U.S. Presidents Who Were the Best Athletes
The first professional baseball team was formed in 1869. By then, the sport already had begun to capture the imagination of American people, including a succession of United States presidents.
But baseball, which soon became known as the "national pastime," wasn’t the only sport the most powerful men in the country enjoyed during their time in office.
Over the last 150 years, U.S. presidents have embraced sports across the spectrum. Some of them even were elite athletes themselves.
Here’s a look at the history of U.S. presidents and sports.
Born: Feb. 12, 1809 (Sinking Spring Farm, Kentucky)
Died: April 15, 1865 (Washington, D.C.)
Tie to sports: It’s tough to separate fact from fiction when it comes to Abraham Lincoln’s wrestling prowess, but we do know that he was tall and incredibly strong as a youth.
Into his early and mid-20s, he was known for winning matches (usually held in a town square) against the top wrestlers from rival towns.
Born: Dec. 28, 1808 (Raleigh, North Carolina)
Died: July 31, 1875 (Elizabethton, Tennessess)
Tie to sports: Andrew Johnson was born into abject poverty and didn’t receive a formal education, so sports weren’t an option when he was growing up.
He was the first president to publicly associate himself with baseball, which was growing in popularity.
His biggest connection to the game was the Washington National baseball club’s third baseman, Arthur Gorman, whom Johnson befriended when he was a Tennessee senator and Gorman was his page.
Ulysses S. Grant
Born: April 27, 1822 (Point Pleasant, Ohio)
Died: July 23, 1885 (Wilton, New York)
Tie to sports: Ulysses Grant’s passion early on was horse riding, and he set a record at West Point in the equestrian high jump that stood for 25 years.
When 15,000 people packed the Polo Grounds to watch the New York Gothams (who later became the Giants) in their first National League game on May 1, 1883, Grant was in attendance.
Rutherford B. Hayes
Born: Oct. 4, 1822 (Delaware, Ohio)
Died: Jan. 17, 1893 (Fremont, Ohio)
Tie to sports: Rutherford Hayes was linked to baseball long before he was in office, first learning to play the game as a student at Kenyon College.
He shared his love of baseball with his sons as they kept track of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, saving newspaper clippings of the team’s exploits from that season.
James A. Garfield
Born: Nov. 18, 1831 (Moreland Hills, Ohio)
Died: Sept. 19, 1881 (Elberon, New Jerseys )
Term: March 4, 1881-Sept. 19, 1881
Tie to sports: As a professor at Ohio’s Miram College in his mid-20s, James Garfield was known to be very good at wicket, a sport brought over by Connecticut settlers that may have been one of the forefathers of baseball.
Garfield didn’t have much of a chance to establish his presidential tie to sports as he was assassinated just six months into his first term.
Chester A. Arthur
Born: Oct. 5, 1829 (Fairfield, Vermont)
Died: Nov. 18, 1886 (Manhattan, New York)
Tie to sports: Chester Arthur, like one of his successors, Herbert Hoover, was obsessed with fishing and was a member of the prestigious Restigouche Salmon Club.
"There is nothing I loved more than fishing for salmon," said Arthur, who helped increase fishing's popularity in the U.S. during his time in office.
Arthur also started the presidential sports tradition of bringing professional sports teams to the White House with a visit from Cleveland's Forest City baseball club in 1883, remarking "good baseball players make good citizens."
Born: March 18, 1837 (Caldwell, New Jersey)
Died: June 24, 1908 (Princeton, New Jersey)
Terms: 1885-1889, 1893-1897
Tie to sports: Grover Cleveland, like his predecessor Chester Arthur, had a lifelong obsession with outdoor sports and said he was "utterly incorrigible and shameless" when it came to his hunting and fishing pursuits.
Cleveland also enjoyed baseball, but worried voters would think he was wasting time if he attended games.
Born: Aug. 20, 1833 (North Bend, Ohio)
Died: March 13, 1901 (Indianapolis, Indiana)
Tie to sports: Benjamin Harrison’s lack of outward emotions (he was nicknamed the "Human Iceberg") didn’t lend much to athletic endeavors, but he enjoyed hunting and fishing and was accomplished at both.
He became the first sitting president to attend a Major League Baseball game on June 6, 1892, when Cincinnati defeated the Washington Senators 7-4.
Born: Jan. 29, 1843 (Niles, Ohio)
Died: Sept. 14, 1901 (Buffalo, New York)
Tie to sports: William McKinley was raised on sports in Ohio, and as the seventh of eight children, he was constantly riding horses, swimming and ice skating during the winters.
He declined to throw out a first pitch for the Washington Senators in 1897, but did throw out a first pitch as Ohio’s governor.
Born: Oct. 27, 1858 (New York City, New York)
Died: Jan. 6, 1919 (Oyster Bay, New York)
Tie to sports: Theodore Roosevelt had lifelong passions for boxing, rowing, hiking and horseback riding. "I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports," he said.
Unbeknownst to the American public, he continued to participate in sparring sessions as president until a young Army officer hit him so hard he lost most of the sight in his left eye.
After his presidency, Roosevelt and his brother Kermit journeyed through the Himalayas mountains.
William H. Taft
Born: Sept. 15, 1857 (Cincinnati, Ohio)
Died: March 8, 1930 (Washington, D.C.)
Tie to sports: William Taft played baseball and wrestled as a youth, and against his father’s wishes, he joined the wrestling team at Yale, where he became the school’s first heavyweight intramural wrestling champion.
In April 1910, Taft was the first sitting president to throw out a first pitch before a game between the Washington Senators and Philadelphia Athletics.
Born: Dec. 28, 1856 (Staunton, Virginia)
Died: Feb. 3, 1924 (Washington, D.C.)
Tie to sports: Woodrow Wilson was a center fielder at Davidson College (Steph Curry’s alma mater) as a freshman, then transferred to Princeton, where he was the president of both the football and baseball associations.
He was one of the first presidents to publicly embrace baseball and helped grow the sport immensely.
Warren G. Harding
Born: Nov. 2, 1865 (Blooming Grove, Ohio)
Died: Aug. 2, 1923 (San Francisco, California)
Tie to sports: Warren Harding was an avid golfer and even tried to play when he was deathly ill.
On July 26, 1923, he began a round in Vancouver, British Columbia., but only made it through six holes because of exhaustion.
He played holes Nos. 17-18 for the press, fell into a coma the next day and died on Aug. 2.
Born: July 4, 1872 (Plymouth Notch, Vermont)
Died: Jan. 5, 1933 (Northampton, Massachusetts)
Tie to sports: Calvin Coolidge wasn’t an athlete, and his biggest connection to sports was tinged with tragedy.
On June 30, 1924, 16-year-old Calvin Coolidge Jr., spent the afternoon playing tennis at the White House and developed a blister on his toe.
The blister became infected, Coolidge Jr. became sick with a severe case of blood poisoning and died one week later.
Born: August 10, 1874 (West Branch, Iowa)
Died: October 20, 1964 (New York City, New York)
Tie to sports: Herbert Hoover had a lifelong obsession with fishing and went all over the country looking for the best — and most remote — spots to ply his trade.
He loved fishing so much that he wrote a book in his post-presidency entitled "Fishing for Fun and To Wash Your Soul."
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Born: Jan. 30, 1882 (Hyde Park, New York)
Died: April 12, 1945 (Warm Springs, Georgia)
Tie to sports: Franklin D. Roosevelt rowed crew at Harvard, but after being crippled by polio at 39 years old, swimming would take on a defining role in his life.
He trained in the pool constantly to strengthen his back, arms and stomach muscles — enough so that he was able to hold himself up at podiums during speeches.
Roosevelt also was a serious sailor. His father first took him sailing when he was 9, and Roosevelt developed a lifelong love for the sport, becoming known as "America's greatest seafaring president."
Journalist Robert F. Cross wrote a 2003 book about the subject titled "Sailor in the White House" that looked at how Roosevelt's love of the sea shaped his presidency.
Harry S. Truman
Born: May 8, 1884 (Lamar, Missouri)
Died: Dec. 26, 1972 (Kansas City, Missouri)
Tie to sports: Poor eyesight prevented Harry Truman from being much of an athlete, but he loved baseball and was close personal friends with Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith.
Truman threw out the first pitch on seven consecutive opening days for the Senators, and the Truman Sports Complex in Kansas City, Mo., is home to the Kansas City Royals and Kansas City Chiefs.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Born: Oct. 14, 1890 (Denison, Texas)
Died: March 28, 1969 (Washington, D.C.)
Tie to sports: Dwight Eisenhower said several times that not making the varsity baseball team at West Point was "one of my greatest disappointments," although he did start at linebacker for the football team and famously tackled Jim Thorpe in a game.
He’s also one of two presidents (along with Bill Clinton) to sink a hole in one.
John F. Kennedy
Born: May 29, 1917 (Brookline, Massachusetts)
Died: Nov. 22, 1963 (Dallas, Texas)
Tie to sports: The iconic images of the Kennedys playing touch football weren’t just for show. John F. Kennedy came from a sports-obsessed family.
