- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2009

No matter what other changes President Barack Obama brings to the District and the nation, one appears certain.

Basketball will replace baseball as the sport of choice in the White House.

The 44th president is a certified “hoops aficionado,” Illinois treasurer and fellow combatant Alex Giannoulias told the Associated Press. “[On the court,] he plays tough but not dirty, and he’s stronger than he looks.”

Obama even worked out with the North Carolina Tar Heels last spring and told Barbara Walters he once dreamed of playing professionally. If he wants to talk basketball, he can keep it all in the family. His brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, is the coach at Oregon State.

So much for baseball as the favorite presidential pastime, although Obama also is a White Sox fan.

Immediate predecessor George W. Bush owned the Texas Rangers before running for governor of Texas. His daddy, George H.W. Bush, played first base at Yale and kept his old mitt in his desk. Obama might opt instead for a ball and net in the Oval Office - and not the Nerf variety either.

Indeed, most of our presidents have embraced at least one sport or physical activity as a way to ease tension and convince voters that the man with the toughest job in the world is, at heart, just a regular guy.

The trick is not to look or sound silly, lest those voters be turned off. Obama came close to disaster when he bowled a 37 for seven frames during a campaign stop last April.

“My economic plan is better than my bowling,” Obama insisted.

Replied one onlooker: “It has to be.”

Jimmy Carter was widely ridiculed in 1979 when he told of encountering a “killer rabbit” while fishing in a pond on his Georgia farm. And people hooted when Richard Nixon was photographed bowling on the White House lanes in dress shirt and tie. Never mind that Nixon really was an accomplished kegler.

He also was a big football fan, once suggesting a play to Redskins coach George Allen, father of the subsequent Virginia governor and senator, before a playoff game. If memory serves, it went nowhere.

Another GOP president, Ronald Reagan, savored sports vicariously. Long before he went to Hollywood or came to the District, “Dutch” Reagan was re-creating Chicago Cubs games on a Des Moines, Iowa, radio station. He played Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander and Notre Dame football star George Gipp in the movies, borrowing the latter’s nickname of “The Gipper” for his own. And he started the custom, for better or worse, of welcoming hordes of individual and team champions to the White House.

One way or another, sports has been a part of our national fabric since Revolutionary days, and this fascination/obsession with the games people play has extended to chief executives of all political persuasions.

Of course, myths abound among the facts. There is serious doubt that George Washington really tossed a silver dollar across Virginia’s Rappahannock River, a story probably invented by Parson Weems in an early biography. (Weems also perpetrated the fiction about George chopping down the cheery tree, but you have to admit these are neat tales.)

Nor was Abraham Lincoln engrossed in a game of “base ball” when Republican dignitaries arrived to inform him officially of his nomination for president, telling them something like, “You must wait until I have my turn at bat.” And while lying on his deathbed after John Wilkes Booth did his dastardly deed, the 16th president certainly didn’t whisper to attending physicians, “Don’t let base ball die.” That bit of hokum was concocted by Bill Stern, a popular radio sportscaster in the 1940s who never let facts get in the way of a good yarn.

It is true, however, that Lincoln often strolled down to what is now the South Lawn and watched government employees playing ball on their lunch hour.

Washington was one of several early presidents who won acclaim as wrestlers in their youth. The Father of Our Country preserved his skills into middle age, defeating seven challengers from the Massachusetts Volunteers in 1779, when he was 47. You might say he was the first Gorgeous George among grapplers.

Andrew Jackson and Lincoln were others who did their thing successfully on the mat. Honest Abe once gained renown in Illinois by soundly thrashing a local bully named Jack Armstrong who bore no resemblance to his fictional “All-American Boy” namesake of the radio waves a century or so later.

Not all presidents have endorsed living by the athletic sweat of one’s brow. Aristocratic Thomas Jefferson once huffed that “games played with [a] ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind.” Theodore Roosevelt, a presidential he-man if there ever was one, referred to baseball and other sports as “mollycoddle games.” In this instance, “bully” Teddy was spouting sheer bull.

Since the first decade of the 20th century, most presidents have embraced baseball more than any other sport - at least until Obama’s arrival.

In 1910, William Howard Taft was the first White House resident to open the season in Washington by throwing out the first ball, a tradition all successors have embraced. Franklin Roosevelt did the honors eight years in a row before security concerns during World War II ended his streak. Ambidextrous Harry Truman kept spectators guessing whether he would crank up his right or left arm.

Dwight Eisenhower skipped the scheduled opener in 1953 to play golf in Augusta, Ga., but the resulting uproar brought him to Griffith Stadium when the game was rained out and rescheduled. The following April, Ike summoned Mickey Vernon to his box for a postgame handshake after the Senators’ popular first baseman beat the Yankees in the opener with a 10th-inning home run.

John Kennedy graced the final opener at Griffith Stadium in 1961 but received a tongue-lashing from White Sox outfielder Jim Rivera, who requested an autograph after snagging JFK’s ceremonial peg and then griped, “What kind of garbage handwriting is this?” Kennedy also tossed out the ball the following season at the new D.C. (now RFK) Stadium.

Lyndon Johnson showed little public interest in sports, though he was the first president to attend an NFL game when he sat through a muggy preseason affair at RFK in August 1966. Redskins coach Otto Graham didn’t exactly beam over LBJ’s presence. Told that the most powerful man in the free world had been there, Otto churlishly inquired, “So what?”

Obama presumably will become the 18th president to make his pitch at an opening game when the Nationals inaugurate their home season April 13 against Philadelphia. Major League Baseball, in its enduring stupidity, again will have the Nats opening on the road (April 6 at Florida) rather than at home with the new president in the crowd. For shame!

Of course, Obama could opt to take in a Wizards game earlier, thereby demonstrating anew where his preference lies on jock fronts. But, no, the presidency will be tough enough without exposing himself to one of the NBA’s biggest losers.

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