David loved athletics of all kinds, but it was football and baseball that really drove him. Later in life, he would be remembered for other things. In those formative years, however, it was all-consuming passion for sports that not only defined him, but very nearly altered the course of history.
Born the third of seven sons, David was well positioned for “middle child syndrome” and mediocrity. His childhood days were consumed primarily by household chores and going to school, not really excelling in either. One characteristic about him stood out right away: if he was interested in something, he would pursue it with all his heart. He had little ambition left over for anything else, though. Academically, he was captivated by mathematics and spelling. He also developed an interest in history. It was athletics that really captivated him, however. Much later in life, he said, “When I was a small boy…, a friend of mine and I went fishing and as we sat there in the warmth of the summer afternoon on a river bank, we talked about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I told him that I wanted to be a real major league baseball player, a genuine professional like Honus Wagner. My friend said that he’d like to be President of the United States. Neither of us got our wish.”
That’s not to say that David didn’t try to make it big in professional baseball. He was a natural athlete, and when it was time to decide on a careeer path, he directed his attention that way. Little did he know just how much pivoted upon this decision.
It should be noted that the year is 1911. Not a lot of records from that time exist, so the details are still a bit fuzzy. There is compelling reason to believe that David tried to pursue his dream of achieving baseball greatness by signing up with the semi-professional Junction City Soldiers. By David’s own admission, “I was a center fielder. 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.”
Even as good of an athlete as he was, David knew his chances of success were a longshot. He wanted to keep his options open, in case things did not pan out. He said that he played under the assumed name of “Wilson.” Sure enough, the roster for the minor league team records a player by the name of Wilson who played 9 games with 31 at bats and 11 hits, for a batting average of .355. He also had 10 putouts in 10 chances for a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage.
If any photographs of Junction City’s Wilson exist, they have yet to come to light. Consequently, we have only circumstantial evidence and David’s own words to connect the two. What is certain is that “Wilson” did not return to the Junction City Soldiers after 1911, and David decided to pursue athletics through education.
David’s family was poor, so the prospects of going to college were slim. When an opportunity arose for him to get his education at no cost, he jumped at the chance — particularly since the school fielded baseball and football teams.
David tried out for the baseball team. As good as he was, he could not compete against his classmates, some of whom were among the best athletes in the country. He later would say, “Not making the baseball team… was one of the greatest disappointments of my life — maybe my greatest.”
Despite his disappointment, there was still one option available to him: football. He tried out for and made the varsity team. On the football field, he excelled in ways he had only dreamed about while playing baseball. The 1912 football season was proving to be everything he hoped it might be. People began to notice the potential in this first-year student. When his team went up against Jim Thorpe, remembererd as one of the best players of all time, it was David who amazed spectators by tackling the rising star.
Indeed, the stars seemed to be aligning around David, and he felt better about himself and his prospects than at any time in his entire life. It’s amazing how quickly things can change, though. The very next game after David’s amazing takedown of Jim Thorpe, David was tackled. He felt something tear and pop in his knee. As he limped painfully off the field, he could not have suspected that would be the last time he would play the game of football.
David began a descent into depression. Having failed at baseball and unable to play football, he tried to keep his athletic body in shape with horseback riding and boxing. Even more misfortune followed him, however. During a horseback riding mishap, he re-injured his knee. The resulting damage triggered doctor’s orders not to ride again. Distraught, and increasingly apathetic about his studies, David muddled through his remaining years until graduation in 1915, finishing 61st out of a class of 164.
As has already been suggested, David’s failed athletic endeavors and his mediocre academic record did not get in the way of him ultimately achieving success. What remains, however, is to explain why his abortive baseball career was so consequential.
At the time David tried out for the football team, there was a strict rule in place concerning amateur atheltics. Anyone who had previously received compensation for athletic competition was inelligible to play amateur sports. This means that if David really was the elusive “Wilson” of the Junction City Soldiers, the only way he would have been considered for the varsity football team was if he lied about professional baseball experience.
Dishonesty is frowned upon in any academic setting, but it had even greater consequences at David’s school. The institution where he played football was West Point Military Academy. The Cadet Honor Code for West Point said, “A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” The consequences of violating that code were serious, including explusion and disqualification from serving as an officer in the U.S. Army.
Perhaps that is why, after David’s name became much better known, he was increasingly reluctant to talk about his experience as a baseball player. Even after graduation from West Point and having achieved notable success as an Army officer, his closest confidants expressed concern about anyone connecting the dots between David’s baseball exploits and his qualifications to play on the West Point football team.
History may never fully resolve whether the “Wilson” who played for the 1911 Junction City Soldiers was the same man who went on to become a professional soldier. What is clear is that if this seemingly inconsequential footnote of history had come to light at the right time, life would have been a lot different for David and millions of others. It would have prevented this aspiring athlete for whom the stars had seemed to so promisingly align from achieving the stars for which history would remember him. His destiny, which had seemed to be so wrapped around athletics, ended up being flipped, just like his name.
The failed athlete who was born with the name David Dwight, history remembers by another name: Dwight David …. Eisenhower.
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