Curiously, for all the hue and cry about the intermingling of politics and sports, there are a number of politicians who seemed to have not gotten the memo. The halls of Washington, as well as the smaller seats of government in the United States, are littered with former athletes who parlayed their fame, both great and small, into elected positions. In fact, the phenomenon is not limited to the United States. Athletes-turned-politicians are scattered across the globe and their political alliances, and job success rate, are as varied as the sports they played.
It’s an ancient idea. Dorieus of Rhodes was a fearsome fighter, skilled at boxing and pankration, the ancient equivalent of mixed-martial arts. The brutal sport combined wrestling with boxing, and permitted every kind of violence except biting, gouging someone in the eye, and attacking their genitals. Dorieus, the youngest son in a family of Olympians, won the pankration title at the 432, 428 and 424 BCE Olympic Games. He also claimed multiple titles at the Pythian, the Nemean and the Isthmian Games, the other three contests in the four-part periodos, of which the ancient Olympics were only a single element.
When his days as the most celebrated athlete of his era ended, Dorieus was able to turn his and his family’s fame into political power as a member of the anti-Athenian party on Rhodes. He was a leader in the Rhodian revolution and, when the three city-states of Rhodes were unified in 408-407, he was an important influence in the newly formed government. He was a fighter to the bitter end and was executed in 395 when he was taken prisoner by the Spartans. Today, the risks for politicians are usually far less mortal.
The phenomenon began early in the life of American sport. Elias Hicks Hayhurst was a well-known player of town ball, and later baseball, in pre-Civil War Philadelphia. He joined the Athletics, once of the most powerful clubs of the north, in 1861 and was on the starting nine for most of their successful seasons during the decade. He later became the team’s business manager and in 1874 was elected to the City Council, a position he held for six years.
Years earlier, before he took office, Hayhurst tried to use his influence in the game to convince the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Association of Base Ball Players to accept the petition of the Philadelphia Pythians, an all-black squad whose name was a callback to those ancient games of Dorieus. Led by voting rights activist, Octavius Catto, the Pythians were made up primarily of alumni of the local Institute for Colored Youth. The National Association denied Hayhurst and the Pythians, beginning the entrenchment of the color line that plagued baseball until 1947.
American athlete-cum-politicians became more common with the turn of the century, and the earliest of the celebrity-obsessed societies. Aided by the usually sanitized versions of their personal lives that the late-19th– and early-20th-Century press presented to the public, the men (almost exclusively men) who ran for office after their playing days were over lived in the public memory as strong and imposing. These are traits manipulated by would-be office seekers to this day. Americans have always liked their politicians virile.
John Tener was an Irishman who moved to the U.S. in 1873, when he was ten-years old. As he grew, Tener became massive, 6’ 4” in an age when the average American male was three-inches shorter than they are today. A talented athlete, he made his major league debut with the 1888 Chicago White Stockings (later, Cubs). Tener spent two years in Organized Baseball until his defection to the renegade Player’s League in 1890. His rebellion, along with a miserable season in which he had a 7.21 ERA, spelled doom for his baseball career.
Although hardly “famous” by modern standards, his resume as a professional athlete helped him become an influential business leader. In 1908, the Republican Tener won a seat in the House of Representatives. He only served for two years before party leaders convinced him to run for Governor of Pennsylvania, a job he won. In his brief time in Congress, he established the Congressional Baseball Game, an annual contest between Republicans and Democrats that survives to this day. The game received extensive media coverage in 2017 when a gunman shot Rep. Steve Scalise at a Republican practice the day before the game. Governor Tener improved roads and schools, established a pension program for widows (long before the existence of Social Security), and made it law for all children, no matter their race, to attend school. In 1913, while still Governor, he was elected President of the National League, an honor the old ballplayer could not refuse. He held both jobs until he finished his term Governor.
Baseball continued to provide many of the early 20th-Century pols. Hall of Famer Walter Johnson made his first foray into politics when he was elected to the Montgomery County, Maryland Board of Commissioners in 1938. Johnson was one of the earliest to prove that athletic fame did not automatically equal political victory when he made a bid for the House of Representatives in 1940. He lost to Democrat William D. Byron, 60,037 to 52,298. The surprised Byron told the press that, “In all my political life I never met an opponent like Walter. He never said one unkind or uncomplimentary thing about me.” The kind-hearted Johnson just wasn’t cut out for politics.
Since then, a veritable flood of athletes from all sports, particularly football, have graced the American political stage. LaVern Dilweg joined the Green Bay Packers in 1927, just seven years after the founding of the National Football League. Dilweg was a two-way end who was a frequent all-pro and a teammate of the only man ever elected to both the Baseball and Football Halls of Fame, Cal Hubbard. Dilweg was elected to the House in 1942 and served a single term. A lawyer, he was later appointed to the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission by John F. Kennedy.
