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The Scholarly Sportsman
John Durant
July 16, 1962
President Wilson had little success as an athlete, but he loved sports all his life
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July 16, 1962

The Scholarly Sportsman

President Wilson had little success as an athlete, but he loved sports all his life

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Woodrow Wilson, 28th president of " the U.S., had a lifelong interest in sports (as both spectator and participant) and an open-hearted zeal and admiration for the athletic heroes of the college campus and the professional baseball field. "There was something in the stern struggle of strong men that set his blood going," wrote his biographer, Ray Stannard Baker. But he was handicapped by a frail physique, poor eyesight and an attitude that was more intellectual than muscular. Despite this, Wilson was a baseball player, golfer and football coach, although he performed only briefly in these activities (with the exception of golf) and did not shine at any.

His baseball playing career, for instance, was limited to one season—the spring of 1874 when he was a 17-year-old freshman at Davidson College, a small (107 students) Presbyterian school in North Carolina. Tommy, as he was then called (he was christened Thomas Wood-row Wilson), played center field on the college nine. He was an average batter but lacked the competitive spark. "Tommy Wilson," said Team Captain Robert Glenn of the scholarly, languid youth, "would be a good player if he wasn't so damned lazy!" Delicate health rather than laziness was probably the cause of Tommy's indifferent performance. He suffered a near physical breakdown at the end of the school term and remained at home convalescing for more than a year. But he never lost interest in the game. In his senior year at Princeton (1879) he was chosen president of the baseball association, although he was not a player, and later as a professor he delighted in watching "the splendid games...between the crack professional nines of the country."

Football captured the interest of Dr. Woodrow Wilson, the bespectacled and dignified professor of history at Wesley an University. He plunged with enthusiasm into college athletics, became a member of the advisory board and took a hand in coaching the team. It is doubtful if he imparted much technical knowledge to the players, but he was certainly the team's chief exhorter ("Go in to win; don't admit defeat before you start"), and he is credited with helping to turn out a better than average eleven.

Wilson took up golf while teaching at Princeton and continued to play throughout his public life. He played a terrible but good-humored game, never broke 90 and was generally well over 100. Golf to Wilson was a form of exercise rather than a contest, and he was unperturbed by his astronomical scores. Wilson's main golfing companion in Washington prior to his marriage to Mrs. Edith Boiling Gait (her average score: 200) was Rear Admiral Cary T. Grayson, his personal physician, who insisted that the over-worked President play golf and ride horseback for exercise. Attired in sweater and cap, Wilson would leave the White House in the morning promptly at 8:30, arrive at the golf course 10 minutes later and spend a couple of hours hacking at the ball. He would then drive back to the White House, take a shower and dress for his 11 o'clock appearance at his office.

His nose got in the way

Wilson once said of his game: "My right eye is like a horse's. I can see straight out with it but not sideways. As a result, I cannot take a full swing, because my nose gets in the way and cuts off my view of the ball. That is the reason I use such a short swing."

The day after the 1916 election a triumphant Wilson was on the course with Dr. Grayson when they encountered some players near the 18th hole. "How is your game today, Mr. President?" one of them called out. Wilson waved his hand and smiled, "Grayson has me three down, but I don't care. I am four states up on yesterday's election."

Wilson may not have burned with a champion's zeal, but he had fun playing golf, and fun as a sports fan.

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