The Duke of Wellington supposedly said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. If you agree with the duke that leaders are forged in the crucible of sports, Ted Dobias has a story to tell you.
Mr. Dobias, 90, who coached at New York Military Academy in Cornwall-on-Hudson for 50 years, remembers that in 1964 his baseball team was playing Cheshire Academy for the prep school championship. The score was 4-4 with runners on second and third. In a pressure-packed situation, the batter delivered a hit to right-center to win the game.
That batter? Donald J. Trump.
There may be no Bill Bradley (Knicks, 1967-77) or Jack Kemp (Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers, Buffalo Bills, 1957-69) in this year’s presidential field, but many of the hopefuls have athletic backgrounds of at least some note.
Although none of the candidates played big-time college sports, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida did suit up for a season of football at now-defunct Tarkio College in northwestern Missouri.
He was an undersize defensive back for the Owls, who competed at the N.A.I.A. level. He went on to graduate from a much bigger college football school, Florida, but did not play for that Division I powerhouse. Mr. Rubio has shown off his football skills on the floor of the statehouse in Florida, catching passes from Dan Marino and Tim Tebow.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas played football, basketball and soccer in high school, but in college he competed in a nonathletic pursuit: the debate team at Princeton, where he was debater of the year in 1992.
The sport most associated with Mr. Trump in recent years is golf. He has slapped his name on numerous courses around the world: The home of the famous Blue Monster course in Miami, Doral Country Club, is now Trump National Doral; Turnberry, the course in Scotland where Tom Watson beat Jack Nicklaus in the so-called Duel in the Sun, is now Trump Turnberry.
Mr. Trump also recently feuded with the Ricketts family, which owns the Chicago Cubs and has financed a political action committee that is trying to defeat him.
Perhaps his most famous sports connection was his time as an owner in the United States Football League, when he led the league into an ill-fated move from spring to fall.
But years before, the young Mr. Trump — nicknamed D. T. — excelled in sports in school, Mr. Dobias remembers. He played as an end on the freshman football team before switching to soccer and was “pretty good” as the basketball team’s starting point guard, too, Dobias said. But he saves his praise for Mr. Trump the first baseman.
“Good hitter, good fielder, good attitude,” Mr. Dobias said. In particular, Mr. Dobias was impressed with Mr. Trump’s sense of the game. He recalled a situation in the championship game in which there was a runner on third and no outs; Mr. Trump told his coach that he thought a squeeze play was coming. Sure enough, the batter tried to bunt, and “Donald charged in and tagged him out,” Mr. Dobias said.
A baseball coach from West Point came to the school multiple times to try to talk Mr. Trump into playing there, Mr. Dobias said.
“He was a good athlete,” Mr. Dobias said. “I’d give him an 8½ out of 10.”
On the Democratic side, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont ran track and cross-country in high school and was once a solid pickup basketball player. “From midrange, 10, 15 feet, he could kill you,” a fellow player told The Guardian.
In the days before Title IX, the federal law that requires equal support for men’s and women’s athletic programs, athletic opportunities were often limited for women and girls. Although she participated in sports earlier in her school days, by her senior year in high school, Hillary Clinton’s activity list was filled with the student council, the organizations committee and the like. Her devotion to baseball — specifically the Cubs — is well known.
Some of the better athletes in the race have dropped out. Former Gov. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, briefly a Democratic candidate, wrestled at Brown; on the Republican side, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida played tennis at Texas, and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky swam at Baylor.
One of the most physically fit of presidents is also frequently cited as one of the best. Theodore Roosevelt was a well-known outdoorsman who was an almost fanatical believer in fitness. He often invited champion boxers and wrestlers decades younger to meet him in the ring.
Gerald Ford’s tenure as president was too short to earn much in terms of traditional accomplishments, but one can make the case that he was the best sportsman of the lot. Mr. Ford was the starting center for the Michigan football team and its most valuable player as a senior. In another era, he might well have gone on to a professional career. Instead he chose law school.
A giant of a man for his era, the 6-foot-2 George Washington set the template for the American presidency. He was said to be an astonishing horseman, swimmer and wrestler. The legend about his throwing a coin across the Potomac may be myth making, but contemporaries said they saw him win an iron-bar hurling competition by a comfortable margin.
But would he have seen that squeeze play coming?