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.
“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?
References & Resources
- The White House Historical Association, “Calvin Coolidge and the Washington Senators’ 1924 World Series”
- Bernie Augustine, New York Daily News, “What’s in a number? A history of Presidents and jersey numbers”
- Thomas Neumann, ESPN.com, “Why White House visits by champions are a U.S. tradition”
- Ken Belson, The New York Times, “At the White House, It Is Often Good Politics to Play Ball”
- Nathaniel Rakich, The Hardball Times, “Our Would-Be Fans-in-Chief”
- Kate Feldman, New York Daily News, “Tom Brady, Michael Jordan and other athletes who skipped their White House visit”
- Sam Smith, Chicago Tribune, “Snub By Jordan Undermines Team”
- TMZ, “Fran Tarkenton — Trump Boycotters Are Stupid … ‘Nobody Boycotted Obama ‘Cause He’s Black'”
- Emmett Knowlton, Business Insider, “ESPN’s Jalen Rose says one fallout in sports from the presidential election will be fewer athletes visiting the White House”
- Baseball Almanac, “President Calvin Coolidge Baseball Game Attendance Log”
- The Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC, “Donald Trump: Greatest baseball player in NY, just ask him”
- Sean Gregory, Time, “New England Patriot Devin McCourty Also Won’t Visit the White House Because of President Trump”