Kurt's Historic Sites

Malcolm Baldrige

Malcolm Baldrige

Interment LocationVisited 
Woodbury, CTSeptember 8, 2021 

Photographed September 8, 2021.

Connecticut seems like an odd final resting place for a former ranch hand and inductee of the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. But cowboy Malcolm Baldrige majored in English at Yale University and was chairman and CEO of the Scovill, Inc. brass manufacturing company out of Waterbury. He was also one of the longest-serving members of President Ronald Reagan’s cabinet, his tenure lasting until he participated in one rodeo too many. After his death, the Nebraska-born son of a congressman was buried in his adoptive state, his grave marked by a small boulder near the roadside in the town of Woodbury.

Baldrige put his English degree to use as a cabinet secretary. On his first day at work in January 1981, he was dismayed at the inordinate amount of time he spent reading the Commerce Department’s letters. “The letters were written in such a roundabout manner I sometimes had to read them three times to understand what they said,” Baldrige critiqued. “So I rewrote, circled words and underlined phrases. I decided I couldn’t do that every night, so I called a meeting of the bosses to tell them I wanted writing that got to the point. ‘It can be upsetting,’ I said, ‘when you’ve read through something and don’t know whether the writer meant yes or no. Think about the poor individual on the receiving end. Learn to enjoy the discipline of good prose.'” Summer intern Alan Eisen developed a glossary computer program to help employees adhere to Baldrige’s vision of “simple English” within the department.

Photographed September 8, 2021.
Photographed September 8, 2021.

In keeping with the espoused conservative ethos of shrinking the government, Baldrige’s Commerce Department saw a 30% decrease in its budget, along with a 25% reduction in personnel. He enjoyed excellent rapport with the president, a horse-riding buddy. “Part of his stature,” the New York Times explained, “also comes from his growing importance in Administration economic councils, a role denied many of his predecessors. He is chairman of the Cabinet Council on Commerce and Trade, vice chairman of the Trade Policy Committee, chaired by Trade Representative Bill Brock, and a member of the Cabinet Council on Economic Affairs[.]” Six years later, the same Times journalist wrote a contrasting article that asserted in the early 1980s, Baldrige “was all but ignored within the Reagan Administration when he argued for a tougher trade policy…Officials like David A. Stockman, the budget director; Murray L. Weidenbaum, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers; Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan and Secretary of State George P. Shultz won the day with arguments that trade aggressiveness could distort market forces, raise prices for consumers and cause problems in foreign relations.” However, by 1987, consensus in the cabinet “moved toward [Baldrige], pushed by political realities.” He influenced the cabinet’s advisement for the U.S. to sanction Japanese electronics companies and to restrict importation of machine tools, favoring protectionism.

On July 25, 1987, Baldrige was in Brentwood, California, at the ranch of his friend and frequent calf-roping teammate, Jack Roddy. That day, the commerce secretary practiced ahead of a competition. According to eyewitness Jack Cook, Baldrige had successfully lassoed a calf and jumped from his horse to tie up the bovine. For some reason, the horse bucked. The 1,200-pound sorrel gelding reared up and flipped over, falling atop Baldrige. Badly injured in his abdominal area, Baldrige was airlifted to John Muir Memorial Hospital in Walnut Creek, where surgeons performed surgery on him for three hours. Internal hemorrhaging led to a steady decrease in his blood pressure, followed by cardiac arrest. Of his blunt force trauma, the hospital’s surgery chief, Dr. Ronald LaPorta, postulated, “I guess it was the work of the saddle. He had a very large belt buckle that was on his abdomen that must have been hit by the horn of the saddle . . . . Now whether the belt buckle did it or not, I have no idea.” Whatever the direct cause, Baldrige’s injuries proved fatal at 3:50 p.m. local time. The 64-year-old was the first commerce secretary to die while in office, preceding Ron Brown by nine years.

Photographed September 8, 2021.

Fast Facts

Born: October 4, 1922 in Omaha, Nebraska

Military Rank: Captain — U.S. Army

Political Affiliation: Republican Party

Served in Cabinet of: Ronald Reagan

Cabinet Position: Secretary of Commerce (1981-1987)

ProRodeo Hall of Fame: Class of 1988

Presidential Medal of Freedom: Posthumously Awarded by Ronald Reagan (1988)

Died: July 25, 1987 in Walnut Creek, California

Cause of Death: Cardiac Arrest; Internal Bleeding

Age: 64

Interment: New North Cemetery, Woodbury, Connecticut

"Cowboys don't talk unless they've got something to say."
- Malcolm Baldrige
Photographed May 12, 2024.

The Great Hall of the Commerce Department Building was dedicated to Malcolm Baldrige after his death. The hall later became the White House Visitor Center, operated by the National Park Service. The commemorative engraving pictured here is located by the hall’s entrance at 1450 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

Sources Consulted and Further Reading

Conroy, Sarah Booth. “Baldrige Zaps Useless Words.” Washington Post. January 27, 1983. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1983/01/27/baldrige-zaps-useless-words/12195ef0-6460-49bf-9aa7-76a01312da3d/.

Farnsworth, Clyde H. “COMMERCE CHIEF: Malcolm Baldrige, The Quiet Cowboy.” New York Times. July 26, 1981. Page 8. https://www.nytimes.com/1981/07/26/business/commerce-chief-malcolm-baldrige-the-quiet-cowboy-in-mr-reagan-s-posse.html.

Farnsworth, Clyde H. “The Cabinet’s Trade Hawk Earns His Spurs.” New York Times. May 19, 1987. Section B, page 6. https://www.nytimes.com/1987/05/19/us/washington-talk-profile-cabinet-s-trade-hawk-earns-his-spurs-malcolm-baldrige.html.

Gorney, Cynthia. “BALDRIGE KILLED IN FALL DURING RODEO PRACTICE.” Washington Post. July 26, 1987. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1987/07/26/baldrige-killed-in-fall-during-rodeo-practice/97d9e6bd-586e-409b-b225-47e3aac66ef1/.

Miller, Anthony O. “The horse that fatally crushed Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige….” United Press International. July 26, 1987. https://www.upi.com/Archives/1987/07/26/The-horse-that-fatally-crushed-Commerce-Secretary-Malcolm-Baldrige/7402554270400/.

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