High Fives from the President

Presidential visits for championship teams are now commonplace. (via Amanda Lucidon)

Presidential visits for championship teams are now commonplace. (via Amanda Lucidon)

America’s love affair with baseball is nearly as old as the country itself. In fact, according to the White House, the first known official meeting between a president and an organized team at the executive mansion was with two baseball teams.

The tradition of sports teams visiting the White House dates to 1865, when President Andrew Johnson hosted the Brooklyn Atlantics and the Washington Nationals, two amateur baseball teams that played on the White House grounds. The meeting occurred just five months after the end of the Civil War. Johnson, an avid baseball fan, gave his staff time off to watch the games.

The first all-professional baseball team to visit D.C. was the Cincinnati Red Stockings, who met with Ulysses S. Grant, an Ohio native, in 1869. The Red Stockings had gone undefeated that year, winning 65 games. It was during Grant’s presidency that the National League was formed. The 1924 Washington Senators have the distinction of being the first World Series champion team to hang out with a president, Calvin Coolidge, who had thrown the first pitch on their Opening Day, as well as the first game of the World Series. He was the first president to attend a World Series. However, Coolidge wasn’t a baseball fan. He had been urged to attend the game in a telegram stating it “would be one of the finest political strokes in history.”

Though not the first president to host a championship team, Ronald Reagan was the first one to make the custom popular. In 1987, the football New York Giants’ Harry Carson dumped popcorn on The Gipper at the White House, re-enacting the Gatorade shower celebration he helped make famous.

As the world of professional sports expanded, more championship-winning teams would find themselves enjoying coffee and tea in the Rose Garden at the commander-in-chief’s behest.

The Boston Celtics were the first championship basketball team to score an invite, meeting with JFK in 1963, months before his assassination. Indiana University’s men’s basketball team is believed to be the first NCAA champion to visit, under the Ford administration in 1976. And after winning the Super Bowl, the Pittsburgh Steelers (in a joint trip with the Pirates) were the first winning NFL team to visit the Executive Mansion, during Jimmy Carter’s term in 1980. Another celebrated Pittsburgh team, the Penguins, has the distinction of being the first Stanley Cup winner to enjoy the company of a commander-in-chief when they met George H.W. Bush in June 1991.

White House visits by championship teams have become an American tradition. Seeing the nation’s top athletes shake hands with the leader of the free world is something we’ve come to expect, and even celebrate. They are the embodiment of the American Dream; ordinary men whose talents not only allowed them to rise above their circumstances, but enjoy rarefied air.

Their narratives aren’t so different from the men who have occupied the Oval Office. Reagan, the son of a traveling salesman, was a lineman at Eureka College. George H. W. Bush played first base for Yale’s baseball team, making it to the first two College World Series. Barack Obama chronicled his days as a Hawaiian high school baller in Dreams From My Father. President Gerald Ford, characterized as a bumbling klutz for most of his tenure, played football for the University of Michigan. Even those who weren’t avid athletes have enjoyed sports to the fullest. Bill Clinton memorably appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, donning a University of Arkansas men’s basketball warmup jacket. So sports have been a huge deal at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a long time.

Donald Trump doesn’t appear to have many clear sports allegiances, but he was a star athlete at New York Military Academy, rounding out their varsity football, soccer and baseball teams. He described his younger self as “the best baseball player in New York,” which may be true; allegedly he was scouted by the Phillies and the Red Sox. Nowadays, he’s a casual fan of the New York Mets, but proclaims himself a “long time” fan of the Yankees. In the early ‘80s, he offered to buy the Cleveland Indians for $13 million. He briefly dabbled in football ownership, taking a majority stake in the New Jersey Generals of the now-defunct USFL in 1984. He later expressed interest in buying the Buffalo Bills. Notably, his name is on 17 golf properties around the world. What does a new president mean for these visits?

