The Long, Strange Tale of the Eisenhower Baseball Controversy

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.

When he was young, Eisenhower wanted to be a famous baseball player; he had to settle for becoming President of the United States, instead. Photo Courtesy Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum.

When he was young, Eisenhower wanted to be a famous baseball player; he had to settle for becoming President of the United States, instead. Photo Courtesy Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum.

To date, President Dwight D. Eisenhower remains the only U.S. President who could claim a career in professional sports—kind of.

It’s well known that Eisenhower wanted to play baseball professionally. Instead, he led the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II. However, Eisenhower later told The New York Times that before attending West Point, he actually had played baseball semi-professionally in Kansas; he’d just done so under the assumed name of Wilson.

The Eisenhower baseball controversy, as it came to be known, arose because Eisenhower’s college career took place after he played semi-professional sports elsewhere, which would have caused him to forfeit his amateur status. Knowingly misrepresenting himself in that way would have violated the Honor Code and been grounds for dismissal from West Point, if he had been discovered.

For the sake of a few games of semi-pro baseball, Eisenhower might never have been president.

The only problem with the controversy, according to noted baseball historian Bill Swank, is that there was never one in the first place.

The so-called controversy was not whether Eisenhower played semi-professional baseball. Eisenhower said that he did, on a number of occasions (though it’s worth noting that he hasn’t been correctly identified on any team’s roster). The “controversy” was about Eisenhower knowingly violating the Honor Code in order to play college ball at West Point.

According to Swank, however, the Honor Code that Eisenhower is frequently charged with violating hadn’t been codified when Eisenhower was at West Point, so he couldn’t have violated it. Additionally, the line between amateur and professional players was so blurry as to be almost meaningless. At most, in Swank’s view, Eisenhower’s time playing semi-pro baseball would have been considered a “youthful infraction” under the 1906 Intercollegiate Athletic Association bylaws, and there would have been no meaningful obstacle to him playing college sports.

So why would Eisenhower have bothered with the fake name, then?

Many players used fake names to make it easier to colleges and universities to look the other way. It was a simple matter of maintaining sufficient player numbers to keep college teams viable in the face of growing numbers of professional and semi-professional teams, says Swank. He based his conclusions on careful examination of baseball records and newspaper articles from the area and time period in question.

For more information on the saga of the “controversy,” check out this article on Today I Found Out. The article sets up the case for; Swank’s blistering reply in the comments section sets up the case against.