Have we had presidents who were athletes?

Dear Sports Fan,

I know we’ve had presidents who were actors (well, at least one) and presidents who were generals, and lots who were lawyers. Have we had presidents who were athletes?

Thanks,
Richard


Dear Richard,

We have had presidents who were athletes. Off the top of my head, I know that Gerald Ford played center for a big-time college football team, which makes it doubly funny that his Saturday Night Live parody was almost completely based on his clumsiness. Barack Obama’s skill on the basketball court is probably a little overstated, but its importance to him cannot be. I believe Teddy Roosevelt overcame a fairly severe asthma condition to become an avid outdoorsman and big game hunter. And we all know how much exercise he got on the stairs in Brooklyn. I don’t think George W. Bush played a sport at the collegiate level, but the first pitch strike he threw out in the World Series after 9/11 was a chill-inducing presidential athletic moment in my memory. You deserve an answer with a little more weight though, so I researched the topic. Here is what I found.

I’ll stick with my original answer. Gerald Ford was one of our most athletic presidents. He not only played center for the University of Michigan, but he also played linebacker and long snapper. In 1932 and 1933 his University of Michigan Team was undefeated and won the national championship. Even more impressively, in 1934, Ford briefly quit the team in protest for the racially motivated benching of his best friend on the team, an African-American running back named Willis Ward.

George H. W. Bush also played college sports. He was first baseman and captain of the Yale baseball team and played in the first two College World Series ever held. Oddly enough, he was also a member of the Yale cheerleading squad, something his father, and his son, future president George W. Bush, also did at Yale.

Dwight D. Eisenhower has a compelling athletic back story. While attending the U.S. military academy at West Point, he played football, starting at running back and linebacker in 1912. He either made or missed a tackle on the legendary Jim Thorpe, (sources seem to disagree, but even today, a tackle is a highly subjective statistic, so we’ll give it to him.) He also injured his knee badly enough to need to give up football… although Wikipedia claims he then moved on to “fencing and gymnastics,” which are both highly knee-dependent sports, so who knows. There’s also the mysterious matter of the Eisenhower baseball controversy. In the summer before he went the West Point, he may or may not have played semi-professional baseball under the pseudonym, “Wilson.” If he did, then he may be our only president who personally violated the NCAA ban on paying “student athletes.”

Many other presidents have been athletes. George Washington apparently had a hell of an arm. John F. Kennedy was on the swimming team at Harvard, an avocation which may have saved his life when his patrol boat went down in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. But my favorite piece of presidential athletic trivia that I picked up was from this article on Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was not only a champion wrestler who took on all comers and a fair number of wagers during his life, but he was also an excellent handball player! In a moment that parallels and foreshadows President Obama’s tradition of playing basketball on election days by almost 150 years, Lincoln played handball (and was injured slightly) while waiting for news of the 1860 Presidential nominating convention.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra

Why do once in a generation things happen so often in sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

My girlfriend convinced me to watch a Golden State Warriors game last night by saying that teams as good as them only come along once every twenty or thirty years. I watched the game. They were legitimately great but it seems like sports fans have something they need to watch for that reason pretty frequently. Why do once in a generation things happen so often in sports?

Thanks,
Cesar


Dear Cesar,

The Golden State Warriors are a magnificent basketball team. They won the championship last spring and, unlike many championship winning teams, have started this season strong. They’ve won their first 23 games. In doing so, they obliterated the previous record for consecutive wins to start a season, which two other teams had set at 15. They’re closing in on the Los Angeles Lakers record for wins in a row, (any time during the season,) which is 33 and has been since the 1971-72 season. Their start also has the folks over at Five Thirty Eight frantically modeling to see how likely it is that the Warriors match or beat the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls season record of 72 wins and 10 losses. The conclusion they come to is that the Warriors certainly can but will probably choose not to, since breaking that record is likely to be a harmful distraction from their true goal of winning another championship. The Warriors streak is so impressive, that the Harlem Globetrotters (who were once a very real, very formidable competitive basketball team but who now only play exhibition games against a team of stooges called the Washington Generals,) jokingly worried on Twitter about the safety of their own “record”:

Beyond numbers, the Warriors are a wonderful collection of characters to root for. Their super star, Steph Curry, is barely big enough to make you look twice at him if he passed you on the street, and yet he’s as unstoppable a force as any the NBA has known. He is the best long-range shooter in NBA history and plays with a fluid, captivating style. He’s surrounded by teammates who benefit from and augment his skills. Klay Thompson, who pales in comparison to Curry, may also be one of the top 20 shooters in NBA history. Draymond Green was a popular college basketball player who most thought would not amount to much in the pros. Now he’s the new prototype for a power forward, one who can do a little bit of everything well enough to be extraordinarily effective. The next five best players on the team, Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livington, and Festus Ezeli all have their own talents and their own attractive stories. From a sports fan’s perspective, the Warriors really are a comet passing through space: rare and wondrous. To give you a sense of how much people want to see them, their presence as the away team playing against the Boston Celtics this Friday has launched tickets on the secondary market from starting at between $13 and $20 to starting between $150 and $200.

