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Hoover-Ball: A President's Game Becomes A CrossFit Sensation12:11

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American President Calvin Coolidge (1872 - 1933) with Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon (1855 - 1937) and future President Herbert Hoover (1874 - 1964) outside the White House after discussions.  Original Publication: People Disc - HC0289   (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)closemore
American President Calvin Coolidge (1872 - 1933) with Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon (1855 - 1937) and future President Herbert Hoover (1874 - 1964) outside the White House after discussions. Original Publication: People Disc - HC0289 (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Herbert Hoover no doubt had a lot of things on his mind on the day he became president. One of them was his health. After more than a decade in Washington, serving in jobs from food administrator to secretary of commerce, Hoover had only found time for the occasional stroll. He hadn't made it out to his favorite fishing hole nearly as often as he'd have liked. And, as The New York Times reported on November 29, 1931:

"These activities were not sufficient materially to affect his physical well-being and the result was that he came to weigh more than he should."

At about 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, Herbert Hoover wouldn't have been considered obese, at least not by today's standards.

"No, but he had a bit of a paunch," Hoover historian George Nash says. "I've seen some photographs of him in the 1920s."

Back in 1975, Nash was commissioned by what's now known as the Hoover Presidential Foundation to write the "definitive" biography of Hoover, and he's studied the former president ever since. Nash has found plenty of evidence to suggest that the trouble wasn't that Hoover was eating too much. It was that he didn't exercise — he just didn't believe in it.

"And the people who played it were known as the Medicine Ball Cabinet."

George Nash, Hoover historian

But, knowing that the Presidency was a difficult job, and remembering that the 29th president, Warren Harding, died in office, Hoover set out to change his ways.

The Commander-In-Chief Gets Fit

On a month-long goodwill tour of Central and South America, the president-elect noticed Navy sailors standing in a circle throwing around a medicine ball — trying to keep it away from the poor guy in the middle. They called it Bull in the Ring. Hoover joined in.

"Until he played that game," the New York Times later reported, "it is doubtful if Mr. Hoover had ever taken any exercise for the sake of exercise."

On March 8, 1929, just four days after his inauguration, Hoover and members of his staff gathered to play a modified version of Bull in the Ring on the White House lawn.

The results were less than satisfying.

"They rather quickly got bored with the idea of just standing around for 15 minutes or a half an hour at 7:00 in the morning on the White House lawn tossing a ball," George Nash says.

So, the president's personal physician, Adm. Joel T. Boone, decided to kick things up a notch.

Hoover and his Medicine Ball Cabinet played nearly every day. (Public Domain)
Hoover and his Medicine Ball Cabinet played nearly every day. (Public Domain)

"Dr. Boone came up with the idea of creating, in a sense, a tennis court on the White House lawn — 66 feet by 30 with an 8-foot-high net across the top. And the idea was simply to toss the ball, the 6-pound ball, over the net. And basically it's a game of catch, and if you fail to catch it and return it, then, of course, you'd lose the point."

The game was a hit. The president played every day, rain or shine, from 7:00 a.m. until a factory whistle sounded at 7:30. Or maybe the factory whistle was at 7:00 and then Dr. Boone ran a stopwatch until 7:30 — no one knows for sure.

The game became known as Hoover-Ball.

"And the people who played it," Nash says, "were known as the Medicine Ball Cabinet."

Hoover dropped 25 pounds and, according to The New York Times, all his "bodily muscles" became "hardened." But just four years later, Hoover left the White House, and Hoover-Ball was all but forgotten.

"In years later," Nash says, "sometimes people doing a little article on Eisenhower going golfing or fishing or whatever, would refer back to, 'Oh, Hoover had his Medicine Ball Cabinet, and Calvin Coolidge had his exercise horse.'"

OK, I have to digress for just a minute here, because Calvin Coolidge really did keep an electronic exercise horse in his White House dressing room, and it's on display at the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum in Northampton, Massachusetts.

The thing doesn't look at all like a horse.

"It's not your bucking bronco like in a bar room or anything," says Coolidge archivist Julie Bartlett Nelson. "It does not really buck or anything like that. It just kind of jiggles."

President Coolidge's exercise horse is the most loaned-out item in his museum's collection. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)
President Coolidge's exercise horse is the most loaned-out item in his museum's collection. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)

It's a black metal contraption that looks a bit like a bar room bucking bronco, if that bar room bucking bronco had been made 90 years ago by one of the Kellogg Brothers. (They also invented cornflakes.)

Nobody, except maybe your odd presidential historian, is considering riding an electronic horse for exercise. But Hoover-Ball is still played today. And it's played by more people and in more places than it ever was before.

To understand why, we have to go back to Hoover's final days in office.

Hoover's Lackluster Legacy

"He went in as a kind of superhero," Nash says, "and of course he went out, one has to say, more hated than any American since the Civil War."

Hoover had used the slogan, "Four More Years of Prosperity," but then the stock market crashed and the country was thrown into the Great Depression. Hoover did his best, but in his radio addresses he came off as stiff and stern, rather than warm and fuzzy.

"Hoover suffered from an image that he was a rather austere, aloof, quiet individual," Nash says. "And there were people who felt that they needed to humanize him."

It took until the late 1980s to come up with a plan. What better way to humanize Herbert Hoover than to publicize the fact that his weight inspired the White House doctor to invent a new sport? Besides, there was a fitness craze going on, and the Hoover Presidential Foundation wanted to take advantage of it.

