Only 43 men in the history of the United States can relate to sending Seal Team Six to take out bin Laden, but a vast majority of us can relate to saving two strokes with a birdie on eleven. We've never vetoed a bill, but we've volleyed a ball. We've never faced a full press corps, but we've faced a full court press. The politics, in the end, are subjective. Sports are objective.
In our never-ending quest to quantify, qualify, list and rank everything in the known universe, our best and brightest stat geeks have thus far ignored the athletic accomplishments of our commanders-in-chief. This despite an enormous interest in our presidents' grasp of popular sports.
Whether ESPN is airing a special about President Obama's pick-up basketball games, or photographers are camping out in front of the White House to catch Dwight Eisenhower practicing his short irons on the South Lawn, or we're subjected to another grainy home video of the Kennedy family tossing around a football, the American public has proven to consistently find our Air Force One occupant's athletic lives fascinating.
Which president saved 77 lives as a lifeguard? Which one's lucky handball is still sitting in the Smithsonian over a century after he last played with it? Which president invented a sport? Or practiced jiu-jitsu three afternoons a week while in office? Or was an NCAA champion? The answers to these questions (in order: Reagan, Lincoln, Hoover, T. Roosevelt, Ford) don't even scratch the surface of the athletic information available on our presidents, which is why it's time to harness the power of statistics and the spirit of sabermetrics to create a system to properly crown one of our presidents king of the athletic arena.
To maintain consistency with other ranking systems, and to compete with the likes of ERA, WAR, VORP and all the others, this ranking metric is called PAS., short for President Athlete Score. In conversation, it could be used something like, "Dude, no way Woodrow Wilson was a better athlete than Ronald Reagan, have you seen their P.A.S. rankings? It's not even close!"
The components of the P.A.S. ranking are as follows, with each president receiving either a 1 (worst) or a 5 (best) in a particular category. The highest possible score is a 25. The lowest, 5. Only one president scored a 25. The lowest got a 6 (sorry, Grover Cleveland):
Executive Power: Ranks a president's physical strength.
Running Ability: Ranks a president's physical fitness and cardio.
Weighs and Means: Ranks how fit a president stayed once in office.
Executive Experience: Ranks the athletic accomplishments of a president.
Mettle of Honor: Ranks a president's athletic toughness and endurance.
Height: 6-1½. Weight: 180. College: Harvard, Occidental College. Sports: Basketball, Golf.
Executive Power: 3. Running Ability: 4 Weighs & Means: 5.
Executive Achievement: 2. Mettle of Honor: 2. PAS: 16
Entering office, odds were that more basketball was going to be played in the Obama White House than in all previous presidencies combined. While that prophecy has come true, who would have thought that President Obama also played more rounds of golf in his first three years on the job than George W. Bush played in his entire two terms? In addition to pick-up hoops, Obama is famous for carving time out of his busy schedule to get in some cardio and weight training several times a week. His decent jump shot has been well documented, but so are his pitiful first pitches and his clown-like bowling ability (not that bowling is a major sport). He gets lots of credit for staying in top shape in the top job in the country, but some major deductions for a lack of ability to throw a ball –- either to another person or down a bowling alley -- though word has it that he's been working hard on his strikes and spares in his spare time.
Height: 5-11. Weight: 170. College: Davidson College/Princeton. Sports: Cycling, Baseball, Golf, Football Coach.
Executive Power: 2. Running Ability: 4. Weighs & Means: 5. Executive Achievement: 3. Mettle of Honor: 3. PAS: 17.
Wilson had above average speed as a runner and played center field on the Davidson College baseball team. As you'll see throughout this list, playing sports on an actual college team translates to a higher score. When Wilson eventually transferred to Princeton, he tried out for the Tiger's squad but couldn't make varsity. Rather than be away from the game, Wilson chose to become the team's assistant manager and thrived. This early managerial experience no doubt helped him when he took over as coach of the Wesleyan University football team years later. As president, Wilson was a cycling enthusiast, even taking vacations to bicycle in the English Lake District. Despite his Lance Armstrong-like aspirations, the sport Wilson is most identified with in the Oval Office is golf, where he played 1,000 rounds over two terms. His love for the links went so far that he had the Secret Service paint golf balls black so he could play in the snow during Washington D.C.'s winters. Wilson was also the first president to throw out the first pitch at a World Series game.