Addison’s disease and severe back pain prevented JFK from playing football at Harvard like his three brothers, but he was a star swimmer for the Crimson Tide.
Kennedy also loved to sail. In fact, sailing was his favorite pastime. When he became president, he conducted business on a 62-foot yacht named Manitou that could handle heavy weather.
Lyndon B. Johnson
Born: Aug. 27, 1908 (Stonewall, Texas)
Died: Jan. 22, 1973 (Stonewall, Texas)
Tie to sports: Lyndon Johnson was indifferent to sports as a youth and had little patience for spectator sports as the president.
He did have a deep and abiding love for the University of Texas, though, and helped head football coach coach Darrell Royal recruit coveted halfback Joe Washington, who signed with Oklahoma.
Born: Jan. 9, 1913 (Yorba Linda, California)
Died: April 22, 1994 (New York City, New York)
Tie to sports: Richard Nixon played football growing up and at Whittier College, where he was a backup offensive lineman but never lettered and was known as "the most spirited bench warmer on the team."
He had a lifelong obsession with the game and was a regular at Washington Redskins practices during his presidency.
He even got Redskins head coach George Allen to call a trick play Nixon designed once, and it lost yardage.
Born: July 14, 1913 (Omaha, Nebraska)
Died: Dec. 26, 2006 (Rancho Mirage, California)
Tie to sports: Gerald Ford may have the most impressive athletic resume of any president.
He played college football at the University of Michigan, where he was the center on undefeated teams that won back-to-back national titles in 1932 and 1933. Ford turned down offers from the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions so he could go to law school.
During his years in the White House, he remained active, swimming daily, skiing often, and playing lots of golf and tennis.
Born: Oct. 1, 1924 (Plains, Georgia)
Tie to sports: Jimmy Carter was obsessed with tennis, starting with the dirt court on his family’s farm growing up in Georgia, and continuing through his presidency, where he had to personally approve requests to use the White House courts.
As president, he led the U.S. boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow that would see 66 countries sit out the games in Russia.
Born: Feb. 6, 1911 (Tampico, Illinois)
Died: June 5, 2004 (Los Angeles, California)
Tie to sports: Ronald Reagan played football and was captain of the swim team at Eureka College, then called Chicago Cubs games on the radio after graduation.
That led to his big break as an actor, where he played Notre Dame football player George "The Gipper" Gipp in the film "Knute Rockne, All-American."
During his presidency, Reagan enjoyed swimming and working on his Santa Barbara ranch California, which was called Rancho del Cielo ("Heaven's Ranch") and served as the "Western White House."
George H. W. Bush
Born: June 12, 1924 (Milton, Massachusetts)
Died: Nov. 30, 2018 (Houston, Texas)
Tie to sports: George H. W. Bush was the captain of the Yale baseball team and played in the first two College World Series in 1947 and 1948.
During the 1948 CWS, the left-handed first baseman was able to meet Babe Ruth just months before he died, and the two took a now famous picture together on the field.
Bush continued to enjoy athletic pursuits during and after his presidency, and even threw out a ceremonial pitch when he was 91.
Born: Aug. 19, 1946 (Hope, Arkansas)
Tie to sports: Bill Clinton was born into poverty in Arkansas and didn’t play a lot of sports as a youth, but he told ESPN's "Mike & Mike" show that he "almost" dunked once during a church league basketball game.
Clinton famously attended the 1994 Final Four to watch the Arkansas Razorbacks win an NCAA title and is one of only three presidents, along with Dwight Eisenhower and George W. Bush, to sink a hole in one.
George W. Bush
Born: July 6, 1946 (New Haven, Connecticut)
Tie to sports: George W. Bush was considered a "solid" athlete in prep school, playing varsity basketball and baseball as a senior, but only played on the freshman baseball team at Yale.
Part of an investment group that bought the Texas Rangers in 1989, his initial $800,000 investment paid off when he sold his share of the team for $15 million in 1998.
Born: Aug. 4, 1961 (Honolulu, Hawaii)
Tie to sports: Barack Obama’s love of basketball took root long before he was in office, when he played high school hoops for the Punahou School in Hawaii.
He also made filling out his bracket for the NCAA tournament a yearly event televised by ESPN and loved to play basketball, including pickup games at the White House.
Born: June 14, 1946 (Queens, New York)
Tie to sports: Donald Trump was a star first baseman at New York Military Academy who could hit and field.
Both the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies scouted him before he decided to attend college and pursue "real money," according to a 2016 Rolling Stone article.
He also owned the USFL’s New Jersey Generals before the league folded in 1986 and today owns multiple golf courses around the world.
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