By Vince Grzegorek
The Colts may have gone to Disney World after winning the Super Bowl, but a much more important trip waits for them around the corner: a trip to the White House.
In what has become a presidential tradition of welcoming championship teams to Washington, the Indianapolis Colts will eventually visit with President Bush to celebrate their victory (they have been officially invited, but no date has been set). And in a reciprocal tradition, the Colts will undoubtedly present the President with a gift of a commemorative jersey (it’s just poor form to show up to a dinner party empty-handed).
If you thought that Chad Johnson had cornered the market on jerseys with alternate names, then you obviously haven’t been paying attention to these White House ceremonies. President Bush has jerseys with a whopping six different name combinations, including the common “Bush,” the official “President Bush,” the simple “G.W. Bush,” the lengthy “President G.W. Bush”, the brilliantly brief “W,” and one funkified “The Prez.” Take into account the assorted numbers gracing these jerseys — based on, variously, Bush’s rank, his presidential ordinal, or the year — and you’ve got a man begging to be fined by the uniform police (or applauded by Uni Watch).
It’s no wonder that President Bush has amassed such a varied collection of personalized jerseys. In any given year, he can receive one jersey each from the winner of the four major sports, and countless other jerseys from one of the many NCAA Champions Days that are hosted at the White House. His jersey collection can grow by the minute at these events, with lines of teams waiting to present him with jerseys one after another.
So when did this tradition start? Good question. It’s one that I posed to the White House media office, which couldn’t find an answer. It’s one that I asked Tom Shieber, Senior Curator at the Baseball Hall of Fame, who couldn’t find an answer. It’s one that I asked countless presidential libraries, and if you guessed that they didn’t know the answer, you would be right. What we do have is a lot of circumstantial evidence, which basically means that we don’t know when the tradition started, but we have a good guess.
And the evidence points to…(cue dramatic music and close-up) the Gipper! Championship team visits with the president weren’t uncommon before Reagan’s administration, but they were infrequent at best, and jerseys weren’t the gift of choice at the time. For example, Don Holloway of the Gerald Ford Library said that the Indiana University basketball team visited the White House after their championship in 1976 but presented a signed basketball, not a jersey. According to Dave Stanhope of the Jimmy Carter Library, the President received T-shirts, not jerseys, from the Georgia Tech football and Louisville basketball teams that visited the White House.
The jerseys that these pre-Reagan presidents did receive were on campaign stops and various appearances, not from championship teams. For example, Gerald Ford received a Villanova jersey from the school’s young republican club. And Meri-Jo Borzilleri (who told me she too couldn’t find the origins of the tradition) writes in this story, “Richard Nixon’s library records show jerseys from the Philadelphia Eagles and Division III college Gustavus Adolphus,” and “Lyndon Johnson’s library has a New York Knicks jersey.”
So, the transition from T-shirts and assorted gifts to jerseys, and from sometime occurrence to presidential sports tradition, seemed to happen with the beginning of Reagan’s administration. Sure, Reagan racked up the jersey count with many non-championship related events (Bowling Green, University of North Dakota, University of North Dakota different view, Texas, Capitals, and Eureka College [where Reagan himself played football]), but he also received jerseys from the championship Hurricanes, Lakers, and Twins. (Reagan also was presented with George Gipp’s sweater from Notre Dame in another full-circle sort of moment.) Searches of the speech archives of the American Presidency Project also show that Reagan was the first president to perennially invite championship teams to the White House.
So what happens to all of these jerseys? They make up a small percentage of the 1,000 or so gifts that the president receives every month, but they end up first in the White House Gift Office, and then in storage at the National Archives until the end of the administration, when they are shipped to another temporary storage until the presidential library is ready. Then they will be stored again (likely) or displayed (rarely) until some lowly intern comes calling for information on jerseys (just me).
Not the shirt off my back… Just as not all championship teams make it to the White House (the Buccaneers didn’t go after their Super Bowl), not all teams give the President a jersey. Most professional teams do, but college teams and other groups sometimes push the envelope with other sports-related swag. Check out some highlights below…
Ohio State Buckeyes helmet, Richard Petty #43 hat, “Surfboard One” from Pepperdine, USC Volleyball, Racing Helmet, Racing Suit from Tony Stewart, Soccer Ball (Pele and Nixon), Hockey Glove, Jackets, Basketballs (Meadowlark Lemon and Mrs. Ford), Lacrosse Sticks (has GWB43 on the head), More Jackets, More Jackets, Golf Head Covers, and even Speedos. Plus the Islanders once presented President Reagan with a goalie stick that was inscribed, “The Puck Stops Here.”
Sometimes the gifts can get out of hand, as you can see from this list of all the items Youngstown State gave President Clinton during their visit.
Tangential Bonus Material: President Grant was the first to welcome a professional team for a White House visit, the Cincinnati Red Stockings. President Arthur was the first to bring a Major League team for a visit, the Cleveland Forest Citys. The University of North Alabama football team visited President Clinton at the White House in 1996, marking the first time a NCAA Division II championship team had such an honor.
Vice Presidents sometimes get in on the jersey action, too.
Steve Rushin wrote a column (full text here) on visiting the National Archives and discovering all of the famous and forgotten sports memorabilia that is stored there, including President Lincoln’s handball, Billie Jean King’s rhinestone skirt she wore against Bobby Riggs, and Pele’s New York Cosmos jersey.
Finally, want to see what other jerseys President Bush has added to his collection?… Steelers, Marlins, Florida Men’s Basketball, Angels, Cal State Fullerton Baseball, Rice Baseball, UCLA Soccer, University of Maryland Women’s Basketball, Washington Volleyball, UConn Men’s Basketball, Spurs, LSU Football, Patriots (blue), Patriots (white), Miami Football, Syracuse Basketball, Pistons, Maryland Men’s Basketball, Air Force Football, Stanford Volleyball, New Jersey Devils, University of Minnesota-Duluth Women’s Hockey, UConn Women’s Basketball, Detroit Shock, University of Portland Women’s Soccer.
Uni Watch News Ticker (from Paul): Now that Dre Bly’s been traded, his biker shorts stylings will be moving to Denver. … Conditions have been so windy at the Tennis Channel Open that several players have resorted to wearing long sleeves (additional view here, with thanks to Ed McGrogan). … Majestic Athletic, which makes all the MLB uniforms, has been sold. … Speaking of Majestic, they’re marketing a line of throwback fleeces this year. … Keeper of the flame. … Et tu, Yogi? … You’ve got to be kidding me.