- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2000

As the blather and balderdash of another election year quickly envelop us, the inclination grows stronger to exorcise thoughts of presidents and politics. In at least one instance, however, this would be a bad mistake.

Down at MCI Center, where the Wizards and Capitals largely frustrate the multitudes, they've come up with a winner at last. In the recesses of the National Sports Gallery, you'll find a new exhibit linking presidents and sports. And such is life in these United States that even the most dubious inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. looks better when surrounded by the games that people play.

Considering that Frank Ceresi has been employed as the gallery's curator for only about 18 months, he and assistant Carol Mains have done a championship job assembling material from 13 presidential libraries, various sports halls of fame and assorted historical societies. But what would you expect? The guy's a sports nut, as well as a former lawyer and family court judge in Arlington.

How much stuff have Ceresi and Mains collected? Consider this: In Frank's office on MCI's third floor rests a huge photograph of President Clinton warming up for his 1994 Opening Day assignment at Camden Yards. Slick Willie is shown playing catch on the South Lawn with none other than the current Democratic nominee for a Senate seat from New York. It's a fascinating picture, but so far Ceresi hasn't found a vacant spot to hang it. He's not complaining.

"This is a fun job," Ceresi, 49, says about running the entire gallery. "This is the only all-sports museum in the country, and if we achieve our goal, it's going to be around a lot longer than I am. It's an exciting thing to be a part of."

Ceresi says his mandate, handed down by MCI owner Abe Pollin, is "to educate people about the history and significance of sports in the country." And learning has never been so delightful.

The presidential exhibit features artifacts from every Chief Executive of the 20th century, and we can only speculate how it will grow if former Texas Rangers owner George W. Bush enters the White House next January. His daddy already is represented by multiple goodies, including a photo of baseball's greatest player presenting him with the script of "The Babe Ruth Story" in 1948 after Bush the elder's Yale team won the first NCAA rounders tournament.

"We didn't want to have photo ops of presidents congratulating champions," Ceresi says. "What we tried to do is highlight their genuine interest in sports, both as players and spectators."

Mission accomplished and then some.

The earliest artifact dates back to the 1830s: a copy of Andrew Jackson's copy, honest, of a memorial book issued by Congress to honor Tom Cribb, a heroic British boxer of the day.

If that doesn't turn you on, how about a scrapbook kept by future president Rutherford Hayes that includes newspaper clippings detailing game results for the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball's first professional team. (And, no, Pete Rose did not play for it.)

In no particular order, we also find:

• Billiard balls and a cue used by Woodrow Wilson.

• A medicine ball tossed about for exercise by Herbert Hoover, as well as his "Ode to Fishing." (The Hoover items left me in something of a Depression.)

• Theodore Roosevelt's tennis racket, which also might have served for busting trusts and bashing malefactors of great wealth.

• Harry Truman's walking stick, suitable for bashing Republicans, plus souvenir books including railroad menus and game tickets from his jaunts to Army-Navy contests in Philadelphia.

• Richard Nixon's program from a 1933 Whittier College football game when he was a member of the team.

• Ronald Reagan's letter, written after he had played Grover Cleveland Alexander in a biopic revealing the great pitcher suffered from epilepsy rather than alcoholism.

• Gerald Ford's jersey from his days as an All-American center at Michigan. We don't need to stumble on this discovery. Despite Chevy Chase's legendary lampoons, Ceresi says, Ford probably was our most athletic president.

• Many baseballs signed by presidents the biggest such collection on exhibit anywhere, Ceresi says. Also on view is a ball signed by Wilson and Washington Senators pitching immortal Walter Johnson.

• Dwight Eisenhower is shown in an Abilene (Kan.) High School baseball uniform. Ike also was a football player, one good enough to be playing for West Point against the Carlisle Indians in 1913 when all-time superstar Jim Thorpe ran over him on the way to a touchdown. The resulting broken leg turned Eisenhower into a golfer on sporting fronts.

Ike also is prominently featured in a golf section. His golf bag is there, complete with five stars, and so is the Ben Hogan Comeback of the Year Trophy awarded to the president after he rallied from a 1955 heart attack.

All sorts of presidential clubs are on display. My favorite, and Ceresi's, is a strange one employed by William Howard Taft. Our largest president also was perhaps the largest fan of angling so much so he had his favorite fishing rod converted to a driver. Let's see Tiger Woods match that one.

And poignantly, we find a trophy awarded Franklin Roosevelt for winning a club tournament at Campobello Island, New Brunswick, in 1897, when FDR was 15 and still 24 years away from the polio attack that would leave him a cripple.

There is so much more, but you get the idea. And a summertime visit to MCI is a very good idea.

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