Celebrating 8 Sports-Loving U.S. Presidents

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The mid-fall is one of the best times of year for sports fans.

Major League Baseball crowns a champion. Pro and college football teams play meaningful games every weekend. Basketball (and, in most years, hockey) gets underway. The top stock car drivers chase the Sprint Cup. And all the world’s top soccer leagues are in action.

Of course, in years divisible by 4, the mid-fall in the United States is also election season.

obama-romney-bball

The 2012 election season is heating up, with both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney shooting to score points with voters.

Frequent Intersection of Sports and Presidential Politics

While sports serves as a welcome respite from the mudslinging and discussion of complex issues that accompanies any major election, the realms of sports and politics have never been mutually exclusive.

During the rise of spectator sports in the twentieth century, several sports lovers ascended to the nation’s highest office.

Herbert Hoover, for instance, was a student manager for the Stanford football and baseball teams before beginning his career in politics.

More recently, Bill Clinton was often seen jogging in an Arkansas Razorbacks sweatshirt and was in the stands at the 1994 Final Four to see his Hogs win a national title.

Some commanders in chief have been not only lovers of sport but also respectable athletes and sportsmen in their own right.

Here’s a look at eight presidential athletes, listed from oldest to most recent:

1. Theodore Roosevelt

Sportsman, Football Reformer, Tennis Court Builder

Teddy Roosevelt is well-known for being a sportsman in the classic sense of the word.

Before becoming president, he spent time on his ranch in the North Dakota Badlands, hunting and roping livestock. Following his presidency, he turned to big game on safaris in Kenya and the Congo.

Teddy Roosevelt, hunting in North Dakota

But TR was also involved in sports in the 21st-century sense of the word.

When 25 college football players died from on-field injuries during the 1905 season, President Roosevelt intervened. Legend has it that Roosevelt threatened to eliminate the sport altogether if there weren’t immediate reforms.

But Taylor Branch, in his 2011 book The Cartel, suggests that Roosevelt never intended to bring an end to football and instead wanted to preserve the sport and help it save face. The president brought together representatives from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (three of the nation’s football powers at the time) to make substantial changes to the game’s rulebook.

The meeting led to the creation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Harvard football coach Bill Reid managed to become secretary of the new organization and put in place new rules that not only made the game safer but also that favored Harvard’s style of play. This outcome pleased President Roosevelt, a Harvard grad and Crimson football fan.

“The Hero of San Juan Hill” was also responsible for installing the White House tennis court. The court has moved a couple times since, but thanks to TR presidents for more than a century have been able to enjoy an afternoon of tennis without leaving home.

The original White House tennis court. (Library of Congress)

Tennis seems like a safe way to get some exercise, but it wasn’t for Calvin Coolidge, Jr.

During a game against his older brother John on the White House Courts in 1924, “Silent Cal’s” youngest son developed a blister on his right foot. The blister got infected, eventually leading to blood poisoning and the younger Coolidge’s untimely death at the age of 15.

* * * * *

2. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Sailor

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, architect of the New Deal and President when the United States entered World War II in 1941, spent his record 12 years in the White House confined to a wheelchair (or propped up so that the public wouldn’t realize that he was confined to a wheelchair).

FDR contracted an illness in 1921, diagnosed as polio (though that diagnosis has been disputed), that left him paralyzed from the waist down. But these physical limitations didn’t keep the younger Roosevelt from enjoying his favorite sport: sailing.

Growing up, FDR spent his summers on Passamaquoddy Bay, between Maine and New Brunswick. There he developed a love for water sports, particularly sailing, swimming, fishing, and canoeing. He got his first sailboat, a Knockabout called New Moon, when he was 16.

In 1921, after serving two terms as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the Wilson administration, Roosevelt purchased a sailboat called Vireo. He was sailing Vireo in the Passamaquoddy Bay the day he was stricken with polio (or another, unidentified, illness).

