This week marked the publication of an excellent new book on Teddy Roosevelt and his relationship with American sports and fitness. The 329-page volume The Strenuous Life: Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of the American Athlete is a lively account of how a sickly child became obsessed with athletic and fitness, carried that obsession into the White House, and influenced a nation.
The book also paints a less than flattering portrait of the 26th president from the perspective of most baseball fans.
Author Ryan Swanson, a history professor at the University of New Mexico’s Honor’s College, devotes an entire chapter to Theodore Roosevelt’s relationship with baseball, which at the turn of the 20th century has already established itself as “the national game.”
Titled “Baseball’s great Roosevelt Chase,” the chapter references the Nationals’ presidents race and the Let Teddy Win movement, but harkens back to myriad rebuffed efforts by representatives of the Major Leagues to get Roosevelt to make an appearance at games including the World Series.
After failing to attend a single game during his first term of office, the American League’s Ban Johnson made a show of offering Roosevelt an unlimited free pass to games, according to Swanson. “The management has issued a golden pass to President Roosevelt, who may desire to see what a real, strenuous, bold athlete looks like,” the Sporting Life reported in 1906.
Swanson explains that when that didn’t work, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Leagues presented a solid gold “Presidents Pass” to Roosevelt on May 16, 1907 at the White House. Engraved with Roosevelt’s image, the gold pass conferred lifetime membership, including free admission to 36 leagues and 256 cities.
That didn’t work either. Swanson writes that the hero of San Juan Hill had very poor eyesight as a child, and expressed a fear of being hit, citing Roosevelt as saying “I don’t think that I should be afraid of anything except a baseball coming at me in the dark.”
Perhaps more significantly, he opens the chapter with a quote from Teddy’s oldest daughter Alice: “Father and all us regarded baseball as a mollycoddle game. Tennis, football, lacrosse, boxing, polo, yes – they are violent, which appealed to us. But baseball? Father wouldn’t watch it, not even at Harvard.”
So Teddy was apparently not a fan. And now that the book has been published, Swanson is openly calling for the Nationals to return to the tradition of not letting Teddy win. “Don’t let TR, a noted baseball curmudgeon, win anymore. No mas!” Swanson wrote this week. “Get right with baseball history and perhaps, just maybe, the Nationals will find themselves playing playoff baseball again this October.”
(Don’t tell Swanson, but before Teddy won, most believed that the curse worked the other way around.)