: August 26, 2008
Presidents and Baseball by Frank Ceresi
Our Readers' Submissions Vault
With the Democratic National Convention opening last night, we thought it appropriate to run this article on U.S. presidents and baseball, which first ran in our pages on February 5, 2000. The author is the curator of the National Sports Gallery in Washington, D.C.
"When I was a small boy in Kansas, a friend and I went fishing and as we sat there in the warmth of the summer afternoon on the riverbank, we talked about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I told him that I wanted to be a real major league baseball player, a genuine professional like Honus Wagner. My friend said that he\'d like to be President of the United States. Neither of us got our wish." -- Dwight D. Eisenhower
Less than a month ago, the first President of the 21st century was sworn in about a mile up the road from the National Sports Gallery at the United States Capitol in downtown Washington, D.C. What better way for us to celebrate this historic occasion than by showcasing a very special exhibit that can help define two of the most passionate interests in American culture -- presidential politics and the joys of sport. I always enjoy unveiling exhibits for my friends at SCD, but I must admit this one is really special.
It has been said that the term sportsmanship may be applied to most everything in life itself. Let\'s consider how sports and politics often merge. Well, we like our athletes as well as our statesmen to win without boasting or lose without offering excuses. The true sportsman, like the politician with presidential ambitions, plays hard in order to win, but respects his opponent and accepts defeat, if it comes, gracefully. Thus, it is that ideal of sport, sometimes applicable to politics as well, that we collectively cheer and that can draw us, as a people, closer together. It is no wonder that many who have succeeded in politics have often grown and developed as a result of their experiences, either as a spectator or player on the athletic field . . . whether that field is a golf course, tennis court or baseball diamond.
Presidents and the Games They Play
I have had an enormous amount of pleasure researching background material for the exhibit that we have assembled. Additionally, through cooperation with many other museums, private collectors and Presidential Libraries, we have uncovered some exquisite artifacts that have never been publicly viewed before. Let me give you a few quick examples. Many of you know that President George Bush had previously played baseball in college. Did you know that he led his Yale University team to the very first NCAA baseball championship series in 1947? He did, and was captain of the team, and we have a baseball signed by the entire team including the future President! Our 43rd President will be shortly moving into the White House. What about some of our nation\'s previous Presidents?
President Taft is well known for originating the tradition of the President throwing out the first ball to open each year\'s major league baseball season. What you might not know is that this same President -- a large man at that -- loved sports, won a tug of war competition at Yale University and later wrote a heartfelt poem, "Ode to Fishing," rhapsodizing about his lifelong passion for fishing the coastal waters of the Atlantic Ocean. We have the poem as well as his golf gear and a baseball signed President Taft. That historical piece, signed and dated May 2, 1910 by Taft himself, is the earliest known presidential signature on a baseball.
Though the "presidential first pitch" is now cemented as an American ritual of spring, Presidents have long enjoyed playing ball with their contemporaries. In fact, did you know that in 1778, at Valley Forge, a Revolutionary soldier under the command of General George Washington wrote in his journal perhaps the earliest known reference to the game of baseball? It\'s true, as the soldier dutifully reported that the troops played what would be later called "baseball" and that the General himself actually enjoyed playing ball with his aides.
Who were some of the outstanding all-around sportsmen who later became Presidents? It turns out that several of the Presidents were excellent athletes and avid sportsmen. Andrew Jackson, who has been called the most macho of all United States Presidents, was a rigorous outdoorsman in every sense of the word. He was called a "cool and expert shot," he fought and won duels regularly, and at age 14 was known as an excellent horse rider. Thirty years later in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, an imposing 6 feet 4 inch man, was known as a great wrestler who very early on earned an awesome reputation for his physical prowess by defeating a local street fighter named Jack Armstrong. Lincoln also mastered billiards and enjoyed handball while in the White House.
Interestingly, although Abe\'s interest in baseball is well documented, a legend, probably false, has been published for years that Abraham himself was playing baseball -- or town ball, an ancestor of the game -- when a delegation of political cronies told him excitedly that he had been chosen to run for President on the Republican ticket. "I am glad to hear of their coming," Lincoln supposedly said, "but they will have to wait a few minutes while I have another turn at bat." Yeah, right! That\'s about as believable as Abner Doubleday "inventing" the game of baseball on a lazy Sunday in Cooperstown.
What about our 20th century and more contemporary Presidents? Any discussion about presidential interest in sports should absolutely include Teddy Roosevelt. Not only was he an expert horseman who enjoyed all outdoor activity but he also wrestled, played golf and even baseball. As a young man at Harvard, Teddy actually started the rowing team as a student. Further, old "Rough and Ready" as President was interested enough in football that he actually convened a White House Conference to "save the sport" after several college players were critically injured on the playing field. When many were calling for the game\'s abolition, the White House Conference, with Pop Warner and Walter Camp at the helm, helped restore the game to prominence.
The list goes on and on. Young Ike Eisenhower, while a cadet at West Point a few short years after the Conference, was the team\'s first string punter and a defensive back. He was no slouch but eventually crumbled on the field trying to tackle the great Jim Thorpe when the Carlisle Indians shocked Army and beat them on their own field. President Roosevelt\'s efforts to clean up college football also allowed a young man at Michigan to gain fame 30 years after that White House Conference. Rugged Gerald Ford, who enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for grit and determination on the gridiron during college football\'s rough and tumble heyday in the 1930\'s, was a fine offensive lineman. The great Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich told me years ago that he thought Ford could have been successful as a professional football player had he wanted. Forget the popular notion of Jerry Ford as a bumbling golfer during his presidency (okay . . . golf wasn\'t his game), the man was a great athlete.
Bill Mead and Paul Dickson in their classic book Baseball: The President\'s Game rightfully called President George Bush "the natural." There is no question but that President Bush was the best ballplayer, who thereafter became President, in our history. Bush was born with a deep love of the game of baseball. His father, Prescott Bush, batted clean-up on the 1917 Yale team while his mother played softball in Kennebunkport. Growing up, George Bush dreamed of playing first base like Yankee Lou Gehrig while rooting for the beloved Boston Red Sox. Directly after World War II, Bush entered Yale, played first base for the varsity team and "Poppy" captained the Yale ball club to two championship series in 1947 and 1948. Like his idol Gehrig, George played in every game for his entire collegiate career. As I mentioned before, we have the Yale team-signed ball and other treasures from the President\'s playing days. Unfortunately, baseball is like politics and life itself . . . "Poppy\'s" team made it to the last game of the championship series both years but, alas, lost!
Even though baseball is our national pastime, many Presidents from the 20th century found relaxation on the golf course. One of the truly unique items found in our exhibit is the most unusual golf club I have ever seen. It seems that President Taft loved to fish and watch baseball but eventually took up the game of golf during his retirement. As he began to master the golf links, the former President eventually had his favorite fishing pole fashioned as a golf club and, as history tells us, the big man developed a pretty mean stroke with his "fishing pole club." You should see it. It\'s a hoot!
Similarly, Presidents such as Woodrow Wilson, Ike Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon tried their hand at golf, some more successful than others. It turns out that presidential style often mirrors athletic ability because it has been said that Wilson, though "creative," was a "plodder" on the golf course, Ike was an excellent golfer who was "amiable and sincere" on the links, JFK played with "extraordinary style" as a young man at his local private golf club, and Richard Nixon was "dogged, determined, but a mediocre golfer at best." Oh, I shouldn\'t forget that President Clinton reportedly has a penchant for sneaking an extra "gimme shot" on a regular basis!
Thanks to the generosity of the United States Golf Association, our exhibit features golf clubs, programs and scorecards from every President from the 20th century. We also uncovered several spectacular golf trophies from various Presidential Libraries. Just to whet your appetite, I must mention that we have a trophy presented to President Woodrow Wilson by France in 1919 commemorating his love of the game of golf, President Eisenhower\'s Ben Hogan trophy presented to him in 1954 as he recovered from a stroke by exercising on the golf course, and even a startling relic over a century old . . . President Franklin Roosevelt\'s own championship trophy won at Coppabella in 1897, a championship won some 40 years prior to being stricken by polio.
Some Additional Unique Artifacts
I know that most readers of the Sports Collectors Digest love sport artifacts as much as I do but don\'t have the opportunity to gaze at this exhibit on a daily basis, so I must tell you about a few more items that we have uncovered:
* As I mentioned before, President Andrew Jackson was a vigorous man among men. We have his privately owned copy of a book commemorating the great English boxer Tom Cribb . . . and it\'s signed!
* Remember the legend of Abraham Lincoln playing ball in Springfield, Illinois during the Republican Convention? Well, we have a Courier and Ives print from 1860, Lincoln\'s first year in office, showing him in a baseball setting getting the better of his rivals for the presidency.
* Most people have a vague recollection of Rutherford B. Hayes but know little of his life except that he was a President sometime in the very distant past. It turns out, old Rutherford and his family were avid baseball fans. One of my favorite artifacts in the entire exhibit is the Rutherford Hayes family scrapbook which followed the exploits of their favorite ball team. When I obtained this spectacular artifact, I was overjoyed to see that the ball club the family followed was the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball\'s first professional team! Did Hayes ever actually see the great George Wright play? Who knows, but I couldn\'t believe my eyes as I leafed through the pages to discover that the Hayes family actually clipped out each victory during the team\'s spectacular undefeated season.
* Everyday, when I drive to work, I can see the White House lawn. You can imagine how much fun it is to be able to gaze at President Teddy Roosevelt\'s baseball bat that he used on the White House lawn during his presidency. Oh, yes, the bat does look nicely "game used."
* I have already mentioned that we have uncovered the earliest known baseball signed by a President, namely President Taft, from 1910. That\'s pretty rare, but how about this: We also have a baseball signed by King George of England presented to his friend Woodrow Wilson and, even more amazing, we have President Calvin Coolidge\'s own signed basketball!
There are many other items in the exhibit and we are constantly upgrading our collection. It is running through the Inauguration and into the spring of 2001, so please visit if you are in town. If anyone has any questions or comments about this interesting topic or, in fact, have a "national treasure" that you would like to see displayed in the nation\'s capital, please feel free to contact me.
» Frank Ceresi is the curator of the National Sports Gallery in Washington, DC.