On Flag Day: Ike’s Baseball ‘Secret’
Since baseball’s earliest years, U.S. presidents have been big fans of the national pastime. Among the most avid baseball fans were William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson and Richard M. Nixon. After his political career ended, the players’ union lobbied to have Nixon appointed to head the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Only Dwight Eisenhower played professional baseball, and therein lays a tale. Eisenhower grew up in rural Abilene, Kan., starred as a right end in football and excelled in center field on his 1908 high school baseball team. Ike’s brother Edgar played fullback and first base. Since the Eisenhower family couldn’t afford to send both boys to college, the brothers struck a deal. Edgar went to the University of Michigan, while Dwight worked at a local creamery and sent his wages to his brother.
At age 21, Ike won an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point and became a star running back alongside another future WWII general, Omar Bradley. The New York Times called Ike “one of the most promising running backs in Eastern football,” but a knee injury ended Eisenhower’s football days. And to what Eisenhower called “one of the greatest disappointments of my life…maybe the greatest,” he didn’t make the Army baseball team.
But Ike had a baseball secret, one that could have altered his life’s course had it become known while he was at West Point. The year before Ike enrolled, and using the pseudonym “Wilson,” he played professional baseball in the Class D Central Kansas League as the Junction City Soldiers’ center fielder. Ike once told the Associated Press that he played poorly and was paid little. But setting off for college, Ike needed even the small sums he earned.
Years later, at a game Ike attended between the New York Giants and the Boston Braves, managers Mel Ott and Bob Coleman asked General Eisenhower to confirm whether he had played professionally, and if so, at what position. Ike half-kiddingly replied, “That’s my secret.”
Ike’s desire for secrecy is understandable. The NCAA has strict rules that prohibit student athletes from playing professionally. If found to have received compensation, the consequences, as Olympic decathlon star Jim Thorpe discovered, are severe. Thorpe was stripped of his two 1912 Olympic gold medals when the committee learned that he had played two seasons of semi-professional baseball and had therefore violated the amateurism rules. For Eisenhower, his punishment would have been immediate expulsion from West Point.
It’s likely Eisenhower knew that he had broken the West Point Code of Honor when he signed a 15-question legibility card attesting to his amateur status. As years passed, Ike stopped talking about his baseball-playing years, instructing his staff to dodge questions. A memo found among Ike’s presidential papers at the Abilene Eisenhower Library read: “As of August 1961, DDE indicated inquiries should not be answered concerning his participation in professional baseball — as it would necessarily become too complicated.”
Had West Point expelled Eisenhower, he might never have become the general who led the Allied forces to victory in World War II, might never have presided as Columbia University’s president and might never have served two U.S. presidential terms.
From his earliest days, Ike truly loved baseball. His favorite story recalls the time when, on a warm Kansas afternoon, he and a young friend went river fishing and fantasized aloud about their futures. The friend told Ike that one day he wanted to be the U.S. president. Dwight said that “he wanted to be a real major league baseball player like Honus Wagner.” In the end, Ike concluded, “Neither one of us got our wish.”
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.