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Why Do Sports Teams Visit the White House?

The president’s patriotic pageant renews a question dating back to the first White House visit by a champion sports team.
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Here’s the thing about the pilgrimages that championship sports teams make to the White House each year. It’s a tradition rooted in efforts to achieve national unity. Like the broader American project, at their best these visits promote an expansive vision of America, a diverse society finding commonality in shared symbols and common rituals.

But the first such visit was rooted in a very different vision of American society—uniting white Americans by excluding blacks from sports, from civic rituals, and from political equality. As President Trump disinvited the Philadelphia Eagles from the White House on Monday, he loudly insisted that he still wished “to honor our great country” and “celebrate America.” His statement did not specify, though, which version of America he intended to celebrate.

In 1865, the United States was engaged in the project of Reconstruction, building a new society in the wake of the Civil War. It was also engaged in playing ball. Union soldiers brought home with them a passion for the American game, and fans flocked to ballfields to enjoy the pleasures of peacetime.

Baseball teams proliferated. Black squads and white squads used the same fields in many cities, fans mingling freely. In Washington, the prime spot was the White Lot, on the grounds of the executive mansion. And in August, it hosted an extraordinary three-team tournament, pitting the Atlantic from Brooklyn and the Athletic from Philadelphia against Washington’s own Nationals.

These games took place against a backdrop of profound uncertainty. It remained unclear what form the reconstructed nation would take. A constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, ratified by the northern states, remained stalled—waiting for southern states to take it up.

President Andrew Johnson, himself a southerner, was pushing for a rapid restoration of the Union as it was before the war. “The people must be trusted with their government,” he wrote the day of the first game. But he had a particular vision of what that meant. “This is a country for white men, and by G-d, so long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men,” he told the governor of Missouri, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported at the time.

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