The Presidents Who Made America’s Sports
In sports, it’s all about the Benjamins, but historically it’s been all about the Roosevelts, Kennedys, Bushes and other American presidents. Here are the most influential chief executives on America’s pastimes.
President Theodore Roosevelt could very well be the most important figure in the history of American football. Roosevelt used the bully pulpit of the Oval Office in 1905 to save the game from calls for a ban on the sport that had killed 18 players in 1905 alone. Instead, T.R. called the heads of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to Washington and told them to clean up the game. The American Football Rules Committee, formed after the Oval Office meeting, instituted rules that allegedly made the game safer and led to the formation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Football players and owners today have no idea what Teddy Roosevelt did for the game. The late Art Modell was asked by this writer years ago at the Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida, who is the most important person in the development of football. Modell answered. “(Chicago Bears owner and one of the NFL founders) George Halas.”
When told about Teddy Roosevelt’s role, the long-time owner of the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens said, “You might very well be right, without him, we might not be here.”
President William Howard Taft may or may not have started the seventh inning stretch but there is a certainty that he did start another baseball tradition. Taft on April 14, 1910 threw the first pitch on opening day in Washington in a game between two franchises that no longer exist, the Washington Senators (now Minnesota Twins) and the Philadelphia Athletics presently the Oakland A’s) on April 14, 1910 at long forgotten Griffith Stadium. (Griffith Stadium would play a key role in sports history more than five decades later under the Kennedy Administration.)
President Herbert Hoover’s 1932 amusement tax, a levy that was designed to raise more money for the United States government fight the Great Depression, hurt baseball attendance. President Franklin Roosevelt told Major League Baseball owners in 1942 to play ball even though the country was involved in World War II. Roosevelt sent Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis a letter that can be found in the National Archives Prologue Magazine that stated: “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”
All 16 Major League Baseball franchises were able to field a team although it was difficult to fill rosters. The Cincinnati Reds signed 15-year-old Joe Nuxhall in 1944 to pitch. His first game was on June 10 of that year not long after his high school baseball season ended. The St. Louis Browns employed one-armed Pete Gray in 1945 as an outfielder.
The National Football League never received a presidential directive but played anyway. Almost all the teams had enough players except the Pittsburgh Steelers. During World War II, there was not even a “Steelers” name.
Art Rooney combined his Steelers combined other teams. The first was with Philadelphia in 1943 and the second was with the Chicago Cardinals in 1944. The “Steagles” split home games between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the “Car-Pitt” team played at both Comiskey Park in Chicago and in Pittsburgh.
“The Steagles, which was a great name, they had a very good team,” said Steelers chairman, Hall of Fame member, and former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney. “Then the Cardinals the next year. That was disastrous. We had four coaches, none of whom was named the head coach. So it was the old story, who is in charge. We were 0-10.
“But the reason for it was, of course, the war. Not only was it difficult because guys were gone. But where you could have a good team was where there was a military operation. In both Chicago and Philadelphia, they had a lot of navy people because of being on water. So that’s the reason they were able to get the players and that’s the reason we combined with them.
“We had a receiver by the name of Tony Bova who was 4-F because he couldn’t see. But he was our leading receiver.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to put a thaw in the Cold War with the Soviet Union in the late 1950s by sending the U.S. national hockey team to play some exhibition games against the Soviets in Moscow. The Americans failed in their efforts to bring down the temperature between the two countries that were at the nadir of their relationship at that point. Bill Cleary, one of the players who went to Moscow, in an interview years later told of eating in a Moscow restaurant with his teammates and the Soviet intimidation tactic of the day was placing models of the Sputnik spacecraft at every table where the Americans dined to remind the Americans that the Soviet Union, not the U.S., was successful in getting into space.
Eisenhower’s attempt to find an opening in the Cold War failed, although there were additional sports and cultural exchanges between the two countries.
On September 30, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed into law the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961, which propelled football into the stratosphere. The legislation allowed sports leagues like the NFL to take bundle franchises, in this case all 14 teams, as one and allowed the league to negotiate a league-wide TV contract with television networks. That changed sports finances and brought the NFL more money as a collective group from TV than individual teams could get by crafting TV deals in local markets.
“I think NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle explained to everybody very cogently what was at stake and Rozelle knew it wasn’t going to be much of a league with lopsided revenue,” the New York Giants’ Wellington Mara said in 2000. “It was too much to expect Buffalo to compete with New York or Green Bay to compete with Chicago.”
In 1962, the Kennedy administration was looking for a way to desegregate the Washington Redskins. Washington’s owner George Preston Marshall had refused to sign a Negro player in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and into the 1960s. Marshall’s team had played in Griffith Stadium but the federally funded D. C. Stadium was opening and Marshall wanted to move his team to the new facility.
That stadium forced Marshall’s hand when JFK’s Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall made Marshall what amounted to an ultimatum: hire Negro players or find somewhere else to play.
Marshall signed a 30-year lease with the federal government and picked the Syracuse University star Ernie Davis to shut up the Kennedy administration. He sent Davis to Cleveland for Bobby Mitchell and a first round pick after the 1961-62 NFL Draft. Marshall’s team was the last NFL team to hire an African-American player.
In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson approved the merger of the National Football League and the American Football League, which was the third most important presidential decision in football history. The legislation eliminated competition between the two leagues for talent, and established a 24-team entity, and the Super Bowl.
“I think football was on its way to self destruction with the two leagues,” said Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm, who negotiated the pact combining both leagues in 1966. “Both sides were spending themselves into bankruptcy and there were only four or five clubs that could remain really competitive.
“Teams were drafting players not on the basis on whether or not they could play but whether they could be signed. Whenever that happens then your sport is in trouble and that’s the way we were headed then.”
President Richard M. Nixon signed into law Title IX legislation that was designed to give women an equal opportunity to get an education in American colleges and universities with men. Title IX morphed into a sports issue as schools began to provide women athletes with more athletic opportunities. The battle of the Title IX legislation and women’s sports is still being fought with some coaches and athletic directors crying foul saying they have to cut men’s sports programs and keep women’s programs to stay in compliance with Title IX rules.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford stayed out of the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics politics. America’s team participated in the Games despite a 28 African country boycott because a New Zealand’s rugby team played a game in apartheid South Africa and the International Olympic Committee refused to ban New Zealand from the event.
But in 1980, President Jimmy Carter gave an ultimatum to the Soviet Union, pull their troops out of Afghanistan by February 20, 1980 or the United States would boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. On March 21, the United States pulled out of the Moscow Games. The United States was joined by 60 other countries in the boycott. The Soviets returned the favor and boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
President Ronald Reagan contributed two major pieces of legislation that changed the finances of United States sports. The 1984 Cable Act allowed cable system operators to bundle networks like ESPN, CNN and the Weather Channel into one expanded basic tier and sports owners were able to get more money from ESPN and build their own cable networks. Two years later, Reagan signed the 1986 Tax Act which changed the way municipalities’ funded stadium and arena projects. In short, municipalities could only get back eight cents on every dollar that was invested in publicly built stadiums and arenas. That started stadium and arena wars between cities that wanted to retain or become “major league” towns. Two Congressional efforts to close the loophole that created the 8 percent cap have failed.
President George H. W. Bush signed into law the Anabolic Steroids Control Act of 1990. The legislation made the possession of steroids without a physician’s approval illegal. In 2004, Bush’s son, President George W. Bush, who in 1990 was the managing general partner of the Texas Rangers, included a segment on steroids and athletes using steroids in sports in his State of the Union address. By 2005, Congress held hearings on the use of steroids in sports.
Presidents have also used their bully pulpit to get sports owners’ attention, too. In 1994, President Bill Clinton called the warring sides together in the Major League Baseball Players Association strike against the owners to the Oval Office. Clinton tried to hammer out a settlement and failed miserable. Even in failure, presidents do have an effect on sports. President George H. W. Bush’s appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1991 would come into play when baseball players sued owners during the strike. On March 30, 1995, Judge Sotomayor issued a preliminary injunction against Major League Baseball that prevented the owners from unilaterally implementing a new collective bargaining agreement and using replacement players. Sotomayor ended the strike and was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2009.
President Obama’s only real foray into sports has been with the Olympics. Obama personally lobbied the International Olympic Committee in Denmark in 2009 in an effort to land the 2016 Summer Olympics for Chicago. Instead, the IOC picked Rio de Janeiro for the games to open them up to a South American market for the first time.
Obama ditched Sochi like many other world leaders who are essentially protesting Russian persecution of political enemies and gays.