Height: 6-1. Weight: 195. College: Yale. Sports: Running, Weight Lifting, Golf, Baseball.
Executive Power: 3. Running Ability: 5. Weighs & Means: 5. Executive Achievement: 3. Mettle of Honor: 2. PSA: 18.
The current presidential debates can sometimes feel like a statistical blizzard, with most in the audience having no frame of reference for what the candidates are talking about. For you athletes out there, here's a stat you can wrap your brain around: At age 55, President George W. Bush could bench 185 pounds for five reps, which probably equates to a max bench of about 215 pounds. He also could reportedly keep a 6:45/mile pace for three miles and even completed the Houston Marathon in under four hours when he was 46. Bush was an avid circuit trainer and runner, even going so far as to install a treadmill on Air Force One. His first pitch strike at Yankee Stadium during the World Series after 9/11 was legendary, and if not for a stint as a cheerleader, this fitness addict may have been higher on this list.
Height: 6-1. Weight: 185. College: Eureka College. Sports: Swimming, Football, Basketball, Track.
Executive Power: 3. Running Ability: 5. Weighs & Means: 3. Executive Achievement: 4. Mettle of Honor: 4. PAS: 19.
Earning an athletic scholarship to college produces an automatic bump in the P.A.S. ranking system -- even if that college is Eureka. At Eureka, Reagan played football and was captain of the swim team, which is no surprise, considering he yanked almost 80 people out of the water as a lifeguard in his late teens. In between saving people from drowning, Reagan was a star football player, basketball player and runner at Dixon High School in Illinois. He was 69 when he became president, so his best athletic days were behind him. Fortunately, his portrayal as George “The Gipper” Gipp in the film Knute Rockne: All American is timeless.
Height: 6-0. Weight: 175. College: Harvard. Sports: Swimming, Football, Golf, Tennis, Basketball.
Executive Power: 3. Running Ability: 5. Weighs & Means: 3.5. Executive Achievement: 4. Mettle of Honor: 5. PAS: 20.5.
Here's where we start to get to the cream of the crop. By the time Kennedy was elected president, he was at the tail end of his athletic ability, hobbled by crippling back pain that brings to mind Larry Bird lying on his stomach on the parquet floor in the old Boston Garden. During his prime, JFK was an exceptional swimmer both in the pool and under fire. In addition to being on the Harvard swim team, one of his most famous athletic feats involves a young Kennedy dragging a fellow shipmate more than three miles through the open ocean to safety using a rope held in his teeth after their torpedo patrol boat was destroyed. This incredible rescue, along with his days on the Harvard football team earned him a rare '5' in the Mettle of Honor category. JFK also enjoyed golf, tennis, basketball and ... playing the field with the ladies.
Height: 6-2. Weight: 220 pounds (estimated). College: None. Sports: Horse Riding, Feats of Strength, Early Javelin.
Executive Power: 5. Running Ability: 3 Weighs & Means: 4. Executive Achievement: 4. Mettle of Honor: 5. PAS: 21.
If George Washington was born about 70 years ago, there's a good chance he would have grown up to be Mike Ditka. He has the same build and he excelled both on the field of battle and as a leader. The main difference is that in the 1700s, Washington stood nearly half a foot taller than his peers, and he was a man-child before there was even such a term. Relatively speaking, when it came to the sports of his day, horseback riding, rock throwing and "pitching the iron bar" (a version of javelin), the Father of our Country would have been recruited in all of them while he was in eighth grade. While most of his accomplishments are tough to quantify, we have to go by what the people of his time believed. One, he was considered the best horseback rider in the United States. Two, whenever a feat of strength was put in front of him, whether it was throwing a rock clear across the Rappahannock River (easy) or launching an iron bar twice the distance of his young soldiers (no problem), he never failed to drop all the jaws in attendance.
Height: 5-10. Weight: 180-200 pounds. College: Harvard. Sports: Boxing, Martial Arts, Hunting, Football, Tennis, Rowing.
Executive Power: 5. Running Ability: 4. Weighs & Means: 5. Executive Achievement: 4. Mettle of Honor: 5. PAS: 23.
