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Ike at the Bat: Eisenhower's rumored baseball past

34th president is said to have played in old Central Kansas League
President Dwight D. Eisenhower grins broadly as he throws out the first pitch at the Washington Senators' 1960 season opener. (AP)
July 15, 2020

When debating who ranks among the United States' best presidents, one typically can’t make it far down the list without mentioning Dwight D. Eisenhower. Between leading the Allied Forces to victory in World War II, ending the Korean War a decade later and establishing such institutions as NASA and the

When debating who ranks among the United States' best presidents, one typically can’t make it far down the list without mentioning Dwight D. Eisenhower. Between leading the Allied Forces to victory in World War II, ending the Korean War a decade later and establishing such institutions as NASA and the Interstate Highway System, the nation’s 34th president impacted the country in ways that rival anyone who's taken the oath of office.

And while all of that is well-documented and celebrated, there’s one alleged wrinkle to Ike’s life that you likely won't find in a history book: his rumored stint in Minor League Baseball. The story is just that, a rumor, but if it is true, it could’ve had ramifications that dramatically affected the course of his life -- and possibly the fate of the world.

As the legend goes, Eisenhower spent at least part of one summer playing in the now-defunct Central Kansas League while growing up in Abilene. It’s not just hearsay, however; the rumor’s origins can be traced back to the man himself.

Not long after the allied victory in Europe was official, Eisenhower returned to the U.S. with one request: to catch a Major League ballgame. So after the massive parade that naturally awaited his arrival on June 19, 1945, he went to the Polo Grounds to watch the New York Giants face the Boston Braves. While there, he was overheard by reporters telling Giants manager Mel Ott that he once played pro ball in Kansas under the pseudonym “Wilson."

“That’s a secret from my past,” Eisenhower said when asked for further details, according to The New York Times.

Days later, during a news conference in Abilene, he elaborated.

“I was a center fielder,” The Times quoted Eisenhower as saying on June 22, 1945. “I went into baseball deliberately to make money and with no idea of making it a career. I wanted to go to college that fall, and we didn't have money. But I wasn't a very good center fielder and didn't do too well at it.”

However, while Eisenhower is responsible for the creation of the rumor, it’s never been confirmed to be explicitly true. In the years after his proclamation, he either denied or avoided expanding on the claim.

But why would he lie? If an interesting tidbit like this was true, why not embrace it and add it to the already expansive list of fascinating details of his life? To understand why he may have regretted saying what he did, one must go back to where it all began: Abilene.

As he told reporters, Eisenhower’s family wasn’t wealthy growing up. He worked multiple jobs as a teenager, most notably at the local creamery, all while playing on the Abilene High School baseball team. He and his brother, Edgar, made a pact that after high school, Dwight would work to pay for Edgar’s college and Edgar would later return home to do the same for Dwight. Edgar attended the University of Michigan, thanks to Ike’s help, but as we know, the future president went on to attend the U.S. Military Academy, where there is no tuition.

"Ike" (top row, third from left) played on the Abilene High football team in 1910. The Eisenhower Library/AP

Eisenhower pursued an education to get a better job than what was available in Abilene, yes, but he also wanted to go to college for athletic reasons. Once he arrived at West Point, he joined the football team as a running back and linebacker. His real dream was to join the baseball team, but despite his best efforts, he didn’t make the cut.

“Not making the baseball team at West Point was one of the greatest disappointments of my life, maybe the greatest,” he later said.

A disappointment, sure, but it actually may have been a blessing in disguise. In 2020, the NCAA mandates that to maintain amateur status and eligibility, a player cannot be paid for his or her talents. When Eisenhower was first attending West Point, though, those rules were just beginning to take effect. Many schools didn’t care if a player earned a small wage for his services outside of the school year, but many other institutions took it far more seriously.

If the U.S. Military Academy was one of those schools, then Eisenhower wouldn’t have been eligible to play football and would’ve had to lie about his stint in the Central Kansas League to maintain his amateur status. If caught, he would have been in violation of the Cadet Honor Code, which states “a cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”

It’s impossible to know what action would’ve been taken against Eisenhower in this hypothetical situation, but it’s not unreasonable to think that as a result of the violation, he could’ve been expelled from the academy and had his military career end before it even began. And if that had happened, who would’ve led the Allied invasion of Normandy? How differently would World War II have played out with a different general at the helm there and through the end of the war?