FDR sailing off the coast of Campobello Island between Maine and New Brunswick.

Franklin Roosevelt would serve one term as governor of New York before winning a whopping four straight presidential elections. He led the country through the Great Depression and much of World War II before his death in 1945.

* * * * *

3. Dwight D. Eisenhower

Football Player, Fencer, Gymnast, All-Around Athlete

Ike was the most esteemed graduate in a West Point class (1915) that saw 59 of its own become generals in the United States Army. But during his time in school, future president Dwight D. Eisenhower was a very average student, graduating 61st in his class.

His grades may have been better if he hadn’t spent so much time playing sports.

Eisenhower played one season at running back and linebacker for the Army football team, a season that included a game against football legend Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indians.

Future President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a senior at West Point, after a knee injury ended his football career.

Eisenhower broke his leg in the final football game of the season. Ike gave up football (and other sports that exacerbated his injury, including boxing and horse racing) and focused on gymnastics and fencing. (I’m not sure why fencing or especially gymnastics were any better for his leg than boxing.)

The future five-star general and war hero didn’t give up football entirely. He stayed involved in the West Point football program as a junior varsity coach and a cheerleader. (Some sources say “yell leader,” but I don’t really see a need for gender-specific terms to describe people who lead cheers.)

Eisenhower had a long and distinguished military career and became a household name as the Supreme Allied Commander in World War II. He was in charge of the forces that stormed the beaches of Normandy, liberated France, and secured victory for the Allies in Europe.

After the war he served as Army Chief of Staff and President of Columbia University before running for President in 1952.

He won the presidency in a landslide and spent two terms in the Oval Office, during which he signed the bill leading to the creation of the Interstate Highway System and helped establish the armistice that would effectively (but not technically) end the Korean War.

 * * * * *

4. John F. Kennedy

Collegiate Swimmer

One of Harvard’s most esteemed graduates, John F. Kennedy actually began his college career at Princeton. But he contracted an illness during his first semester, withdrew after a few months, and the next fall enrolled at Harvard, the alma mater of his father and older brother.

When JFK arrived in Cambridge in 1936, at least according to this article from the Harvard Crimson, he was more interested in athletics than academics.

Kennedy was a starter on the freshman football team. Coach Henry Lamar said of the future president, “The most adept pass catcher was John Kennedy, but his lack of weight was a drawback.”

A scrawny JFK at the Harvard pool.

Kennedy’s best sport at Harvard was swimming. After a successful season on the freshman team, JFK spent two years on the varsity squad, earning a varsity letter.

His aquatic skills would help him during World War II when a Japanese destroyer rammed his patrol torpedo boat in waters near the Solomon Islands. Kennedy and other surviving members of the crew had to swim to shore. Kennedy, who injured his back in the wreck, managed to tow a badly wounded shipmate to safety.

After the war, Kennedy served in Congress and the Senate before winning election to the presidency in 1960.

During his brief tenure in the White House, JFK averted disaster in the Cuban Missile Crisis and laid the groundwork for the Apollo space program that would take earthlings to the moon nearly six years after Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.

* * * * *

Click to continue reading and learn about:

  • A Michigan Man who was a football superstar before eschewing the NFL.
  • A college baseball captain who received “The Babe.”
  • Perhaps the best runner to ever man the White House.
  • Barry O’Bomber an the Rat-Ballers.
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About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.

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  1. Led team to state title? He rarely played.

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  3. Any article which lists Presidential sportsmen and sports fans, which doesn’t metion the President who added traditions to our nation’s pastime, baseball, is incompletely. William Howard Taft was a fervent baseball fan who often attended ball games while he was in the White House. At one point late in a game, he stood and stretched to get comfortable, because the seats at the stadium were inadequate for his ample frame (he was over 300 lbs.). Since he was President, when he stood so did everyone else…thus was born the 7th Inning stretch. He also was the first President to inaugurate the baseball season by throwing out the 1st pitch…

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