Our Sporting Presidents

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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.

Are there any Presidents who brought distinguished professional sports credentials to the White House? Not quite yet. It is only recently that fame on the playing field has led directly to high-level political office. Perhaps Sen. Bill Bradley (New York Knicks basketball) or Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp (Buffalo Bills football) will someday become President, but in the meantime, the winner of a contest for pre-presidential athletic laurels would most likely be Gerald Ford. He was center on the University of Michigan’s 1932 to 1934 teams, not quite an ail-American but good enough to be chosen the Wolverines’ Most Valuable Player in 1934 and to play on the College All-Star team the next year. George Bush might contend for runner-up collegiate honors. He was a good-field, fair-hit (.280) second baseman on a Yale team that went to the College World Series in 1948 and lost to the University of Southern California.

It is in his personal exercise during office, however, that a President is most representative of us all—or rather, of his own era and upbringing. An intriguing volume edited by Joseph Nathan Kane, called Facts about the Presidents , contains a list of Presidents’ sports and hobbies that gives a capsule view of how differently, over time, these successful, busy American males in mid-life have restored their spirits and bodies.

One must start with George Washington. His favorite outdoor pastime was horseback riding, not unnatural in a Virginia fox hunter and much easier to do in the environs of New York and Philadelphia in the 179Os. Modern Presidents, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, for example, also have ridden but usually at home while on vacation. Fishing enticed the contemplative Jefferson (but also such unphilosophical Presidents as Chester A. Arthur, Herbert Hoover, and Dwight Eisenhower). John Quincy Adams, inaugurated in 1825, enjoyed swimming in the Potomac. Swimming persists as a popular presidential exercise, and the contemporary White House has a pool that John Quincy might have envied. Adams’s fellow Harvard graduate John F. Kennedy made frequent use of it (and swam for the Crimson as an undergraduate), but the best-known presidential swimmer was Franklin D. Roosevelt. The exercise was restorative therapy for his paralyzed legs.

William Howard Taft, a man of judicial temper and elephantine size, turns out to have been a first-rate baseball player and lifelone fan.

Middle-class America as a whole began to take time off for organized play only after the Civil War, and so did their elected chieftains. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-81) is recorded as having liked to play croquet, which is rather a borderline “sport.” It took the twentieth century to introduce golf to the White House, but it caught on very well despite an original flavor of country-clubbiness. Taft played, and so did Wilson. He called it a game in which an elusive ball was knocked into an impossible hole with instruments ill adapted to the purpose. Harding, Coolidge, Elsenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, and Ford all golfed, though it is hard to imagine the unrelaxed Nixon having much fun at it, or anything else for that matter.

The other elite-at-the-beginning sport that found its way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was tennis. Theodore Roosevelt played with a circle of intimates who were dubbed “the tennis cabinet.” In recent times so did Jimmy Carter, and so does Bush. Another upper-crust pastime (slightly democratized in contemporary times) is sailing, which requires access to a shoreline and a healthy wallet. Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy, who qualified on both counts, did a good deal of it. Jimmy Carter contented himself with the modest canoe. Nothing prevents a rich President from playing like one of the boys, and Bush sometimes tosses a plebeian horseshoe. But Harry Truman was the truest democrat of all. His sport was a brisk walk.

Within the last couple of decades, Presidents have been caught up in the intensified public concern about their health. Ford and Carter were runners, as is Bush, and Reagan pumped iron. But individual workouts go back at least sixty or seventy years. Does anyone know that Calvin Coolidge swung Indian clubs and that Hoover tossed a medicine ball? Does anyone know, in this age of high-tech exercise machines, what Indian clubs or medicine balls are ?

What larger message lurks in these nuggets I am not sure, unless they add up to a warning. In the current inexorable search for the ideal presidential character, could a sports peccadillo be the subject of an attack commercial? Could a party safely nominate an overweight and unabashed couch potato who scorned exercise? Would the tabloids be ready to pounce on a front-runner with the discovery that he once moved his golf ball to a better lie when he thought no one was looking? I think caution is definitely in order for the ambitious.