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Hoover-ball returned to Washington, D.C., recently after a hiatus of 57 years, and those of us in town for the games wondered why there was no red, white and blue bunting draped along Pennsylvania Avenue.
There should have been a parade. The last time they played Hoover Rules medicine ball in the capital—March 4, 1933—thousands lined the streets, bands played, and Marines fired 21-gun salutes into the air. Even if many of those celebrants were there for the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hoover-ball went out with a bang that day. The departing chief executive, Herbert Hoover, played at 7 a.m. on the South Lawn of the White House, as he had most mornings of his presidency. Afterward, he and the rest of the "medicine ball cabinet" exchanged farewells and autographed a four-pound yellow medicine ball, which is now on display at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum in West Branch, Iowa.
For the 1990 Hoover-ball Capital Classic, which was played on Sept. 29, there was no such fanfare. The current occupant of the White House was conspicuously absent. In fact, Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon, who heaved the ceremonial first ball, was the only prominent Republican in attendance.
" Mr. Hoover told me about the game when I was a graduate student at Stanford," the 68-year-old Hatfield recalled while loosening up before his big toss. "To be honest, it didn't make a lot of sense to me at the time."
Judging from the expressions of baffled tourists who stopped to gawk on the Capitol Mall, it still doesn't make a lot of sense.
Hoover-ball blends elements of volleyball, tennis and cabertossing, as two teams of three players heave a six-pound leather ball, two pounds heavier than Hoover's presidential model, back and forth across an eight-foot-high net. This cannot be accomplished gracefully, which explains why Hoover-ball boosters emphasize the game's supposed fitness benefits. "We like to say it exercises every major muscle group of the body," says Tom Walsh, executive director of the Hoover Library Association, "except the portion of the brain that controls common sense." A reporter for The Des Moines Register, after trying Hoover-ball not long ago, wrote, "The effect is that of a group of travelers tossing their luggage at a boat that has just pulled away from the dock, only to have the crew toss it right back again." Another Hoover-ball player likened throwing a medicine ball over a net to tossing a frozen turkey over a garage.
Hoover-ball in its modern form dates back to May 12, 1987, when this writer and five other thrill seekers trundled out a nine-pound medicine ball and played an indoor match at The Athletic Club of Overland Park, Kans. (SI, Nov. 9, 1987). A short time later Walsh seized on the idea of staging an annual Hoover-ball tournament. It would coincide with the Herbert Hoover birthday picnic, which is held each year at the library on the weekend closest to Aug. 10, the anniversary of Hoover's birth.
Fifteen teams, most of them from nearby Iowa City, played in the first "national," on Aug. 7, 1988. From these humble beginnings Hoover-ball has grown. Twenty-nine teams made it to Hoover-ball II, 50 teams to III, and Walsh predicts 100 entries for the 1991 nationals. Eastern Iowa has broken out in indoor and outdoor leagues, and the game has found its way into 15 or 20 Iowa high schools. "The kids love it," says Walsh. "It's not the same old calisthenics."
Much of the credit for this burgeoning goes to Hoover-ball "commissioner" Scott Sailor, a 32-year-old journalism teacher at Prairie High School in Cedar Rapids. Not much bigger than a medicine ball himself, the 125-pound Sailor strung nets and distributed tubes of Ben-Gay at Hoover-ball I. He has since fanned the flames of Hoover-ball mania with shameless stunts and overheated press releases. When he and Walsh were thwarted last year in their attempt to put Hoover-ball back on the South Lawn of the White House, Sailor publicly impugned President Bush's manhood, calling him a sissy and a horseshoe thrower.
"We don't expect that wimp to play," an unrepentant Sailor reiterated before September's Capital Classic, "but we expect him to send somebody over to see what it's all about."