Book Review: The Games the Presidents Played

I’m in the midst of reading for my prelims this summer. The progress is moving slowly and has been a bit haphazard so far, but I think I’m starting to find my feet.

One of the latest books I have read was so engaging that I felt compelled to post something here about it. The book wasn’t originally on my reading lists but I added it for fun. It covers a topic that I’ve personally been interested in for quite a while now: sports and the American Presidency. It’s a rare book that I read slowly (and completely) over the past few days, conquering a couple chapters each night to unwind before going to sleep. Now having completed it, I’m convinced it’s a book useful to just about all U.S. historians.

The book is John Sayle Watterson’s, The Games the Presidents Played: Sports and the Presidency. The book spans twenty-three chapters organized into five sections tracing the changing relationship that sports and recreation have had with U.S. Presidents and the presidency. Beginning with George Washington and ending with George W. Bush, Watterson does his best to discuss each office holder, but the bulk of the text (4/5ths) covers the 20th century. While Watterson suggests George Washington may have been the greatest presidential athlete, he makes it clear that Theodore Roosevelt fundamentally changed the role and meaning of sports for modern presidents.

Watterson defines sports and games fairly loosely, including things like fishing, hunting, horseback riding, bridge, and poker alongside activities more common and recognizable to readers such as baseball, golf, and tennis. His broad definition allows him to paint an overview of presidential athletic endeavors. Although his definition is sometimes too broad and slippery, it allows him to traverse the 18th and 19th centuries with a rich texture of anecdotes that bring his presidential characters to life before going into more detail with the 20th century office holders.

Indeed, these stories are in many ways the strength of the book and why I believe it will be useful for a large cross-section of U.S. historians. Watterson uses sports and games as means to explore and develop an understanding of presidential personalities and style. Stories that may seem to some readers like bar trivia offer a window into the daily lives of presidents revealing their hobbies and foibles. For example, Watterson shares two stories about Washington and Lincoln getting into bar fights. Washington overpowered his attacker, who was surprised at the future president’s strength, while Lincoln intimidated his opposer with his quick wit and imposing stature. As I read the book, I couldn’t help but picture teaching a U.S. History survey armed with these stories.

To be sure, the book was filled with more than just presidential sports trivia and fun anecdotes. Watterson relies on papers and correspondence from presidents, their doctors, and other staff members to present a larger picture of the how and why athletic activities were utilized. Many used them simply for exercise and stress relief. Some used games as an opportunity to control or change their public image. Others yet used sports as an opportunity to meet with donors and advisors. As the book illustrates, spors and games were used for a variety of means that continued to change over the course of the 20th century.

Changes in the role and use of sports depended on the personality, health, and political skill of the president. Likewise, the specific historical moment played an important role in shaping both pubic opinion and the availability of leisure time for presidential sports. Watterson concludes by offering 10 guidelines for future president to follow in their engagements with sports, carefully noting that the expectations are always changing, particularly with the potential of a female president on the horizon.

The book is interesting other ways as well. Watterson discusses more than just the personal habits and engagement of individual presidents with sports. He also connects their policies to larger movements. This is most vividly done though the example of Gerald Ford and the opposition to Title IX. Although it is likely that Ford personally agreed with the lobbying of University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler that football should be exempt from the laws strictures, he instead removed himself from the decision making process. In this way, Ford protected his own football legacy while letting important gender equality legislation move forward.

As a sports historian, I enjoyed the book because it offered a solid overview of the development and evolution of the United States’ sporting culture, albeit from the top down. Watterson’s discussion of sports and exercise suggest future studies into the two activities as separate but inextricably linked entities. Finally, and perhaps most simply, he offers a clear illustration of how and why sports matter in politics and to politicians concluding that a certain degree of sports competency will be a requirement for  all future presidents.

Finally,  I think this book is useful for all U.S. historians because of its well written and concise stories and mini-biographies.  As I mentioned earlier, the book is a goldmine of anecdotes and engaging lecture material. While the coverage is light in the early years, there is enough material to be used for both halves of the U.S. history survey. It’s probably too long and too narrow to assign to undergraduates in a survey, but could be serviceable in a sports history of American presidency course.

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