HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
February 19, 2006

Presidential athletes

By Matt Kane

Today is Presidents Day. A day when the entire nation honors all the men who have ever served as commander and chief.

The holiday dates back to George Washington’s last full year of presidency in 1796, and, since 1971, the third Monday in February has been designated at Presidents’ Day. The day now falls between Abraham Lincoln’s Feb. 12 birthday and Washington’s Feb. 22 birthday.

So why is this column in the sports section?

Because, before they were vetoing bills in the Oval Office, many of the 43 presidents were athletes.

The recent death of Gerald R. Ford, the 38th president (1974-77), stirred up memories of his glory days as a center and linebacker for the University of Michigan. Ford helped the Wolverines to national titles in 1932 and 1933, and had his jersey number “48” retired by Michigan in 1994. Ford turned down offers to play professional football from the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions. Instead, he went to Yale, where he coached football and boxing.

In high school, Ford also played basketball and ran track.

Ford wasn’t the only president to wear cleats before wing tips.

After returning from World War II, George H. W. Bush, the 41st president, attended Yale, where he captained the baseball team, and played in the first College World Series. Bush was a left-handed first baseman.

There is a section on WhiteHouse.gov titled “Presidents and Baseball” (www.whitehouse.gov/baseball/), with pictures of all the presidents, since William Howard Taft, throwing out first pitches. Taft started the tradition in 1910, when he tossed a baseball from his seat to Washington Senators’ pitcher Walter Johnson on opening day.

Baseball is America’s Pastime, so it is fitting that there are stories of American presidents playing the game. Whitehouse.gov says, “A soldier’s diary reveals that George Washington and his men played an early version of baseball called “rounders” on the fields of Valley Forge. History records that John Adams played bat and ball and Andrew Jackson played a similar game of baseball called one old cat. Abraham Lincoln’s love of the game was so well known that an 1860 political cartoon showed Lincoln and his opponents on a baseball diamond.”

Our current president, George W. Bush, was involved in baseball as the owner of the Texas Rangers.

“I never dreamed about being president. When I was growing up, I wanted to be Willie Mays,” Bush was once quoted.

Bush purchased a share in the Rangers in 1989, and served as a managing general partner for five years. During Bush’s tenure with the team, the Rangers acquired Nolan Ryan and traded Sammy Sosa.

Baseball is not Bush’s only link to athletics. In 1993, before he was governor of Texas, Bush ran the Houston Marathon, and is now the only president to have ever run a marathon. He finished in 3 hours, 44 minutes and 52 seconds.

Bush has also ridden alongside Lance Armstrong. Not on the Tour de France, but on the “Tour de Crawford.” The two pedalled side-by-side for 17 miles at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas in 2005.

Other presidents with athletic backgrounds are Lincoln as a wrestler and Dwight D. Eisenhower as a football player.

There is a story of the 6-foot-4 Lincoln taking on and out-wrestling the town bully, Jack Armstrong, earning him respect from Armstrong and his gang, the Clary’s Grove boys.

Eisenhower was supposed to play football at West Point, but a series of knee injuries put an end to that. He did coach the junior varsity team and the yell team.

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