White House Jocks: Presidents and Their Athletic Careers Beforehand

By Arnold Bailey

This is the second part of a two-part series on athletes-turned-politicians. In this segment, Bailey looks at presidents and their athletic careers before they took office. Read the first part HERE

Some U.S. Presidents have been statesmen. Others had special talents in foreign relations or domestic affairs. Wartime presidents needed special leadership abilities. A handful had more than their share of charisma.

And, a surprising number of Presidents brought athletic ability to the White House.
The most athletic of them all might have been Gerald Ford, despite the public perception of the 38th President as awkward or clumsy, like when he fell down the steps of an Air Force One ramp or sliced a golf shot into the fairway crowd.

But when he was a student at the University of Michigan, Ford was a star center and linebacker on two national championship teams and captain of the Wolverines in his senior year. He was good enough on the gridiron that he had offers to turn pro, though he decided instead to attend law school at Yale where he also coached football. Ford’s football image is recorded for posterity in a 2002 Michigan Legacy series.

A famous photo is the meeting between Babe Ruth and future president George H.W. Bush while he was a first baseman at Yale.

Yale also was the alma mater of the 41st President, George H. W. Bush. The same man who celebrated his 85th birthday by skydiving had, as a youth, captained both the soccer and baseball teams in prep school. He took the same leadership role in baseball at Yale. He was a solid hitter and good-fielding first baseman who led the baseball Bulldogs to the first two College World Series.

Most collectors are familiar with the photo that records the meeting between Bush, in his Yale baseball uniform, with Babe Ruth. The elder Bush’s image even found its way onto a few baseball cards, including the Megacards Babe Ruth series.

Many will recall that Dwight Eisenhower always seemed to find time to pursue his interest in golf while also handling the responsibilities of the nation’s 34th President. He was often seen hobnobbing with golfing friends like Arnold Palmer.

But the five-star general who would lead the free world’s troops into Europe during World War II also had been a leader on the football field at West Point. Ike was a running back and linebacker for Army, and the story often is told that he once tackled the legendary Jim Thorpe.

John F. Kennedy might have turned out to be the best athlete of all among U.S. Presidents if he hadn’t had to cope with a long series of health problems. But he did captain the swimming team at Harvard, and he was among Crimson undergrads in at least one football team photo (that is reproduced on card No. 66 in the 1961 Topps set), although he and his family are better known for their touch football games at their Cape Cod compound. JFK also had a 7-10 handicap on the golf course (see card No. 15 in that same Topps set).

JFK’s brothers, Robert and Ted, who both were presidential candidates over the years, also played football at Harvard. Both are identified as playing end in the team’s game programs of the era, and there’s even a familiar photo of Ted catching a pass in the end zone for Harvard’s only touchdown in a 21-7 loss to traditional rival Yale.

Ronald Reagan’s athletic prowess is often illustrated on film since he starred as the legendary Notre Dame hero George Gipp in the movie about the life of the even more legendary Irish coach Knute Rockne. But, as a young man, the nation’s 40th president had captained the football and swimming teams at Eureka College, although that tiny Central Illinois school never has been accused of being a gridiron power.

The nation’s earliest presidents were far too busy doing things like writing constitutions and declarations of independence, fighting the British and others, annexing new states like Texas, abolishing slavery and simply trying to stay alive to spend much time playing sports. Also, organized sports were still far in this nation’s future.

But a few did show some interest in athletic endeavors.

Theodore Roosevelt was a boxer at Harvard and also did some rowing for the Crimson. Some credit the 26th President later in life with helping to reform college football through the creation of the NCAA.

William Howard Taft was an intramural wrestling champ at Yale, a heavyweight to be

Photo of card of Ronald Reagan as actor playing George Gipp in the 1940 movie “Knute Rockne: All American.”

sure since the 27th President’s weight once tipped the scales at 320 pounds, although his best fighting weight was in the 225-pound range.

Wrestling was big during the country’s early history, and several presidents indulged, including Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Chester A. Arthur and even the “father” of our country, George Washington. But the sport was less organized than today, though more serious (as are today’s college and Olympic competitions) and certainly nothing like pro wrestling’s current sideshow.

More recently, many will remember Richard Nixon’s practice of sending coaches football plays directly from the White House, unsolicited help from the nation’s 37th President. Earlier in life, he had played some football in high school, was a substitute player in basketball at Whittier College and also became an avid bowler, taking advantage of a special 10-pin alley installed at the White House.

There is some evidence that Lyndon Johnson, the 36th president, had played baseball in high school back in Texas, and that Woodrow Wilson was a center fielder on the Davidson College baseball team and liked to bicycle while attending Princeton.
The nation’s 31st President, Herbert Hoover, was a student manager for both the football and baseball teams at Stanford, and while that doesn’t indicate athletic ability, at least shows an interest in sports.

Almost all of the Presidents, especially since the beginning of the last century, have played golf. Some liked the game and were serious about it, while others saw golf more as a social necessity.

Of the two major party candidates in the 2012 national elections, Barack Obama seems to have the most interest in and ability in sports. He played basketball at Occidental College, and, in one season, led his team in scoring. The 44th President still enjoys an occasional hoops workout. While there’s no evidence that Mitt Romney has had much interest in sports as a participant, he is credited with leading the Salt Lake City Olympics out of near-bankruptcy and saving those games. And while his given first name is “Willard,” it appears that his middle name of Mitt came from a relative who had played football for the Chicago Bears.

At least two fairly recent candidates for the presidency could have, if elected, brought much more athleticism to the White House.

Basketball great Bill Bradley had been in the running for the Democratic nomination back in 2000, but lost out to Al Gore. Had he won, the former U.S. Senator from New Jersey would have brought to Washington three All-American years at Princeton, a gold medal in the 1964 Olympics, a decade in the NBA with the New York Knicks and his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

And football star Jack Kemp – the former long-term Congressman, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, vice presidential candidate on Robert Dole’s Republican ticket and presidential hopeful in his own right – spent 13 seasons in pro football. During that time, he earned an AFL MVP award, named to seven Pro Bowls, named captain of both his San Diego and Buffalo teams and led the Bills to two league championships.

So, there some background on U.S. presidents as sports stars. In this election year, who gets your vote?

Arnold Bailey is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at acbailey1125@yahoo.com.    

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