He was not the only President to throw out the first ball of the baseball season, or the only one to attend faithfully the Army-Navy game. But John Fitzgerald Kennedy was one of the few Presidents to participate in such events—and countless others—out of a consuming, lifelong dedication to sports and fitness. It is an interest that cannot be faked, as certain political figures have learned the hard way. Indeed, it was often difficult to keep President Kennedy away from the playing fields, either as spectator or participant. Once he slipped into an Ivy League football game (he attended many) without advance fanfare, and the first indication of his presence the 15,000 spectators had was when the band played Hail to the Chief. When he found himself at the Waldorf-Astoria at the same hour that Heisman Trophy Winner Ernie Davis was being feted across town, Mr. Kennedy exercised his prerogative as an influential hero-worshiper and sent his aides to kidnap Davis for a quick chat. The President read the sports pages with the assiduousness with which he read the international news, and if he felt he could lend his prestige to a good sporting cause he interrupted his daily routine to take action. When the National Association of Basketball Coaches moved to weed out undesirable elements, the President sent a letter of congratulation. When Amos Alonzo Stagg turned 100, he found in his mail a note from the White House conveying best wishes. When the AAU and the NCAA were at each other's throats and this country's Olympic future seemed in jeopardy, the President recruited General Douglas MacArthur to straighten matters out.
Chief Executives have acted thus in the past, but none with the elan of John F. Kennedy. Like his father and his brothers, he lionized sports figures and made them his close friends. It was no coincidence that so many presidential appointments went to athletically oriented figures: skier Robert McNamara, ex-quarterback Orville Freeman, All-America halfback Whizzer White, basketball star Stewart Udall, boxer Mortimer Caplin and many another, not excluding that salty little letterman from Harvard, Bobby Kennedy.
But a true appreciation of the role of sports involves more than buddying around with athletic heroes, or sitting goggle-eyed in the stands while one's favorite scatback sprints into the end zone. If there was one thing that sickened Jack Kennedy, it was the flabby American parked in front of the television set in the middle of a noble spring day. He referred to this contemptuously as "spectating." And over and over again he warned that a nation that spends all its time spectating must fail. He subscribed to the words of Homer: "There is no greater glory for a man while yet he lives than that which he achieves by his own hands and feet."
The President chose the pages of this magazine to begin his campaign for fitness. He had not yet taken office when he penned his first appeal for a heavier emphasis on what he wrote as "vigor" and spoke as "vigah." In that article, The Soft American (SI, Dec. 26, 1960), President-elect Kennedy noted a basic fact of history: "The same civilizations which produced some of our highest achievements of philosophy and drama, government and art, also gave us a belief in the importance of physical soundness which has become a part of Western tradition; from the mens sana in corpore sano of the Romans to the British belief that the playing fields of Eton brought victory on the battlefields of Europe. This knowledge, the knowledge that the physical well-being of the citizen is an important foundation for the vigor and vitality of all the activities of the nation, is as old as Western civilization itself."
December 2, 1963
The trouble was, said the President, that Americans were in danger of forgetting all this; spectating was becoming a national disease, and Americans were becoming soft. So a year and a half later (SI, July 16, 1962) he wrote The Vigor We Need and, like the student of history he was, he quoted Disraeli: "The health of the people is really the foundation upon which all their happiness and all their powers as a State depend."
The words were backed with action. The President's Council on Youth Fitness was reorganized and placed under Special Presidential Consultant Bud Wilkinson, football coach at the University of Oklahoma. The President constantly sought converts to his ideal of physical fitness. "The sad fact is that it looks more and more as if our national sport is not playing at all—but watching," he told the National Football Foundation. He set up such a personal clamor on the subject of fitness that he even drew a comment from that archenemy of the Administration, Teamster Boss James Hoffa. "I can't go much for this touch football," Hoffa said. "I'll take them on in push-ups any day down at my gym." The New York Post summed up the President's campaign with a headline: PRESIDENT TO THE NATION—HANDS ON HIPS, PLACE!
