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Our Sporting Presidents
Most of our Presidents have been avid athletes, even Taft. Could a party safely nominate an overweight and unabashed couch potato who scorned exercise?
September 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 5
Right now, of course, it is the coming election that provides most of the material on which this column casts its regular history-conscious eye. But not this time. September is the month of pennant races, and I’ve got baseball as well as Presidents on my mind. I phrase the question of the hour not as “Will George Bush be re-elected?” but rather as “Will George Bush or his opponent toss out the first ball of the 1993 season?”
The presidential opening-day pitch was one of the standard photo opportunities of April until some twenty years ago. Whether he liked the game or not, the Chief Executive showed up to make the toss from his field box to the catcher standing a few feet in front of him. The game would begin, and the President would stay for a couple of innings and even eat a hot dog before the limousine whisked him back to the burdens of leadership. It was good politics, indisputable proof that the First Citizen was a “regular” American.
It was easier, of course, when Washington, D.C., had a team, the Senators, who performed at Griffith Stadium, only a few minutes’ ride from the White House. And not only the White House. On any afternoon during the long season, one could find Supreme Court justices, cabinet secretaries, and other dignitaries in the stands. Legend has it that on occasions when congressional committees lacked a quorum, sergeants at arms were dispatched to the park to round up the necessary number.
Since major-league baseball left Washington after 1971, bereft capital fans have had to make the thirty-mile trip to Baltimore. Thousands do so, but the presidential first-ball overture is now observed only sporadically. A pity too—it would not even require taking Air Force One out of the hangar.
Baseball’s infinite capacity for awakening philosophical reflections leads on to some broader generalizations. The presidential office itself has played a number of roles in the national culture, and some of them are reflected in what might be called the sporting life of White House occuoants.
I was curious to know, for example, which President was the first to throw out the opening-day ball. A little research in Dr. Harold Seymour’s scholarly history of the game provided an answer that surprised me. It was William Howard Taft, in 1910. Taft? A man of judicial temperament and elephantine size, he seemed, to me, too solemn, too simply massive to take interest in trivial pursuits. But, in fact, as a schoolboy in Cincinnati (home of the first avowedly all-professional “Base Ball” team) Taft played, and played well. He was a decent fielder and hitter, according to William DeGregorio’s Complete Book of U.S. Presidents , though his size even then kept him from being much of a base runner. His love of the game was lifelong, and he allegedly introduced it to the Philippine Islands when he was governor-general from 1900 to 1904.
Taft’s pleasure in the game was equaled by that of Woodrow Wilson, who was not only a fan but likewise a one-time player—second baseman for the Light Foot Base Ball Club of Augusta, Georgia. Wilson watched the Senators now and again and even traveled to Philadelphia in 1915 to catch some of the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Phillies. Warren G. Harding seems to have enjoyed baseball too, as much as he relished whiskey and poker. From Taft through Harding the string of genuine presidential baseball lovers was unbroken. That should come as no surprise, for 1909 to 1923 was the threshold of baseball’s golden era, the very years in which the game was catching on as the national pastime, and Presidents rarely get to where they are by being out of step with popular enthusiasms.
Of course, once the President is installed, he must lead as well as reflect public tastes. This obligation has created two of many presidential sporting masks. In this day of mass-audience televised spectator sports, he is, on great occasions, Principal Fan. And in the era of fitness fixation, he has also become Exerciser in Chief.
Richard Nixon took the First Fan role beyond the baseball diamond when he initiated the practice of the locker-room call to the winner of football’s Super Bowl. Nixon “followed” baseball knowledgeably but was truly addicted to football despite—or perhaps because of—having played it, by his own definition “not very successfully,” as a scrub lineman at Whittier College.
Before Super Bowls began in January of 1967, Presidents did have (and still have) a well-covered annual football date at the Army-Navy game at Philadelphia, but that was essentially a gesture of respect to our professional officer corps. The Presidents are supposed to be scrupulously neutral, and that could not have been easy for Dwight Elsenhower. He played for West Point (class of 1915) until permanently sidelined by a knee injury. Presumably, Jimmy Carter, who graduated from Annapolis (where he ran cross-country), felt 180 degrees the opposite. The only other service-academy graduate to live in the White House, Ulysses S. Grant, had no problem. His term was over two years before the first intercollegiate football game took place.