Scott Sailor worked at the foundation back then, and he says this crazy idea actually worked:

"When I first researched the game, nobody alive had ever played, really. The game allowed people to take another look at Hoover and they saw that he was not just a one-dimensional president who happened to be in office during a world-wide depression. They took a closer look at him, they learned a lot about him. Hoover-Ball showed that he had a great sense of humor — anybody who's ever played the game realizes that you have to have a sense of humor to play Hoover-Ball."

The foundation held its first annual Hoover-Ball tournament 28 years ago in West Branch, Iowa — Hoover's hometown.

President Hoover's image took a hit during the Great Depression. (Keystone/Getty Images)
President Hoover's image took a hit during the Great Depression. (Keystone/Getty Images)

"It started off basically just local with teams around West Branch and Eastern Iowa," says Jerry Fleagle, executive director of the Hoover Presidential Foundation.

"It's competitive, but it's also, I describe it almost like a tailgate-type atmosphere," he says. "People bring their pop-up tents. They stay for the day."

The tournament was a big success at first. By 1993, as many as 52 teams from seven states showed up to play. But by the time Only A Game's Rita Sand reported on the event in 1999, the foundation was having trouble rounding up enough teams to keep the event going.

Some were worried that Hoover-Ball might fade back into the history books.

But in 2003, the sport experienced a completely unexpected surge in popularity.

"And now it has grown," Fleagle says, "to where we have teams, this last year, were from four different states. We've actually had teams come from overseas."

What changed?

Well, CrossFit, that super-popular, grunt-producing, heavy-lifting exercise trend. One day in 2003, someone at CrossFit HQ discovered Hoover-Ball while searching online for sports that used a medicine ball.

And Greg Glassman — he's CrossFit's inventor and chief guru — challenged his flock to give the old game a try.

Soon, a Marine named Frank Ollis wrote back with an update:

Coach,
Just thought I would let you know about a little PT session we had. We played Hoover Ball with a 12lb TKO medicine ball, 5 players per side, 6 games to 10 points. It took 55 minutes and everyone was wiped out.
Sincerely,
SSgt Frank Ollis
U.S. Marines

Glassman's response? "If [Frank] thinks it's tough, it's tough."

And the rest, as they say, is history.

'Grab A Medicine Ball! Circle Up!'

While President Hoover played Hoover-Ball with a six-pound medicine ball, CrossFitters go for the decidedly more CrossFit-appropriate option of 14 or 20 pounds. (Alessandra Bisalti/CrossFit MASS)
While President Hoover played Hoover-Ball with a six-pound medicine ball, CrossFitters go for the decidedly more CrossFit-appropriate option of 14 or 20 pounds. (Alessandra Bisalti/CrossFit MASS)

"We did it just because it's a staple of CrossFit," says Joe Venuti, who runs Hoover-Ball games at CrossFit MASS, about 35 minutes northwest of Boston. "I mean, there's articles out there. It's a great all-around sport."

Hoover-Ball is now played at military bases overseas and in CrossFit gyms from coast to coast. As for the historically accurate 6-pound medicine ball?

"CrossFitters are a little, take things a little bit to the extreme," Venuti says. "So the guys are using a 20-pound ball today. The girls, who had started off with a 10-pound ball, have now opted for a 14-pound ball, because they've realized that they're stronger than they thought, and 14 pounds is not that big of a deal."

"So what do you know about this game?" I ask first time CrossFitter Lynne Halaby.

'"Nothing. That it's hard!" she says.

"Does the name remind you of anyone?" I ask.

"Hover-Ball?"

"Hoover-Ball"

"Hoover-Ball. Yeah, vacuuming. Hoover-Ball? I don't have any idea — other than the vacuum cleaner."

CrossFit MASS plays Hoover-Ball every fourth Saturday morning. (Alessandra Bisalti/CrossFit MASS)
CrossFit MASS plays Hoover-Ball every fourth Saturday morning. (Alessandra Bisalti/CrossFit MASS)

"It’s a little bit crazy," CrossFitter Darren Emery says, "so I don’t know what kind of president he was, but this is a little insane."

Emery knows about the presidential connection and he can even explain why Dr. Boone designed the game as he did.

"So, you have similar movement to, like, say tennis," Emery says, "where you’re tracking the ball and you’re running for it and you’re trying to make a play. But it adds a strength component. Imagine trying to play tennis with a cannonball. It wouldn’t be that easy."

CrossFit gave the sport a big boost, but the quest to keep Hoover-Ball — and Herbert Hoover — relevant never ends. Luckily, there's at least one thing hotter right now than CrossFit.

The 2016 presidential election.

While this country is focused on electing its 45th president, Jerry Fleagle, the keeper of the 31st president's legacy, has issued a press release.

"We challenge all presidential contenders to play at least one game with us during the Hoover-Ball National Championships to show the world they are (physically) fit for the long road ahead. I urge the candidates to come out and show America what they’ve got!"

Fleagle first made his challenge last summer. And not surprisingly, none of the 20 presidential candidates actually showed up. But by the time the 2016 tournament is held on the first Saturday in August, the race will be down to just two, and Fleagle says his invitation still stands.

"We did it a little bit tongue in cheek but with a seriousness too," he says. "Let's see what kind of a team that they can put together and what kind of leadership can they show?"

Just picture it: The Republican nominee on one side and the Democratic nominee on the other, facing off across a volleyball net, throwing a heavy medicine ball at each other instead of flinging barbs that only serve to further divide the American people. It's kinda beautiful. Besides…

"They come to Iowa anyway and come to the Iowa State Fair," says Fleagle, "and eat these corn dogs and all this other stuff. And they just as well come over to West Branch and play some Hoover-Ball and work it off."

Related:

Karen Given Producer, Only A Game
Karen is a producer for WBUR's Only A Game.

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