over, Fish served as chairman of the Committee of Three, which wrote the preamble for the newly founded American Legion.
In 1977, filmmaker William Miles used long-forgotten footage to make a movie, Men of Bronze, about the 369th. Fish and Ham III attended the premiere together at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. "We sat up in a box with other members of the cast, separated from the rest of the audience in the theater," Ham III recalls. "It was a remarkable and moving film. When the lights went on afterward, the 2,000 people in the audience, many of them liberals from the Upper West Side, turned and looked up at my grandfather and gave him a standing ovation."
After World War I, Fish and Roosevelt remained friendly, but when FDR won the presidency in 1932, the friendship soured. It did not help that Fish was congressman from Roosevelt's Hudson Valley home district. If FDR were alive, he doubtless would have his side of the story about the estrangement, but Fish says, "I put the start of the change in Roosevelt to his work in the Navy in World War I. Money began to mean nothing to him, and he had power. Lord Acton said, 'Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' That's what changed the whole life of the man I was once very fond of and who wanted me to succeed him."
Fish was the ranking minority member on the House of Representatives' Rules and Foreign Affairs committees, which provided him with plenty of power of his own, and he stridently opposed the New Deal almost from the start. He also objected to Roosevelt's effort to pack the Supreme Court, fought against recognition of the Soviet Union, and after World War II began in Europe, accused Roosevelt of attempting to lead the country into the war.
Relations between the two men deteriorated to the point that the president barred Fish from the White House. "Yes, he hated me, and he had a right to," Fish says. "I didn't hate him," he adds with a chortle. "I despised him."
On Oct. 28, 1940, in a campaign speech delivered at Madison Square Garden, FDR scathingly denounced by name his three principal Republican opponents in Congress. The Rooseveltian refrain of "Martin, Barton and Fish," the last name drawn out with almost a hiss—F-i-s-s-s-h-h-h—became part of the national political vocabulary.