Hoover-ball returned to Washington, D.C., recently after a hiatus of 57 years, and those of us in town for the games wondered why there was no red, white and blue bunting draped along Pennsylvania Avenue.
There should have been a parade. The last time they played Hoover Rules medicine ball in the capital—March 4, 1933—thousands lined the streets, bands played, and Marines fired 21-gun salutes into the air. Even if many of those celebrants were there for the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hoover-ball went out with a bang that day. The departing chief executive, Herbert Hoover, played at 7 a.m. on the South Lawn of the White House, as he had most mornings of his presidency. Afterward, he and the rest of the "medicine ball cabinet" exchanged farewells and autographed a four-pound yellow medicine ball, which is now on display at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum in West Branch, Iowa.
For the 1990 Hoover-ball Capital Classic, which was played on Sept. 29, there was no such fanfare. The current occupant of the White House was conspicuously absent. In fact, Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon, who heaved the ceremonial first ball, was the only prominent Republican in attendance.
"Mr. Hoover told me about the game when I was a graduate student at Stanford," the 68-year-old Hatfield recalled while loosening up before his big toss. "To be honest, it didn't make a lot of sense to me at the time."
Judging from the expressions of baffled tourists who stopped to gawk on the Capitol Mall, it still doesn't make a lot of sense.
Hoover-ball blends elements of volleyball, tennis and cabertossing, as two teams of three players heave a six-pound leather ball, two pounds heavier than Hoover's presidential model, back and forth across an eight-foot-high net. This cannot be accomplished gracefully, which explains why Hoover-ball boosters emphasize the game's supposed fitness benefits. "We like to say it exercises every major muscle group of the body," says Tom Walsh, executive director of the Hoover Library Association, "except the portion of the brain that controls common sense." A reporter for The Des Moines Register, after trying Hoover-ball not long ago, wrote, "The effect is that of a group of travelers tossing their luggage at a boat that has just pulled away from the dock, only to have the crew toss it right back again." Another Hoover-ball player likened throwing a medicine ball over a net to tossing a frozen turkey over a garage.
Hoover-ball in its modern form dates back to May 12, 1987, when this writer and five other thrill seekers trundled out a nine-pound medicine ball and played an indoor match at The Athletic Club of Overland Park, Kans. (SI, Nov. 9, 1987). A short time later Walsh seized on the idea of staging an annual Hoover-ball tournament. It would coincide with the Herbert Hoover birthday picnic, which is held each year at the library on the weekend closest to Aug. 10, the anniversary of Hoover's birth.
Fifteen teams, most of them from nearby Iowa City, played in the first "national," on Aug. 7, 1988. From these humble beginnings Hoover-ball has grown. Twenty-nine teams made it to Hoover-ball II, 50 teams to III, and Walsh predicts 100 entries for the 1991 nationals. Eastern Iowa has broken out in indoor and outdoor leagues, and the game has found its way into 15 or 20 Iowa high schools. "The kids love it," says Walsh. "It's not the same old calisthenics."
Much of the credit for this burgeoning goes to Hoover-ball "commissioner" Scott Sailor, a 32-year-old journalism teacher at Prairie High School in Cedar Rapids. Not much bigger than a medicine ball himself, the 125-pound Sailor strung nets and distributed tubes of Ben-Gay at Hoover-ball I. He has since fanned the flames of Hoover-ball mania with shameless stunts and overheated press releases. When he and Walsh were thwarted last year in their attempt to put Hoover-ball back on the South Lawn of the White House, Sailor publicly impugned President Bush's manhood, calling him a sissy and a horseshoe thrower.
"We don't expect that wimp to play," an unrepentant Sailor reiterated before September's Capital Classic, "but we expect him to send somebody over to see what it's all about."
If the President's men attended, they were artfully disguised.
With or without an emissary from the Administration, the inaugural Capital Classic was an unqualified success. There was standing room only at the outdoor volleyball courts across the street from the National Air and Space Museum (the SRO crowd was due, it must be said, to the absence of seats). Tourists passing on the mall lingered for as long as five minutes before disappearing into the Smithsonian. A video crew from CBS's Sunday Morning interviewed Senator Hatfield and asked bystanders if they thought the reappearance of Hoover-ball portended another Great Depression.
"History is being made here," said Sailor, nattily attired in a black T-shirt inscribed with the call letters of Iowa radio station WMT-FM ("flagship station of the Hoover-ball Network"). "I'd like to get Arnold Schwarzenegger to play Hoover-ball. He could probably throw it from here to the steps of the Capitol."
Only a handful of the Washington-based players had heard of Hoover-ball until recently. A notable exception was The Washington Times sportswriter Mick Heller, who had strong ties to the sport and its origins. His grandfather, Vice Admiral Joel T. Boone, invented the game in 1929, when, as White House physician, he was seeking new ways to help the rotund President Hoover control his weight.
"My grandfather didn't talk too much about the game," Heller admitted. "He liked more conventional sports."
Heller's colleagues at the Times apparently felt that same way. A team made up of "some guys from the office" was on Sailor's entry list, but at the last minute they begged off. "One guy said his car broke down," said a skeptical Heller. "That sounds like a high school excuse to me."
Milton Heller Jr., down from Stowe, Vt., to see his son defend the family escutcheon, could only smile and nod in agreement. Excuses had always been part of Hoover-ball, he said, even in Vice Admiral Boone's time. "Hoover's attorney general used to say he didn't think it was appropriate to throw a four-pound ball at the President of the United States. And the postmaster general always said he was much too busy running the post office to get up at 7 a.m. to play Hoover-ball."
Mick Heller caught on with a team called Eby's Iowans, which finished last in the six-team men's division. That much was clear. Other results at the Capital Classic were ambiguous. The Heaving Hatfields took first place, while The Hatfield Hill Heavers were second, Harkin's Hoover Heavers fourth and Hatfield's Hoover Heavers fifth. Harkin's Hoover Heavers placed first in the five-team women's competition, and Harkin's Hoover Heros were second in the coed division, ahead of Hatfield's Hoover Heavers.'
None of these Washington clubs, according to Sailor, could have whipped the reigning national champs, Iowa City's Forrest Rangers. "The teams back in West Branch are a little miffed because the best teams in the world aren't represented here," Sailor said.
An understatement, that. One of the Washington entries was a team from ComedySportz, a capital-area improvisational comedy troupe. The Sportzketeers dubbed themselves the McCoys and dressed up in hillbilly garb to play one of the myriad teams of Hatfields. "Playing in flannel was not the best idea we ever had," admitted a sweaty Patrick Walsh, brother of Tom. "Even so, we might have won. But they had strategy, which kind of threw us."
Heady with the success of the Capital Classic, Walsh and Sailor are looking toward a bold future for Hoover-ball. They hope to get the sport sanctioned as part of the statewide Iowa Games, which are staged each August on the campus of Iowa State University, in Ames. They even speculate that Hoover Rules medicine ball could one day be an Olympic demonstration sport. Says Tom Walsh, "It's the sport of the '90s. Or, as Scott's always saying, 'More fun than rabies shots.' "
The littlest big heaver, Thomas Walsh of Iowa, wore local colors in Washington.
Hatfield threw the ceremonial first ball, then watched his charges beat the McCoys.
The quality of play wasn't high, but it was still the highest seen along the mall in 57 years.