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Geek Trivia: Out at first, but ruled safe

How did minor league baseball almost cost America a future president?

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U.S. President George W. Bush has occasionally joked that his biggest mistake before becoming president was trading Sammy Sosa, the star power-hitting right fielder currently of the Chicago Cubs. Sosa was a far less accomplished baseball prospect for the Texas Rangers in 1989 when Bush, then managing general partner, traded him to the Chicago White Sox, which would later trade Sosa to its cross-town rival in 1992.

This only serves to illustrate the strong connection between the American presidency and America's national pastime, baseball. Historical records show that a number of presidents played baseball (or an early version of the game), including George Washington, John Adams, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln.

For those presidents who did not play, observing the game became a traditional pastime in its own right. During Andrew Johnson's presidency, an area near the White House grounds now known as the Ellipse hosted the first professional baseball game played between teams from different states. Not only did Johnson attend, but he also gave the White House staff time off for the occasion.

On June 6, 1892, President Benjamin Harrison became the first president to attend a Major League Baseball game when he saw visiting Cincinnati Reds trounce the hometown Washington Senators 7-4. But perhaps the most recognized connection between professional baseball and the presidency is the ceremonial throwing of the first pitch—a tradition that began with William Howard Taft at a Washington Senators game on April 14, 1910.

Contrary to present-day convention, Taft threw the ball from the stands to the pitcher on the field, as opposed to assuming the role of the pitcher and throwing a "real" pitch to the starting catcher. Nearly every president since Taft has continued the tradition.

Yet for all the mutual affection between America's national pastime and its presidents, the lure of professional baseball nearly cost the United States a future commander in chief. Had a certain U.S. president been more forthright about an athletic technicality—or simply been a better center fielder—U.S. history could have proven markedly different.

HOW DID MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL ALMOST COST AMERICA A FUTURE PRESIDENT?

How did professional baseball nearly prevent a future U.S. commander in chief from attaining the presidency?

The leader in question was none other than World War II Supreme Allied Commander and two-term President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The technicality that nearly altered his destiny was a short-lived professional baseball career for minor league Junction City in the Central Kansas League.

Eisenhower played 14 games for the team in 1911. However, you won't find any explicit mention of him in the record books, since he played under the assumed name of "Wilson."

Why did Eisenhower conceal his identity? To protect his amateur status: If anyone found out that Eisenhower had earned money as a professional athlete, he would be ineligible for any athletic scholarships to college.

The year before, Eisenhower had applied to the U.S. Naval Academy and passed its entrance exam. But at the ripe old age of 20, he was deemed too old for enrollment.

As a second choice, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point accepted Eisenhower for enrollment in the fall of 1911. Between his application and his enrollment, Eisenhower briefly played minor league baseball simply to earn money.

When Eisenhower enrolled at West Point, he tried out for both football and baseball. He made the football team as a promising halfback (failing to make the cut as an Army baseball player was one of Ike's great regrets).

However, even though all West Point cadets received full tuition regardless of whether they played on a sanctioned Academy team, Eisenhower still had to comply with college athletics' amateur rules. In order to make the football team, he signed a voucher card attesting that he had never worked as a professional athlete.

If any academy official had ever learned that this statement was false, Eisenhower would have faced expulsion from West Point, and he would have been ineligible to receive an athletic scholarship from almost every civilian college. Thus, an utterly unremarkable baseball career could have very easily cost history one of its pivotal leaders, and it nearly cost America one of its best-known presidents.

Ironically, Eisenhower was and is the only U.S. president to ever play professional baseball. Thank goodness he wasn't much of a center fielder—and that his baseball career amounts to little more than some great Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

Apparently some things don't get better with age. In the May 5 Classic Geek reprint, "O captain! My captain!," I wrote about Captain James Cook's "discovery" of Australia's eastern coast and the Great Barrier Reef in 1768.

TechRepublic member Ozie rightfully pointed out that "the Aboriginal people 'discovered' it, thousands of years before anyone else. The others simply arrived on the shores… It's not too hard to give credit to the peoples that arrived on our shores first, is it? Or to at least say it was a new discovery to the British?"

Great points, Ozie—I should have noted that this was a European discovery, not a human discovery. Once again, I was a slave to my Occidental upbringing.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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