Jack Kemp was quarterback for the Buffalo Bills from 1962-1969 and later became a nine-term Congressman from New York. A self-described “bleeding heart conservative,” the most prominent moment of his political career came when he was tapped as Bob Dole’s running mate for the 1996 presidential election. Dole was a college standout himself, lettering in football in 1942 and 1944. The man to whom Kemp lost the vice-presidency, Al Gore, had been the captain of his football team at St. Albans prep school.
Dwayne Woodruff, cornerback with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1979-1990, became a lawyer in 1988, three years before his football career was over. He rose through the legal ranks of Allegheny County and was elected in 2005 to the Court of Common Pleas, a seat he retains to this day. He has made two unsuccessful runs for the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, in 2015 and 2017. He and his wife currently co-chair the National Campaign to Stop Violence’s “Do the Write Thing Challenge,” which encourages youths to write about how violence has impacted their lives.
Basketball has provided two Hall of Famers to the ranks of significant American politicians. Dave Bing was a graduate of Syracuse University who spent twelve years in the NBA, most memorably with the Detroit Pistons. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1990 and, in 1996, was named one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of all-time. Bing became a successful businessman and was elected mayor of Detroit in 2009, at the very beginning of the financial crisis. He has the dubious legacy of being the leader of the first American city to declare bankruptcy.
Bill Bradley may be one of the most successful names, in term of athletics and politics, in American history. Born into considerably wealthy circumstances, he was a tremendous student and high school athlete, rejecting scholarship offers from over seventy schools. Instead, he chose to go to Princeton, where he starred on the basketball team, winning All-America honors three straight years starting with the 1962-63 season. In 1964, he took home a gold medal from the Olympics held in Tokyo. Upon graduation, he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, delaying his entry into the NBA. He joined the New York Knicks in 1967 and in his ten-year career with the team, he helped them reach the playoffs eight times and win two championships.
Just four years after he played his final game, he was elected as a Democratic senator from the state of New Jersey. He was reelected twice more, and in his eighteen years in Congress he established a reputation as a brilliant, but distant, legislator. His speeches were famously boring, but few could argue that he had one of the keenest minds in government, and his likable personality made him adept at bi-partisanship. He chose to not run for reelection after his final term in the Senate, but he did give a shot at the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination, which he ultimately lost to Gore. He has dedicated much of his post-political career to informing people of the dangers of money in politics.
Perhaps the most famous name to ever emerge in the dual arenas of American sports and politics is also one of the most unlikely. When Arnold Schwarzenegger won the first of his three consecutive Mr. Universe titles in 1968, few could have predicted the trajectory of the career of the Austrian-born son of a former Nazi officer. Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding and weightlifting exploits had already brought him considerable fame when he made his Hollywood debut in 1970. He starred in the absurd film, Hercules in New York, where he played the titular demi-god on an earthbound holiday. He retired from bodybuilding after a controversial victory at the 1980 Mr. Olympia contest, and he dedicated himself to his second career. His breakout role was as comic book hero Conan the Barbarian in 1982. It made him one of the most bankable leading men throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.
In 1986 Schwarzenegger married Maria Shriver, the niece of John F. Kennedy, and found himself surrounded by politics. He was appointed to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports in 1990, his first foray, however ancillary, into government. A moderate Republican who considered himself fiscally conservative and socially liberal, his name was talked of in political circles for years before he decided in 2003 to run for the position of Governor of the state of California.
When Governor Gray Davis was removed via recall, Schwarzenegger received the most votes of the potential other candidates. The most significant legacy of his two-terms as Governor was his environmental record, creating a first-in-the-nation cap on greenhouse gases, an irony coming from the man who popularized the famously-gas guzzling SUV, the Hummer. Despite maintaining the label of Republican, he is currently one of Donald Trump’s biggest critics.
Those mentioned here barely skim the historical surface of American athletes who have had significant careers in politics. Wrestler Jesse Ventura was the Governor of Minnesota from 1999-2003. Baseball Hall of Famer Jim Bunning, Olympian Ben Nighthorse Campbell and wide receiver Steve Largent have all held federal office in the last quarter century. There are literally dozens more. Still, there seems to be a current lull in American politics when it comes to the crossover. The same cannot be said for the global stage. There are a number of current world leaders, including Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Philippines Senator (and boxing legend) Manny Pacquiao, who used their athletic fame as a stepping stone to power. Bent Knees and Raised Fists will take a look at their tales, and more, in our first foray into international sports and politics, this upcoming Monday.
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