In 1906, as baseball took hold as America’s pastime, the game’s godfathers had a problem.
To Roosevelt, a noted tough guy who ate a dozen eggs for breakfast and boxed in matches at the White House, baseball was a game for sissies.
“Father and all of us regarded baseball as a mollycoddle game,” his daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, once said. “Tennis, football, lacrosse, boxing, polo, yes — they are violent, which appealed to us. But baseball? Father wouldn’t watch it, not even at Harvard.”
This drove the lords of baseball insane, a story vividly and rather hilariously told by University of New Mexico sports historian Ryan Swanson in his new book “The Strenuous Life: Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of the American Athlete.”
“He doesn’t think it fits into what he thinks sports should be,” Swanson said in an interview. “Roosevelt thinks sports should make Americans better citizens. They should test themselves physically.”
Roosevelt never admitted it, but Swanson also suspects his opinion of the sport might have also developed from his inability to play it. Roosevelt had poor eyesight even before he lost the use of one eye during a White House boxing match.
Stepping into a batter’s box might have gotten Roosevelt killed.
“At one point, he says he fears nothing like he fears a baseball coming at him in the dark,” Swanson said.
Whatever the reason, baseball officials went to extraordinary lengths to turn Roosevelt into a baseball fan, an “effort anchored,” Swanson wrote, in “a broader plan meant to link the president to baseball.”
They presented him with a ceremonial ticket laced with gold permitting him to attend any game in Washington. A special box was built for him. Leaders from the minor leagues made an even better offer, presenting Roosevelt with a solid gold pass “to attend baseball games forever,” Swanson wrote — in any league, in any city.
Nevertheless, Roosevelt persisted in saying no. This became a big story in Washington. It was, as Swanson put it, a “baseball cold war.”
Here's a Washington Post headline from 1906:
Roosevelt never did attend a baseball game as president — at least back then.
He has been resurrected as one of the presidential mascots who race around Nationals Park.
Teddy is a crowd favorite — a perennial loser and dunderhead. Though the original creators of the president’s race never pinned Roosevelt’s long losing streak to his disdain for the game, Swanson said his blundering is a fun nod to history.
And, by the way, baseball survived without him. And now the nation’s capital has a team on the brink of history.
“I hope the Nationals win the World Series,” Swanson said. “But what do I know? I’m a historian. I don’t project.”
Read more Retropolis: