By Greg Bates
It’s become an annual right. It’s a tradition unlike any other.
Each franchise of the four major sports that wins their respective world championship every season gets the opportunity to travel to the White House to meet the sitting President of the United States.
The teams spend a couple hours touring the residence of the most powerful man in the world, then meet with the president for a special ceremony, generally held on the South Lawn or East Room. The players are congratulated for their achievements, and a team photo with the president is always a must.
Another tradition that has spun from the White House visit is teams have made it a point to present gifts to the president.
The New England Patriots made their fair share of travel arrangements to the nation’s capital this century. The team made their fourth trip in the last 14 years when they went to see President Barack Obama on April 23 after winning Super Bowl XLIX.
“We never take these things for granted,” said Stacey James, Patriots vice president of media relations. “Getting the invitation from the White House is always a great honor.”
The Patriots had to go a decade between visits, meeting with President George W. Bush three times before being hosted by President Obama following February’s Super Sunday victory.
“I know Obama jokes with the UConn women’s basketball team with how regular they have visited,” said James, who has traveled with the team for all the White House celebrations. “We kind of had received the same comments from President Bush that we’d been there three times in four years.”
With the president receiving visits from the winners of the four major sports, as well as everyone from the college football national champion to the Scripps National Spelling Bee winner, America’s leader spends quite a few days per year honoring the nation’s heroes.
“They have so many visits now, but it’s probably a nice break for the president in between all of the other major, serious issues he has to deal with,” said Staci Slaughter, San Francisco Giants executive vice president of communications. “I think it’s a big honor and people really look forward to it.”
What do teams bring the president?
For all their appearances at the White House, the Patriots like to keep their gifts to the president pretty traditional.
“It’s always a jersey and a ball,” James said. “We may have done a helmet one year.”
On their visit in April, the Patriots gave the president a white Super Bowl jersey with “OBAMA 44” on the back, an autographed Super Bowl football and an autographed helmet.
“I don’t think we tried too hard to outdo anybody else,” James said. “You do what is the right presentation and representation of your team to include that president in that photo opportunity. That’s what it’s intended for.
“Having the President of the United States standing there with a Patriots jersey with his name on it for a group photo, that’s pretty cool. Every team wants to make that presentation.”
The White House staff had suggested the Patriots bring just one item, but the team pulled out all the stops with the three gifts during the ceremony and also gave the First Lady an “OBAMA 44” blue jersey in a private exchange.
“There was a limit to how many things we were supposed to present, so that one might have come back to us,” James said.
The Green Bay Packers haven’t been able to relish in as many Super Bowl titles in the 21st century. It’s too bad visits to the White House weren’t popular in the 1930s when the Packers won five NFL championships in 11 seasons.
After winning Super Bowl XLV during the 2010 season, the Packers gave President Obama a jersey with No. 1 and “Commander in Chief” on the back and a share of Packers stock. Being the only publicly owned franchise in all of professional sports, the team sells stocks every so often to raise money for projects, such as adding seating to historic Lambeau Field.
“The stock we felt would be a unique gift, one that other teams would not be able to do,” said Aaron Popkey, Packers director of public affairs. “(Obama) joked as an owner he would initiate a trade of Aaron Rodgers to the Bears.”
Along with being an avid Bears fan, President Obama, a Chicago native, is a huge Bulls supporter. The Miami Heat found out first-hand Obama’s love of the Bulls during their trip to the White House in January 2014 after winning the 2013 title. Obama, who has actually played pick-up basketball with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen, interacted quite a bit with the Heat players during the special ceremony.
“He always gets it in about his Bulls,” said Michael McCullough, Heat executive vice president and chief marketing officer. “We beat his Bulls on the way to the title. The fact that he’s a basketball fan really kind of played into things for us.”
The Heat have been able to visit President Obama two of the last four years, and three times in the last decade.
The first time the Heat won the NBA title in 2006 and went to the White House, the team presented President Bush with a jersey with his last name on it. The next trip, Obama’s jersey said “POTUS” – President of the United States.
“We wanted to do something a little different, so that’s why we did POTUS,” McCullough said. “I think the Spurs did that last season, but I don’t think anyone had done that before we had.”
In January 2014, the Heat gave Obama a unique gift: a mini trophy. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra created a trophy during the team’s 2013 playoff run that looks similar to the Larry O’Brien Trophy; however, it was black. There are hash marks on the trophy signifying each postseason victory by the team. The trophy was signed by the entire team and presented to Obama.
“The cool thing about it from our standpoint, not that he’s not a football fan, but he really likes basketball and knows basketball,” McCullough said. “He was really impressed with the basketball stuff, especially the trophy.”
Not wanting to leave out the First Family, the Heat created personalized jerseys for the First Lady and the Obamas’ two daughters.
“We had all this laid out on the table and the White House folks were super impressed and excited that we remembered the women,” McCullough said. “They thought that was really a great gesture and that they were really going to appreciate it. Being there multiple times gave us the thought that we didn’t want to miss the other family members.”
The Chicago Blackhawks have made two trips to the White House in the last five years and will make a third soon after winning another Stanley Cup in 2015.
The organization consulted with the NHL, which was in contact with the White House Office of External Affairs, on what to bring to the White House for the visits.
“In both March 2011 and November 2013, the organization brought President Obama a Blackhawks jersey and a replica Stanley Cup,” said Pete Hassen, Blackhawks senior executive director of marketing. “Additionally, for the 2013 visit, we worked with the National Hockey League to bring him a Stanley Cup replica popcorn maker and some favorite food items from Chicago.”
The popcorn maker is certainly a different gift to give a president. The Blackhawks organization knew President Obama loves popcorn, so they wanted to give him something he could use.
Since Obama is a Blackhawks fan and native of Chicago, the organization wanted to present him with some gifts he’d appreciate.
“We’ve been fortunate to visit the White House while the President is from Chicago, so we absolutely wanted to bring a touch of home,” Hassen said. “Not only did we want to share our victory with a mini replica of the Stanley Cup, but we also wanted to remind him of some of the other items that make Chicago great.
The San Francisco Giants have also become regular guests of President Obama. The Giants, which made their most recent visit on June 4, won their third World Series title in five years last October.
“Because it’s been lucky for us – we like to keep a tradition, so we always bring a signed jersey with president’s name on the back,” Slaughter said.
World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner also presented Obama with a team-signed baseball from the 2014 World Series. The third item the Giants gave the president was a base signed by the team members, along with a special name plate. Obama was pleased that Giants legends Willie Mays and Monte Irvin joined the organization on the trip this year.
In 2011, after winning the World Series the previous season, the Giants presented the First Family baseball gloves with their names embroidered into them.
“One year, we brought a signed bat. Another year we brought the base and the ball,” said Slaughter, who has been with the Giants for 19 years and accompanies the guys to the White House. “We just try to do something a little bit different each time.
“He’s a White Sox fan, so we probably don’t think he’ll wear a jersey. We want to give something that you can display in your office or in the presidential library.”
Prior to the White House visit, Giants staffers gather for a brainstorming session on what they should bring the president. Slaughter also touches base with the White House workers for any suggestions.
“We had learned through our White House contacts that (the president) had never received a base, so we thought that would be different,” Slaughter said.
The Giants always try to arrange their trip to the White House around their playing schedule for the following season, generally when they have an off day when they play on the road at the Washington Nationals or Philadelphia Phillies.
“Some people say, ‘Oh, my gosh. It’s so after the fact, it’s kind of anticlimactic,’” Slaughter said. “It think it’s a nice little reminder of what our team accomplished last year.
“It never gets old.”
Shaking the hand of the president certainly never gets old for any of the players and staff.
“If we could go to the White House every year, we’d book that trip right now,” McCullough joked. “Our team has been fortunate enough to be there on three different occasions.
“It really doesn’t matter who’s holding the office at that point in time, you’re in the presence of the most powerful person in the world.”
A Long Connection: Presidents and Sports
Over the years, the President of the United States has welcomed plenty of championship-winning sports teams to the White House.
President John F. Kennedy invited the Boston Celtics to pay a visit in the early 1960s. Other presidents followed suit in later years. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s when sports fan Ronald Reagan took office did teams start coming on a yearly basis. That was especially true for NFL teams.
