Hoover Ball Genesis

Part 1
By Matthew Schaeffer

The health of the President of the United States is often newsworthy.  President Trump’s height and weight made recent headlines.  Obama’s smoking drew public interest.  Clinton’s affinity for eating fast food, sometimes while dressed for jogging, was worth a news photo.  I would argue that the American public cares more about the health of the President than anyone not named Timmy trapped at the bottom of a well. We all know that the office of the Presidency places great demands on a man. We all hope that he is physically fit enough to bear these demands.

Herbert Hoover playing Hoover Ball on the White House lawn.

This was also true during the Hoover administration.  Shortly after Hoover took office, he met with White House physician Joel T. Boone for the customary physical.  Boone, who had served Presidents Harding and Coolidge, reported that Hoover’s overall health was excellent with two notable exceptions.  Hoover was overweight and his lung capacity, as measured by chest expansion, was less than optimal.  As Hoover was a 54 year old desk-bound bureaucrat who enjoyed cigars and eating, this finding did not surprise the doctor.  Boone recommended that Hoover lose twenty-five pounds via a reducing diet and improve his lungs by practicing deep breathing exercises out in fresh air.

The nature of this outdoor exercise led to much discussion between Hoover and Boone.  Hoover demanded something to stimulate his entire body and his mind.  He did not have the patience for calisthenics, nor did he have the time for walking or horseback riding.  Boone suggested tossing an eight-pound medicine ball back and forth.  Hoover and Boone had seen sailors throwing the ball around while on their South American tour after the election.  The sailors’ game was called ‘bull in the ring’ and bore close resemblance to keep-away.  Hoover, Boone and a small group of men began gathering on the south lawn of the White House to toss the leather ball for thirty minutes each morning.

This exercise soon became boring.  Boone tweaked things so that it became more of a game and less of a setting up exercise.  The game melded tennis, volleyball and exertion that taxed muscles, lungs and nerves.  The game was played on a lawn tennis court divided by an eight-foot high volleyball net.  Teams of two to four men would toss the six pound ball over the net, scoring the points as in tennis.  The game was fast and an extremely demanding cardiovascular workout.  Men would play a game, then substituting as needed to recover their wind.

As the game was played on the lawn of the White House, it soon came to the attention of the press.  Newspaper and magazine articles gave ample coverage to this ‘Medicine Ball Cabinet.’  One journalist estimated that nearly two hundred men participated during the first six months of Hoover’s term.  Others surmised on the impact on Hoover’s health and whether the men playing took advantage of the game to present policy ideas to the President.  Hoover’s health benefited as he dropped the twenty-five pounds suggested by Boone. There is no clear evidence that policy was shaped by this group.  The game came to be called ‘Hoover Ball.’  It was played six days a week by Hoover associates, who agreed ‘stopping a six pound ball with steam back of it… is not pink tea stuff.’

Continued next week.

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