When most presidents take a beating, they do it in the headlines, not in a headlock. Teddy Roosevelt preferred the literal version. During his political career, he voluntarily subjected himself to a staggering number of brutal sparring sessions with championship-caliber fighters. Boxers, wrestlers, martial artists -- it didn't matter to Roosevelt. If they'd be willing to punch him in the face or pin him to the ground, he'd take them on. He felt it was the only way he could maintain his "natural body prowess." Imagine Barack Obama having Sugar Shane Mosley over to the White House gym for some heavy bag work and shadow boxing; or George W. Bush rolling around an Oval Office octagon with Brock Lesnar. That's the level of commitment we're talking about with Roosevelt. And this obsession started long before he was elected president. In addition to voluntarily putting himself in harm's way against bigger and stronger men, TR rowed, played tennis, rode horses and practically invented the modern day Spartan races. The only thing keeping him from all 5s in the P.A.S. rankings is that while he loved participating in all of the above sports, it appears he wasn't really great at any of them.
Height: 6-2. Weight: 190. College: Yale. Sports: Baseball, Tennis, Golf, Fishing.
Executive Power: 3.5. Running Ability: 5. Weighs & Means: 5. Executive Achievement: 5. Mettle of Honor: 5. PAS: 23.5.
As mentioned earlier, legitimate sports accomplishments are heavily weighted in the PAS system, which is why the elder George Bush finds himself so high on this list. Not only was he captain of the Yale baseball team and its starting first baseman, he led them to appearances in the first two College World Series games that were ever played. Bush lost both times to West Coast teams (USC and Cal), but his love of baseball, and sports, never died. He is an avid fisherman who has reeled in hundred-plus-pound tarpons of the Florida Keys, and he's played tennis and golf with the biggest names in sports. He was also a highly decorated combat pilot in the Navy, which helps in the toughness department.
Height: 5-10 ½. Weight: 180. College: West Point. Sports: Football, Golf, Baseball.
Executive Power: 5. Running Ability: 5. Weighs & Means: 4.5. Executive Achievement: 5. Mettle of Honor: 5. PAS: 24.5.
Eisenhower was the Tim Tebow of his day, possessing the intangibles that seemed to propel his teams (and armies) to victory. Ike played fullback and linebacker while at West Point on Army's legendary football team, best known for its winning streaks. He was also the starting centerfielder for Abilene High School's undefeated baseball team of 1909. On the field, he's probably best remembered for a famous tackle of Jim Thorpe (with help). Ike would eventually injure his knee and be forced to stop playing football. He briefly gave boxing a try, but his leg injury would hamper him once again. Eisenhower aced nearly every facet of the PAS: He was known to be an exceptionally strong blocker and tackler (Executive Power), he was a speedy centerfielder and running back (Running Ability), he golfed and kept active throughout his presidency (Weighs and Means), he played college sports at an elite level and excelled at high school sports (Executive Achievement), he participated in the toughest sports, football and boxing, while also becoming one of the most impressive soldiers and leaders our country has ever seen (Mettle of Honor). The only thing that would have put Ike over the top was a professional sports career. It is rumored that he played minor league baseball before West Point, but no hard evidence has turned up.
Height: 6-0. Weight: 200. College: Michigan. Sports: Football, Tennis, Golf.
Executive Power: 5. Running Ability: 5. Weighs & Means: 5. Executive Achievement: 5. Mettle of Honor: 5. PAS: 25
Many professional athletes, Hall of Famers or NCAA champions have gone on to successful political careers, Bill Bradley and Steve Largent come to mind, but only one pro-level athlete and NCAA champion ever ascended to the highest office in the land: Gerald Rudolph Ford Junior. And Ford didn't just win one NCAA title; he won two as the starting center for Michigan's back-to-back championship football teams of the early 1930s. Ford capped his career with a nod to the 1935 Collegiate All-Star football team and no less than the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions offered him contracts to play pro ball. Remember, these weren't the multi-million dollar deals of today's NFL, so Ford decided to choose a different career path and go to Yale Law School instead, where he coached the boxing team and worked with the football team. His power, athleticism and actual sports accomplishments justify many of the 5s he received in the P.A.S. ratings system, while his career as a highly decorated Naval Officer and his near daily use of the White House swimming pool for laps help top off his other 5s, for a perfect 25 score. Until Tom Brady becomes president, Ford's spot as the top athletic dog in the Oval Office is probably safe.