For his own part, Jack Kennedy never had need for the tedium of calisthenics. His personal physician, Dr. Janet G. Travell, wrote in this magazine in 1961: "President Kennedy is a walking—or rather running—testament to the principle that people who are active in sports during youth and continue their activity as adults are likely to remain vigorous as they grow older." At 9, a baby-faced Jack Kennedy had quarterbacked the Dexter School football team of Brookline, Mass. to an undefeated season, and a newspaper reporter later analyzed his technique: "John ran a little, passed a little and whenever he really needed yards, gave the ball to his brother, Joe Jr."—a general approach that would do credit nowadays to Y. A. Tittle and Bart Starr. At Harvard Mr. Kennedy defied illness and injury alike. In the infirmary with a severe case of grippe during the swimming season, he arranged for a roommate to smuggle him steaks and malts, and he sneaked out for practice swims. He played on the junior varsity football team until a back injury turned him into the most celebrated touch football player in all recorded history. He raced Star boats, and became champion of Nantucket Sound. He sailed for Harvard; and with his big brother Joe sailing another boat, he won the McMillan Trophy, emblematic of the Eastern Intercollegiate Championship.
Barely out of college, Jack Kennedy joined the Navy. His exploits as a PT boat skipper in the South Pacific are celebrated—it was his own physical fitness that saved his life and that of others.
His interest in the sea never ended, and the President was a familiar sight at the helm of his centerboard sloop, the Victura, in the waters off Hyannisport. Just before his election to the presidency he confided wistfully to a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED correspondent: "I always wanted to sail in the Bermuda race." Our man observed that many a Bermuda race skipper would like nothing better than to have Mr. Kennedy as crew, but he added that this would probably become impossible if Mr. Kennedy became President. The familiar Kennedy smile broke out, and he said, "I guess that's right, but if I lose I can go."
A warm, happy approach to the gibes and banter of sport characterized all the Kennedys, and none more than the President. He laughed out loud at an essay entitled Rules for Visiting the Kennedys, written by a close friend. Be prepared to play touch football, the writer warned. "The only way I know of to get out of playing is not to come at all, or to come with a broken leg." Good-natured ragging, so much a part of sport, appealed to the President, even though he was, in his lofty position, the most frequent butt of the remarks. No one laughed louder than Jack Kennedy when, on the morning after his election, he took an ignominious pratfall in one of the Kennedys' incessant touch football games. "There he is, the next President," cracked brother Robert. "All guts and no brains." And when he gave up skiing just after taking office, Mr. Kennedy made one of those offhand remarks that bring laughter at the time and sad remembrance later. "My own profession," he said, "is hazardous enough."
Skiing was one of the few sports Jack Kennedy ever abandoned, and only because another injury to his back might have left him permanently and seriously disabled. But the range of his athletic participation was so broad that a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED photographer, assigned to follow the President for a few days on Cape Cod, wired to New York that the next such assignment should go not to a mere reporter but to "a summer camp phys ed instructor." The President, during those few days, had taken part in skin diving, golf, croquet, swimming, sailing, Softball, deep sea fishing, speedboating and a popular Kennedy family sport known as "towing in the water," in which lines were trailed from the family sloop and all aboard took turns being towed, sometimes losing their grip and flailing along behind while the rest of the Kennedys dissolved into taunting laughter.
Now he is gone. Sonny Liston cried. The English Football League went into mourning. Dozens of athletic events were canceled out of respect for the President, and dozens were played on the equally reasonable grounds that the President would have wanted it that way. On the morning after the assassination, Representative Carl Albert of Oklahoma put his finger on the reason for the state of shocked stupor all over the nation. "I think," he said, "we feel so sad because President Kennedy was like an extra member of every American family." Indeed he was, and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED is proud that he was very much a member of our family. Others will tell of his roles in international and domestic policies, of his victories and his disappointments. We prefer to remember him at the helm of Victura or studying the mysterious ways of a four-wood or rapping out a ground-rules double on the tiny softball field adjoining his home in Hyannisport. His bad back gave him a clear mandate to relax and take it easy, to spectate for the rest of his life. Instead he played in his pain and showed the Soft American the way of a man with guts.