On this day in 1997, President Bill Clinton undergoes surgery to repair the quadriceps tendon of his right knee at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. Clinton, an avid golfer, had injured his knee at 1:20 that morning when he slipped down some stairs at Australian professional golfer Greg Norman’s house. Clinton’s surgeon later reported that Clinton’s primary concern after the surgery was when he would again be able to “swing a golf club.” Upon his return to the links, Clinton continued to improve his game, and once remarked that he was the only president to trim his handicap—which stood at 15 at the end of his tenure–while in office.
Clinton was just the latest in a long line of sports-loving presidents. George Washington is believed to have been a fan of rounders, the English forerunner to American baseball, and is said to have played in games while camping with his troops at Valley Forge. Abraham Lincoln grew up in Illinois playing a later version of rounders, and in 1860 was photographed wearing a baseball uniform for a campaign promotion. Teddy Roosevelt, perhaps America’s best-known sportsman president, advocated what he called “the strenuous life,” and liked to hunt, play tennis, hike in the wilderness and ride horses. In 1910, William Howard Taft began the tradition of the president throwing out the first pitch at baseball’s opening day. He tossed out a ball to Senator pitcher Walter Johnson, then sat back and watched Johnson pitch a one-hitter. Richard Nixon was fond of using the White House’s bowling lanes, installed by Harry Truman, and was also an enthusiastic baseball and football fan. He once designed a play for Washington Redskins coach George Allen, and then called Allen during an NFL playoff game, directing him to use the play. Unfortunately, the play, a reverse, ended up costing the Redskins yards.
The most successful athlete to serve as president was Gerald Ford, who played center and linebacker for the University of Michigan football team, helping them to undefeated seasons and national championships in 1932 and 1933. Although Ford could have played professional football, he instead chose to attend Yale Law School, while also helping to coach Yale’s football and boxing teams. Ford was such a sports buff that he took new wife Betty to the Rose Bowl as part of the couple’s honeymoon.
More recently, George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president, was captain and first baseman of his Yale baseball team, which made it to the College World Series. His son, George W. Bush, the 43rd president, served as managing partner of the Texas Rangers from 1989 to 1994. It has been said that it was once his ambition in life to become the commissioner of Major League Baseball, a position no president has yet held.