“We started it sort of as a regular occurrence,” said Jennifer Torres, artifacts curator at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. “Other presidents had occasionally met with teams or called them after a win. Reagan during the earlier part in the administration called teams after winning the Super Bowl.”
The Chicago Bears, which won the Super Bowl during the 1985 season, would have been the first NFL team to visit the White House, but the trip was cancelled due to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in ’86. The following year, the New York Giants players got to meet President Reagan. The Giants presented the president with a football, jersey and paperweight that’s a large replica of a Super Bowl ring.
In 1988, the Washington Redskins made the shortest trip to the White House. That same year, the Los Angeles Dodgers came to town to be honored by the president for winning the World Series.
All of Reagan’s gifts he received from teams during his eight years in office are held at the Ronald Reagan President Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Reagan received the majority of his items from MLB and NFL organizations.
“The jerseys are the most popular items,” Torres said. “He also got baseball caps, autographed balls, autographed baseball bats or hockey sticks, warm-up jackets with his name on it.”
The jerseys that Reagan received generally had the No. 1 or 40 on the back with the inscription “Reagan” or “The Gipper,” noted Torres.
Reagan – who played football, but also had stints as a Chicago Cubs announcer and sportscaster for Big Ten football games long before becoming president – was presented with seven World Series baseballs during his two presidential terms.
Other unique items Reagan received during his administration included: a doctorate in professional football from Halas University and a copy of the Super Bowl Shuffle record album from the Chicago Bears; a La-Chic rug with a team logo presented by the New York Islanders; and a small replica of the Heisman Trophy given to him by Doug Flutie, who won the prestigious college football award in 1984. Reagan is the only president to be an honorary Heisman Trophy winner.
Another sports nut president who loved inviting championship-winning teams to the White House was the 43rd president, George W. Bush.
Bush, who used to be part owner of the Texas Rangers, received many souvenirs of America’s pastime. All the items are located at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas.
During his time in office, Bush was presented plenty of World Series jerseys, bats and balls, noted Amy Polley, curator of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. He also received some memorabilia from New York City after throwing out the first pitch prior to Game 3 of the 2001 World Series following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Bush had the World Series winners come to the White House from 2001-07 and the Super Bowl champions visited every year except 2003 (Tampa Bay Buccaneers). In all eight years of Bush’s term, the NBA champ was treated to a special ceremony except for 2005 and ’07 (San Antonio Spurs).
The 2002 and ’03 and 2006-08 Stanley Cup winners met with President Bush. The Detroit Red Wings presented Bush with a mini Stanley Cup in 2002 and the Carolina Hurricanes got the president a championship ring.
What happens to all the gifts?
Once the president receives a gift from a sports team, the item is processed and logged.
“It goes in through the White House Gift Office and they put it all into a database,” Polley said. “Then the National Archives comes and picks it up and brings it back to the building in D.C., where the Constitution is in a storage facility there. They pack it and keep it until the end of the administration.”
Said Torres, “They’re held at a site near where the presidential library is going to be built, then they are transferred there.”
Seeking more information on what had happened with the items presented to President Barack Obama during his terms, the White House Press Office respectfully declined an interview request from Sports Collectors Digest.
It was recently announced the presidential library for Obama will be built on Chicago’s South Side. Obama’s items will be sent to storage facility around Chicago to be housed until the library built, Polley said.
In most cases, presidents don’t keep many gifts they receive during office.
“The rule is, it’s called multi-tiered, so there’s foreign and domestic gifts,” Polley said. “For domestic gifts, anything over a certain amount – which at the time was around $300 – if (President Bush) chose to keep it and it was over that amount, he would have to claim it on his taxes. If it was under that amount, like a (baseball) cap, he could keep it without paying on his taxes. I can tell you, (the Bushes) didn’t keep a lot of stuff.
“Anything that wasn’t retained at the end of the administration was turned over to the government, to the National Archives, and retained for the American people, so it’s not (the Bushes) anymore. They could keep it, but they had to make that determination by the end of the administration.”
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.