Even in Roosevelt’s day, passion for sports included a mix of genuine love and image-making. Roosevelt loved tennis but believed it “was a game that the American people would perceive as effete,” says biographer Edmund Morris. In that vein, “he was very private about his tennis and didn’t like to be seen or photographed playing tennis.” Nonetheless, he installed the first White House tennis court and his key advisers became known as the tennis cabinet.
Though there are a few exceptions (hello, LBJ), nearly every president of the past century has brought an affinity for some form of exercise or competition to the Oval Office, along with a willingness to while away precious down time taking in games as a fan.
From George H.W. Bush’s speed golfing to JFK’s touch football, presidents have long sought escape in the sports world. By some estimates, FDR spent nearly a quarter of his four-term presidency on the water, pursuing his beloved yachting avocation. Ronald Reagan lifted weights as president and bragged of saving 77 lives as an Illinois lifeguard to his last day.
Some presidents went beyond weekend-warrior status. The elder Bush captained the Yale baseball team as a first baseman, while Gerald Ford’s college football career at the University of Michigan included two national championships and elicited contract offers from two NFL franchises. Ford opted for law school.