Much of a president’s involvement with sports teams is ceremonial; winners typically enjoy congratulatory phone calls, letters and, these days, tweets. However, not every complimentary message is well-received, and some athletes decline White House invitations. Matt Birk, a former Baltimore Ravens center, declined an invitation due to President Obama’s support of Planned Parenthood. Golfer Tim Lehman declined to meet President Bill Clinton, calling him a “draft-dodging baby killer.” Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins goalie and known Tea Partier, refused to join his team at the White House, writing on his Facebook page:

“I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People. This is being done at the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial level. This is in direct opposition to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers vision for the Federal government. Because I believe this, today I exercised my right as a Free Citizen, and did not visit the White House. This was not about politics or party, as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country. This was about a choice I had to make as an INDIVIDUAL.”

Through the years, athletes from all arenas have begun to speak out politically and are more likely to do so today, from wearing t-shirts with strong socio-political statements to campaigning for presidential candidates. Some people argue they should just “stick to sports.”

Others feel that visiting the White House is an honor, regardless of personal feelings. In October 1991, after Michael Jordan declined an invitation to visit with President H. W. Bush, Sam Smith of the Chicago Tribune called it “stupid,” saying, “This wasn’t about politics, but respect for the office of the president.” NFL great Fran Tarkenton, echoed similar feelings in a recent TMZ video, referring to athletes who turn down Trump’s hospitality as “disrespectful” and “stupid.”

There has been speculation that a few athletes will opt out of upcoming visits. Several NBA teams changed their travel itineraries during the campaign leading up to the 2016 Presidential election to avoid staying in Trump hotels, which could be a sign of what’s to come.

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“Trump, during his candidacy, he became a polarizing candidate, which included along the way, insulting a lot of people…How it’s going to affect sports?” asked analyst and former NBA star Jalen Rose last October, during an episode of NBA Countdown. “Unlike Tom Brady, when his team won the championship, and he chose not to go to the White House, saying it was a scheduling conflict when Barack Obama was in office, what we’re going to see in professional sports — NBA and/or NFL — mark my words, there will be players that decline the opportunity to visit the White House under his presidency.” This has already proven prophetic, as Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty both have already declared that they won’t be making the trip to see President Trump at the White House.

Conversely, some high-profile athletes endorsed Trump, or tweeted their enthusiasm after he won. Among them are Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer, Buffalo Bills guard Richie Incognito, golfer Natalie Gulbis, NASCAR driver Michael Waltrip, and, of course, New England Patriots quarterback Brady.

In the age of outspoken athletes using their platforms to address issues they’re passionate about, we’ll see what direction champion-team White House visits take. Will a centuries-old American tradition be changed?

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Shakeia Taylor is an avid sports fan, bibliophile and budding vinyl collector who owns too many pairs of shoes. She can be found sitting in a pile of books or on Twitter. Follow her there @curlyfro.

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18 Comments on "High Fives from the President"

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Jaharri
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Jaharri

AWESOME READ!

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

In these polarized days, it would probably be better to do away with the custom. At one time, the presidency was a unifying institution even if you didn’t agree with the particular occupant’s politics. That’s no longer the case.

87 Cards
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87 Cards
I agree with the canceling the tradition but on different grounds. It is an exploitation that benefits only the President. He (someday she) has a team to the Rose Garden, appears on the slow-evening news doing the grip-and-grip with the champs, the television audience goes oh-ah at the fake news and the President has a photo with the “cool kids” to exploit. The athletes get no policy-discussion audience with the President or other benefit and would draw league rebuke if they pressed the President on policy or displayed peaceful free-speech. I live in San Antonio and this time of year… Read more »
Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

87 Cards,

I agree with that. I wouldn’t be surprised if the new administration stops the visits given the likelihood of significant no-shows, especially for basketball and football teams.

Slightly different, but in the 60s, at the height of the Vietnam War, LBJ had a group of entertainers to the White House ostensibly to discuss Vietnam. Eartha Kitt, a well-known singer at the time, made some very critical comments about the war that supposedly made Lady Bird Johnson cry. The incident ultimately had some negative impact on her career.

http://after68.com/1968-eartha-kitt-and-the-vietnam-war-controversy/

Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

“At one time, the presidency was a unifying institution even if you didn’t agree with the particular occupant’s politics.” Oh Really? Name one? And while you are thinking, play this song in the background: “Hey hey, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?”

