With the 2019 World Series victory of the Washington Nationals, came the now obligatory invitation from the White House to attend a ceremony in their honor. The event happened considerably faster than many White House sports championship celebrations, presumably because the team was still in town and they wanted to catch the players before they went home for the winter. One pundit mused that the quick turnaround was possible because this administration, more so than any other in recent memory, keeps a fairly open daily schedule, leaving the President plenty of time to tweet his grievances.
As has become the norm for anything Donald Trump does, it was far from your standard celebration. Recent recognition of athletic teams usually involved the conquering heroes attending an open press event, standing behind the President in the East Room while he said a few inspirational words about sports and the human character. Barack Obama’s honoring of the 2016 Chicago Cubs included a particularly moving nod to the fact that without Jackie Robinson, it was unlikely he would have been standing in the room that day.
The Nationals public appearance did not take place in the East Room, perhaps because of the President’s aversion to standing too close to the media. Instead, they appeared on the balcony above the South Lawn. The players in attendance were given the opportunity to approach the mic and most of them used their time to thank colleagues and fans. Nationals stalwart, Ryan Zimmerman, thanked the President for “keeping everyone here safe in our country, and continuing to make America the greatest country to live in the world.” Catcher Kurt Suzuki donned a “Make America Great Again,” cap and did a (likely) unintentional impression of Richard Nixon. Trump took the opportunity to wrap his arms around Suzuki from behind, cupping his hands over the catcher’s breasts. The journeyman backstop later said that he wasn’t expecting the embrace from the President. Suzuki can now join the 43 (and counting) women who can also make that claim.
Noticeably absent from the celebration were seven members of the Nationals roster: possible 2019 MVP Anthony Rendon, Victor Robles, Michael Taylor, Joe Ross, Javy Guerra, Wander Suero and Sean Doolittle. It is Doolittle who was the most vocal about his refusal to attend the celebration. He informed the media that he didn’t, “want to hang out with somebody who talks like that.” To those who know Doolittle, and his wife Eirann Dolan, this was no surprise. They are two of the most vocal advocates for charitable causes in all of sports and they have done little to hide their disdain for the President. Back when candidate-Trump tried to explain away the infamous “Hollywood Access” recording of him bragging about sexually assaulting an actress as “locker room” talk, Doolittle tweeted, “As an athlete, I’ve been in locker rooms my entire adult life and uh, that’s not locker room talk.”
This wasn’t even the most politicized of recent White House championship celebrations, or, as was the case with the 2017 Golden State Warriors, non-celebrations. After two-time MVP Steph Curry announced that he would not be accepting an invite from the White House to recognize the Warriors second title in three years, Trump revoked the invitation from the entire team, a first. The Warriors instead chose to visit the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in D.C., with a group of local students. When the Warriors won the championship again in 2018, Trump didn’t bother to request a visit. On their lone trip to Washington during the 2018-19 season, the Warriors had press-less meet and greet with Barack Obama.
Presidential invitations are older than many realize and it all began with a baseball team called, appropriately, the Washington Nationals. The first currently recognized visit by a sports team to the White House dates back to August, 1865. Andrew Johnson, still two and a half years before his own impeachment, met with members of the Brooklyn Atlantics and the local Nationals, both amateur clubs as, ostensibly, all were at the time. The Atlantics were undefeated that season, their second campaign in a row without a loss, and went 23-0 (or 18-0, depending on what one considers a legitimate match). The year marked their second consecutive championship in the loosely-organized amateur structure of the National Association of Base Ball Players. The Nationals, who bear absolutely no connection to the current team, referred to themselves as “the champions of the South,” a title that was mitigated by the fact that the best baseball teams of the time universally played in the North.
The Presidential meeting came about because of the Nationals third baseman, Arthur Pue Gorman. He arranged for a tournament featuring the Nationals, the Atlantics and the Philadelphia Athletics, another dominant team from the era that battled the Atlantics for supremacy throughout that first post-war season. As a boy, Gorman had served as a page on Capitol Hill for Senator Andrew Johnson. When his former boss was elevated to the Presidency after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Gorman used his connections to raise the profile of the team. He also peddled that influence to get some of the best teams of the North to come to Washington for a local first-of-its-kind tournament.
