On June 4, 1907 George Washington was born. No, not that George Washington, obviously, but the brief career of the man born Sloan Vernon Washington does give us a chance to discuss the many players christened wholly or in part for our nation’s leaders.
I’ll grant you it would be more appropriate had this George Washington been born on July the Fourth, thus completing the Father of our Country/Birth of our Nation tableau, but alas, I can only work with what I’m given. Of course, being that “George” was, in fact, a nickname, this might be considered a little bit of a stretch to use as a jumping-off point for presidential namesakes. But I’ve not yet been constrained by such concerns, and I’ve no intention of starting now.
Generally speaking, ballplayers named for presidents fall into two categories: those who were better ballplayers than their namesakes were presidents, and those who weren’t. Washington falls into that second category. An outfielder, he played two years for the White Sox in the 1930s, hitting poorly the first and not at all the second. That not at all amounted to an OPS+ of seven (no, really), which also led to the end of his major league career.
Continuing the theme of ballplayers who couldn’t hold a candle to their White House namesakes, we come to seven players named for Thomas Jefferson and three for James Madison. While Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and Madison was the chief contributor to the Constitution, the players bearing their names are characterized by the likes of Thomas Jefferson “Sleeper” Sullivan (career batting average: .184) and James Madison Pearce (career ERA: 5.78).
There are two exceptions, one being Thomas Jefferson York (Tom York to friends and scorekeepers) who was a pretty good player in the 1870s and ’80s. The other is Tommy Bridges, who was a six-time All-Star for the Tigers. Bridges is a bit of an odd case; his full given name was Thomas Jefferson Davis Bridges. Not surprisingly, Bridges was a southern boy, so I imagine his parents saw the name as a way to honor two great patriots, but the link is more than a trifle jarring in the modern era.
In any case, Bridges was a pretty good pitcher. He won as many as 23 games in a season and finished his career with an ERA of 3.57. More notably, he was famous for his curveball, widely seen as the best in the league. Rob Neyer ranked it as the fifth best of all-time, behind only guys like Sandy Koufax and Bert Blyleven. That’s pretty good company.
Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president in my humble opinion, balances that out nicely by having possibly the worst collection of namesake ballplayers you can imagine. Ham Wade had just one career plate appearance (he walked), while the memorably named Abe Wolstenholme came to the plate 10 more times but also made out 10 more times. Meanwhile, the really memorably named Sweetbreads Bailey (born Abraham Lincoln Bailey) appeared in parts of three seasons but his career 4-7 record is roughly indicative of his quality as a pitcher.
As for more modern presidents, only one player is named for each of the Roosevelts. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Wieand was somehow shortened to simply Ted Wieand, perhaps because it was decided a guy with a 9.95 ERA shouldn’t share the name of the 20th century’s greatest president.
Meanwhile, the first modern player I’m aware of named for a president, Ted Lilly, is actually Theodore Roosevelt Lilly. Lilly is probably not as good a pitcher as Teddy was a chief executive, but that might be the closest in quality of any pairing.
But that is only half the story. Many presidents were at best forgettable and at worst the sort you wish you could be forgotten. A shockingly high number of ballplayers are named for these frequently hapless leaders.
Martin Van Buren, our nation’s first truly forgettable leader, has only one player named for him, Martin Van Buren Walker. Marty Walker made only one career start, and failed to retire a batter, ending with a career ERA of ∞. One player, Billy Geer, was given the ungainly birth name of William Henry Harrison Greer to honor our ninth president, who actually spent less time as president (30 days) than Greer spent in the major leagues.
Several players are named after Ulysses Grant, although one assumes the honor came from Grant’s generalship rather than his time as president. (Although Grant served two terms, he continued his lifelong streak of being utterly inept at pretty much everything except defeating Confederate armies.) Most notable of his namesakes is Ulysses Simpson Grant Stoner, who played in the ’20s and ’30s and was, improbably, known as Lil Stoner. I can only assume that nickname meant something different then.
Chester A. Arthur and Rutherford B. Hayes—the two are probably the leaders in the department of presidential facial hair, which is a good thing because they surely will not be remembered for anything else. In any case, Arthur comes out ahead as he has three (pedestrian, it must be said) ballplayers bearing his name, while Hayes has none.
Grover Cleveland—who was famously elected to two non-consecutive terms and less famously did pretty much nothing in either of them—has an astounding four players named for him. The best, and far and away most famous, was Grover Cleveland Alexander. Alexander is one of the greatest pitchers ever. That was a neat trick given that he was, among other things, an epileptic, partially deaf and a roaring drunk.
He overcame all those obstacles (and a few more) to win the third most games all time. He also has the unique accomplishment, as I believe Bill James has pointed out, of being the only player named for a president who was later played by one (Ronald Reagan, of course) in a movie.
So there you have it, a rundown of some of the players who carry the name of national standard bearers. This may seem a curiously arcane tradition (Ted Lilly notwithstanding), but I think it was kind of nice that presidents both great and not so great continued to live on, in the major leagues, long after their terms. Perhaps that trend will return soon, so that in my middle age I can watch players with given names like Gerald Ford Williams. Or, given the increasing presence of Latin American players, William Jefferson Clinton Hernandez. There’s a name that would bring a smile to my face.