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Dennis,

I think there was a time when people looked at the presidency much differently than they do now. I’m thinking back in the 50s or early sixties-say Ike or JFK, i.e, pre-Vietnam. As for LBJ, see my comment above. Maybe I’m just naïve.

87 Cards
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87 Cards

Not naive, Mark..times change, people change. Politicians/celebrities/athletes have been taken off their “Camelot” pedestals and been made mortal in the mythological narrative of our times. One day kids’-comic superheroes may cry–probably after Oakland gets a playing venue worthy of its heritage.

Rob
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Rob

1789?

Edgarenrom
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Edgarenrom
Nate Walter
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Nate Walter
Good article. Well researched and very well written. Obviously, we should be able to leave it to individuals to choose whether or not they wish to attend a ceremonial visit to the White House. I don’t get why there is harsh criticism over someone who disagrees with the president saying, “no thanks.” That is their right. I am a life-long Republican who had many issues with things done during Obama’s presidency (and before anyone comments, I was and still am a Never-Trump guy, so I don’t think he’s any better). But, if given the chance, I would delight in visiting… Read more »
Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

If some of the earlier presidents had invited championship teams to the WH, it would have gotten pretty boring. For example, the Yankees of the 50s; the Celtics, UCLA, and to a lesser extent, the Packers, of the 60s. How many times can you greet the same team?

Hannah
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Hannah

Cool/interesting IUBB was the first NCAA team to be invited 🙂
The Cubs met Obama, that is where this tradition ends for me. I am all for it continuing only because I’m sure Trump will be deeply & personally offended by those who decide not to come, and I wish him the worst

The Unsilent Majority
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The Unsilent Majority

Most people that hope the worst for Trump would gladly see the country fall apart in order to see him lose. It is the sad state of the country today that so many people delight in watching people fail rather than root for the underdogs to win. The country is filled with hate due to the progression of entitlements and freebies. People should not be so terrified of an administration that is simply trying to undo some of the damage orchestrated over the past 16 years.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider
First, many Republicans openly rooted for Obama to fail. Second, rooting for Trump’s presidency to fail is not the same thing as rooting for the country to fail. Personally, I think if Trump “succeeds” it would be a disaster for the country considering what a reprehensible authoritarian he is. Trump knows nothing and lies about everything. His attitude is to say 2+2 equals 5 and expect people to buy it.Apparently, the Unsilent Majority is ok with that enough that he or she can a ludicrous falsehood that hate is caused by entitlements. And, of course, ignore the hate directed at… Read more »
Rob Wiseman
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Rob Wiseman

“And, of course, ignore the hate directed at anyone that criticizes Trump.”

Or, you know, the hate at anyone who supports him?

Rob Wiseman
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Rob Wiseman

Also, name me an instance where anti-Obama folks rioted in the streets because someone mentioned his name in a favorable tone?

Then name me about 5-10 more, and we’ll be close to what the anti-Trump crowd has done. Please, the hate from Trump supporters, as vile as it may be, does not come close to the hate spewing from the “tolerant left”.

You all criticized Trump when he hinted he might not accept the election results. Hello pot, meet kettle.

Nate Walter
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Nate Walter

“I think that firefighter is a morally wretched man. I hope my house burns down because he’s trying to save it!”

“I think my oncologist is a racist pig. I hope he’s never able to stop the cancer!”

“No, Mr. Lifeguard, you trying to save me is just promoting your privilege, you misogynist douche. I hope you let me drown!”

Rooting for anyone responsible for your well-being to fail is completely and utterly stupid. I don’t care what you think of the president. You should hope and pray he does not fail.

tomnuetten
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tomnuetten
I don´t want him to fail, I just think he is unqualified to be a president and that he will “fail”. And it is pretty bad that someone like him got the chance to be president in the first place. And praying is a waste of time anyway… The article is good, like they mentioned. There were all the time athletes that didn´t went to the white house and I think they have every right to do so. If lots of people stay away in the next year, I do believe that they´ll get rid of the tradition though. Trump… Read more »
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