Your question wasn’t about whether the Warriors were amazing, it was about how rare they are. There’s a saying I love: “You’re one in a million… which means there’s a thousand people just like you in China.” One in a million seems like a giant rarity, but not when viewed against a country with a population of over a billion! The same thing is true about sports. Say the Warriors truly are a generational team. That would put them alongside the Chicago Bulls that set that 72-10 record in 1996. That’s awfully convenient, because it was 20 years ago, exactly the number most people use in estimating a generation. Go back farther, and most people point to the 1985 Celtics as another generationally good team. That’s only 10 years before the Bulls, but that’s okay, sometimes data falls randomly in clumps. No big deal. The thing is, sports fans follow many sports. Most fans follow at least three of the big four American professional leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL) pretty closely. Add a college sport or two, international competitions like the Olympics and World Cup, as well as a few individual sports like tennis, golf, boxing, or car racing. That’s close to 10 sports that a fan will follow. The chances of a generational event (one every 20 years) happening in a sport, if you follow 10 of them, is 50% in any given year.

Of course, when something this eventful happens in a sport a fan doesn’t follow closely, there’s a good chance that she’ll hear about it on Twitter, Facebook, Sports Center, from a podcast or a friend, etc. And anything so magnificent, so rare, as a generational sporting event is worth following, even from an unusual sport! There are also two or three close calls for every one truly generational event (the Carolina Panthers are 12-0 in the NFL right now… if they get to 16-0, they will be only the second team to ever do it. Earlier this year Serena Williams almost became the first person to win all four major tennis tournaments in a year – called the Grand Slam – since 1988). So, if you’re a sports fan who wants to see something with the potential to be truly remarkable, you’ve legitimately got a chance to watch one every couple of months at most.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

 

Why is 50% written .500 and said "five hundred" in sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

Here’s something I don’t get about sports. Why is 50% called “500” in sports? Is this some kind of metric system thing? Or is it for a purpose?

Thanks,
Emily


Dear Emily,

There are a variety of numbers in sports that are expressed as a number between zero and 1,000 when they more naturally might be thought of as a percentage. For example, a team that has won half its games and lost half its games is often said to be a “500 team” or playing “500 ball.” What this means is that they have won 50% of the games they’ve played. Likewise, a basketball player who scores on 38.9% of the three point shots she attempts may be said to be “shooting 389 from downtown.”

There’s nothing magical about these numbers, they’re just like percentages — a way of expressing the result from one number being divided by another. In the case of percentages, we take one number, divide it by another number, and then multiply the result by 100 and smack a percentage sign next to it. Thus one divided by two, which is .5 becomes 50%. The difference between a percentage and a sports number is that instead of multiplying by 100, sports numbers get multiplied by 1,000. At least when spoken out loud. A lot of times when you see a sports number like this written out, it will actually be written as “.500” even though no one would ever read it as “five tenths” instead of “five hundred” in a sports context.

If you always want to express a ratio to the hundredths place, it kind of makes sense to multiply by 1,000 instead of 100. It’s certainly easier to refer to something that happens three times every eight times it’s attempted as “three seventy five” than “point three seventy five” or even “thirty seven point five percent.” It’s not surprising that sports people feel that their numbers need this level of accuracy. People who live in and around sports often seem to be obsessed with accuracy to the point of over-precision. For example, players eligibly to be picked in the NBA draft tonight have their height measured down to the quarter inch with and without shoes! Commentators in many sports will often argue about whether it looks like something a player did took .25 seconds or .28 seconds. As if the commentators can actually judge a hundredth of a second difference from their perch at the top of the stadium! Because the difference between winning and losing in sports can sometimes be as slim as a fraction of an inch or a hundredth of a second it’s tempting to believe that all metrics in sports need to have that level of detail.

 

In defense of the sports way of expressing percentages, its historic source is a number that reasonably should be expressed to the tenth of a percent: batting average in baseball. Batting average is a player or team’s number of hits divided by their number of at bats. It’s not the best metric in baseball, in fact it’s a reasonably misleading one, but it does have a very long history. For many years, it was considered a key statistic in measuring how good a player was doing against to his current competition and for making historical comparisons. Baseball is obsessed with statistics because it creates them so nicely. Its long, 162 game season virtually guarantees that any measure one can imagine will have a statistically significant sample over the course of a year. With 30 teams and well over a dozen position players on each team, not even to mention the 120+ history of professional baseball, if you really want to know how a player’s batting average compares to his peers, you do need to take that number to the third decimal point. It would be far less interesting to say that Manny Machado and Adrian Gonzalez have the same batting average of 30% than to say that Machado is 18th in the league, with a .304 (pronounced “three oh four”) batting average and Gonzalez is 30th with a .296. Eight tenths of a percent may not seem like much, but over the course of a season (162 games times roughly 3.5 at bats per game) that’s a difference of four or five hits.

 

Of course, the source of the habit doesn’t matter so much if it is misapplied. Team records are the clearest form of misapplication. The problem with using this kind of number to express a team’s record is that aside from the most obvious numbers like .333, .666, and any of .000, .100, .200, and so on, these figures are very hard for us to translate into numbers in our heads. Quick — tell me how many wins and losses a team whose record is .527 has. According to the current MLB baseball standings, the answer is 39 wins and 35 losses, like the Toronto Blue Jays have. Although these numbers are convenient for creating a standings table (because they allow an easy comparison of teams who have played different numbers of games) they probably should not be displayed. In terms of figuring out how well your team is doing, the order of the teams in the standings and the games back metric are far, far better.

Regardless of how reasonable or unreasonable the sports percentage expression is, it’s deeply engrained in sports culture and seems to be here to stay. It’s easy to wonder though, if this small form of numerical manipulation makes it easier for sports people to mangle numbers in much sillier ways, like the habit of asking players to “give 110%.” That’s a story for another day.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra