September 9, 2008

A Survey of America's President-Athletes

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While many of you have already made up your mind on who to vote for, allow me to introduce another hot-button issue that will certainly impact the upcoming election — presidential athletic skills. This is not an oxymoron. Some of the United States’ past presidents could play. I’m not just talking about a simple game of pitch and catch. I’m talking about raw talent, so brace yourself. Not all presidents were picked last for kickball. (Okay, perhaps 335-pound William Howard Taft was.)
All kidding aside, there have been some pretty fair athletes residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. President Gerald Ford, who played center and linebacker at the University of Michigan, was one of the most accomplished presidents on the playing field. The man may have given Nixon a free pass, but defensive linemen fared considerably worse during his collegiate career as Ford led the Wolverines to back-to-back undefeated seasons and national titles in 1932 and 1933. In 1934, he was voted Michigan’s Most Valuable Player. Ford’s gridiron skills were good enough to warrant the attention of multiple professional franchises, including the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, but the 38th President of the United States decided to attend Yale Law School instead.
Ford’s predecessor, President Richard M. Nixon, was an avid bowler and golfer, which I hope makes most of you roll your eyes. Not that there is anything wrong with those two “physically demanding” sports, but any “sport” in which your grandfather can beat you (i.e. bowling and golf) is not actually a sport, but rather a hobby or avocation. Besides, with the middle name of Milhous, how intimidating an athlete could “Tricky Dick” have been?
I’ll stay within the party of the elephant to focus attention on my next outstanding presidential athlete, George H. W. Bush. After serving in World War II, Bush Sr. attended Yale University, where the slick-fielding first baseman played in the first two College World Series’ ever. (Yes, contrary to popular belief, the Ivy League used to be good in Division I sports. Lest we never forget, in 1939 the Cornell football program captured its fifth national title with key victories over Syracuse, Penn State and Ohio State.)
While captain of the baseball team, President Bush Sr. was a lifetime .354 hitter with two home runs and 23 RBI’s in 175 at-bats. President Bush has often stated one of his greatest thrills was meeting Babe Ruth during his senior season.
As a child, George W. Bush recalls similar aspirations. “I never dreamed about being president. When I was growing up, I wanted to be Willie Mays,” he said. With Bush’s approval rating hovering around 30 percent, it is safe to assume at least two-thirds of all Americans also wish he had followed in the footsteps of the Say Hey Kid. Unfortunately, when Bush’s diamond dreams were crushed, he had to settle for the position of President of the United States.
However, a love of sports has continued to course through the Commander-in-Chief’s veins. “Dubya,” the co-owner of Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers until 1994, tossed out the ceremonial first pitch for a strike on opening day for the Washington Nationals in 2008. Say what you want about George W. Bush, but the man can throw strikes. During his tenure in office, President Bush has thrown nine first pitches at the start of baseball games. Arguably his most memorable appearance was before a sold-out crowd at Yankee Stadium to open up the 2001 World Series on the heels of the September 11th attacks. With the dearth of good relief pitching in the major leagues, there’s a chance President Bush could be wearing Yankee pinstripes next year — if he were only left-handed.
Finally, don’t forget about President Theodore Roosevelt. With all due apologies to Ted Williams, Roosevelt was truly the original “Teddy Ballgame.” As the runner-up in Harvard boxing championships, Roosevelt continued to box even during his days in the Oval Office. It is widely acknowledged by presidential historians that President Roosevelt is infamous for holding boxing bouts with members of his Cabinet in the state rooms of the White House. In 1908, Roosevelt’s boxing days suffered a serious setback after a blow to his left eye. Although he was left permanently blind with a detached retina, President Roosevelt continued to lace up his golden gloves from time to time.
The 2008 presidential contest features two candidates who have both enjoyed moderate athletic success. Republican nominee John McCain enjoyed sparring as a lightweight boxer in the Naval Academy although the days of him “floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee” appear to be long gone. Not to be outdone, Democratic nominee Barack Obama has demonstrated his athletic prowess on the basketball court and played for his varsity team in high school. However, Obama’s hijinx in the bowling alley last spring quickly became the butt of many jokes on the Leno and Letterman circuit. While it is tough to imagine that Obama could not top McCain’s age (72) on the lanes, it is pathetic that his score of 37 was unable even to surpass his own 47 years.
So as the election approaches and the media continues to bombard you with irrelevant pieces of information such as the candidates’ stances on the mortgage foreclosure crisis, the Iraq War, or the price of crude oil, please take a few minutes before punching your ballot and consider the importance of having an athlete in the White House.