The results of the tournament were predictable, with both the Atlantics and the Athletics pummeling their opponents. The Athletics declined to play the Atlantics in the deciding match of the contest, in part because they had already received their fee and were due none of the gate receipts for the additional game. Citing an already scheduled match in Baltimore, they jumped on the train and left town. The Atlantics were the de facto champions and Gorman escorted them, along with his own club, to the White House where they met the President, thus making history as the first to claim this political honor.
The practice remained uncommon, and it was not until 1925 that the White House hosted, for the first time, the champions of the World Series, the Walter Johnson-led Washington Senators. Calvin Coolidge was president and the visit was likely spurred by his wife, Grace. While Silent Cal was fond of the game, Grace was an absolute fanatic. When the Senators won their first World Series, the President and First Lady were cheering from the stands. According to the Sporting News, Mrs. Coolidge, “jumped up and down with both feet…wav[ing] her arms.” The Coolidges became so entwined with the team’s fortunes that when Senators skipper Bucky Harris got married in 1926, the First Couple were in attendance.
It took the other major sports quite a bit longer to receive the same honor. John F. Kennedy was the first to welcome the NBA champions to the White House, extending the invitation to the Boston Celtics in 1963. When the Indiana University men’s basketball team won the championship in 1976, Gerald Ford became the first to honor an NCAA team. It was Jimmy Carter who opened the gates for the NFL, when he had a special double ceremony for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates in 1980. It was not until Carter’s successor that the practice really took off.
Ronald Reagan was an active athlete in high school and college, one of the earliest radio broadcasters for the Chicago Cubs in the 1930s, and played his most famous film role as doomed Notre Dame halfback, George “the Gipper” Gip, in the 1940 film Knute Rockne, All American. Sports ran deep in the old actor’s blood and he celebrated the influence of his most prominent role by opening the doors of the White House to champion athletes. Reagan joyed in playing host, even once making headlines when, at 77 years-old, he threw a wobbly spiral to Ricky Sanders during the Redskins 1988 Super Bowl celebration. Since then, it has become part of the job for the President to welcome as many teams as could possibly fit into the schedule of the individual who has, arguably, the most powerful job on earth. Prior to 2017, that number averaged about twelve a year.
What may be surprising to many is that athletes refusing an invitation to the White House is not a new phenomenon. Anthony Rendon and Sean Doolittle join a long list of prominent athletes who have declined an invite from the President. Usually, though not always, the reasons for their absence avoid the political. Architect of the Red Sox, Theo Epstein, cited family reasons for missing a visit with President George W. Bush in 2007. Manny Ramirez declined to even give an excuse, prompting W to quip, “I guess his grandmother died again.” Michael Jordan chose vacationing in North Carolina with his family over visiting George Bush Sr. in 1991. Larry Bird, in his book, When the Game was Ours, recounts saying that if President Reagan wanted to meet with him, “he knows where to find me.” Multiple NASCAR racers, including Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart, declined invites from President Obama, citing “scheduling conflicts.”
What is different from these previous snubs is that the usual pretenses have been shed away, a larger truth about society that is likely to be a lasting legacy of the current administration. For his part, the President has only added fuel to the fire, as is his way. Besides uninviting the Golden State Warriors, he also revoked an offer to visit from the Philadelphia Eagles after the media reported that a handful of the players were refusing to go. The mayor of Philadelphia replied by calling Trump, “a fragile egomaniac obsessed with crowd size.” A look at which teams have received invites also offers insight into the President’s pronounced sexism. In April 2019, the Baylor Bears basketball squad became the first women’s team invited to the Trump White House, 799 days into his presidency.
As with many of the social norms that have been obliterated by the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., it is difficult to tell what kind of lasting effect his behavior will have on Presidential invites. Since he took office, over twenty major sport championships have taken place, and only half of those have resulted in White House visits. For some, they are happy to see the practice die-out. Those voices usually fall into the camp of people who wish that this site didn’t exist; the “stick to sports,” crowd. However, when one thinks about the makeup of these teams–the disadvantaged youth whose athletic ability brought them to the pinnacle of their game, the immigrants who were born thousands of miles from Washington D.C., the African-Americans whose slave ancestors literally built the building–it becomes hard to ignore the profound impact it must have on them to be able to walk through those hallowed halls as honored guests. Many of the celebratory trappings of a championship can be thought of as excessive, but this is one with meaning. It would be a shame for it to be another piece of collateral damage in this most unorthodox presidency.
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