Again, it’s impossible to know. But according to Mark Eberle, retired professor at Fort Hays State University and author of “Eisenhower, Wilson, and Professional Baseball in Kansas,” Ike’s baseball past could’ve had a dramatic ripple effect on history.

"One of those great 'What if?' stories that some historian could probably sit down and write. ... because, I mean, you could take that so many different ways,” Eberle said. “He was -- his skill set was not one that I think was really widespread. Maybe George Marshall. But most of those other generals, the (George S.) Pattons and those guys, they couldn't have done (what he did).”

It’s also possible Eisenhower denied the rumors in his later years simply because they weren’t true. In his research for the monograph, Eberle determined that Eisenhower “probably” did play baseball for money but not in the way that he boasted after the war.

By his own testimony, Eisenhower played center field in the Central Kansas League while saving money for college under the assumed name “Wilson.” But according to Eberle, there were only a handful of players named Wilson documented to have played around that time. None of them could’ve been Eisenhower, as they were all either too well-known, not center fielders or played at times that conflicted with his departure for West Point.

The Wilson at the center of Eberle’s inquiry is Robert Franklin Wilson, better known as “Affy.” He was revered locally and, according to records, spent time with the Abilene Red Sox/Abilene Reds and played for the nearby Junction City Soldiers in 1911, right before Eisenhower left for West Point.

Since Affy played in and around his hometown at the right time, it’d be easy to assume that he could’ve secretly been Eisenhower. But Abilene was just one of nearly a dozen towns in which Affy played over more than a decade, and a 1911 Soldiers team photo provides proof he was not the future president in disguise.

"If you look at that photo, Affy Wilson's bald,” Eberle said with a laugh. “One of the newspapers made fun of him because he didn't have any hair, and they said they had to take that picture several times or something to that effect because they were trying to make him not look as bald ... but Eisenhower had hair then. He was just out of high school.”

What is possible is that Eisenhower told Ott and others that he went by the name Wilson simply because he knew Affy was well-known and well-liked, and because it added a layer of mystery to the story.

"He was really popular and so it might've just been that. … You've got to give somebody a name, well, pick the name of the guy that everybody likes anyway,” Eberle said. “And there's lots of Wilsons around, so it's not like they're gonna really know. And so again, it's not one that's going to draw attention to you or something.”

But while he seems to have lied about the name, Eberle does believe Eisenhower is telling the truth to some degree. His leading theory is that, while not in the Central Kansas League, Eisenhower played semi-pro ball or otherwise for money, as unorganized teams often would bet modest amounts against each other in a barnstorming-like format. This would’ve allowed him to make some money while also working a full-time job, and it’s also possible he went by a fake name to maintain college eligibility without it showing up in records.

And while that would still be an impressive tale to tell, it’s not hard to believe that Eisenhower would’ve embellished it in the moment. After all, he was talking to a future Hall of Famer in Ott. It makes sense he’d want to sound better at the game than he was.

“There are other reasons he might've lied, too, because, you know, he was talking to Major League players when he was talking about that and maybe he didn't want to look small, you know what I mean?” Eberle said. “They were like his heroes in a lot of ways, like they were for a lot of people that were growing up."

Ultimately, it seems as though the full truth will never be known. It’s easy and fun to believe Eisenhower’s entertaining account, but it’s not hard to poke holes in it, too. And while that may be the case, Eberle doesn’t see an issue. He just views it as another fascinating piece of baseball lore, truthful or not.

"It's a story that just is never going to die and I honestly think that's a good thing,” Eberle said. “Because in some ways, I think what's interesting, too, is it doesn't have an answer, right? It doesn't have a definitive answer and probably never will … and so those are not bad stories, right? They tell us about ourselves, not just that person. And that's the best kind of story."

Jordan Wolf is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter: @byjordanwolf.