Play the Game That Was Invented to Help a President Lose Weight

Dr. Joel T. Boone had a problem with one of his patients. The man under his care was in a stressful job and was in danger of working himself to death. His weight was increasing almost as fast as his blood pressure. If Dr. Boone couldn’t find a way to get his patient to unwind and pursue some rigorous exercise, he knew a heart attack or stroke was just around the corner.

President Herbert Hoover, playing Hooverball

This would be a serious situation for any patient. What made it worse was that this wasn’t just any patient. Dr. Boone was the personal physician to the 31st President of the United States, Herbert Hoover.

Within months of entering office, Hoover was faced with the monumental challenges of the Great Depression and a global collapse of the economy. His brilliant mind was always thinking about solutions to the economic crisis. He couldn’t be bothered with something as mundane as exercise.

Dr. Boone knew that the only way to get the president to become passionate about exercise would be to stimulate his mind with the prospect of something brand new. That’s when he hit on the idea of creating Hoover-ball.

The game is played on a tennis court. Instead of using a tennis ball and racket, the players throw a medicine ball — a leather ball that weighs 6 pounds (2.7 kg). Players throw the ball over an 8-foot (2.4-meter) net, and the players on the other side are supposed to catch it.

Two teams of three players heave a six-pound leather ball back and forth across an eight-foot high net. This cannot be accomplished graciously.” – Sports Illustrated

The weight of the ball makes throwing and catching it quite demanding. Additionally, as Sports Illustrated noted, “This cannot be accomplished gracefully.”

The president took an immediate liking to the new sport. In his memoirs, Hoover wrote, “[Hoover-ball] required less skill than tennis, was faster and more vigorous, and therefore gave more exercise in a short time.”

“It is more strenuous than either boxing, wrestling, or football,” wrote Will Irwin, a friend of Hoover’s, in a 1931 article “The President Watches His Waistline” in Physical Culture magazine. “It has the virtue of getting at nearly every muscle in the body.”

New York Times Magazine reporter William Atherton DuPuy christened the game “Hoover-ball” for his 1931 article “At the White House at 7 a.m.” It has carried that name ever since.

“Getting daily exercise to keep physically fit is always a problem for Presidents,” Hoover wrote. “Once the day’s work starts there is little chance to walk, to ride, or to take part in a game. Taking walks or rides early in the morning is a lonesome business, and the inevitable secret service guard when the president leaves the White House grounds is not enlivening company.”

A Hoover-ball game being played on the South Lawn of the White House

When Hoover-ball became part of the president’s routine, it gave birth to the “Medicine Ball Cabinet,” a group of government officials who could be found on the White House lawn every morning at 7:00 a.m. They played until 7:30 when a factory whistle sounded the time and sent the players to their offices.

Hoover was faithful in following his doctor’s prescription of daily Hoover-ball. The only time he canceled a game was when he had to write a message that had to be delivered that day to the Senate.

“Except for Sundays, we played medicine ball every morning of the week, including official holidays,” Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur wrote in his memoirs. “Only absence from Washington kept us away. We paid no attention to the weather except for a very heavy rain. We played in cold and wind, snow and rain, and in the four years we were driven indoors only two or three times, because of an unusually drenching downpour.”

On those rare occasions when they were forced inside, the Medicine Ball Cabinet retreated to the White House basement to play the game.

Dr. Boone’s plan worked. Hoover got his weight under control and despite the unprecedented challenges of his four years in the White House, he lived to see his 90th birthday.

The Herbert Hoover Foundation continues to sponsor Hoover-ball tournaments at the Herbert Hoover Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa.

Hooverball Rules

Dimensions of a Hooverball Court
  • The court is 66 feet by 30 feet.
  • A 4-to-6-pound medicine ball and 8-foot volleyball net are used.
  • Teams consist of 2-4 players. (For the national championships, 3-player teams will be used. Each team may have one or two substitutes)
  • Scoring is exactly like tennis: love-15-30-40-(deuce, ad-in, ad-out)-game. Teams play best-of-five or best-of-seven games.
  • Points are scored when a team: fails to catch the return, fails to return the ball across the net, returns the ball out of bounds, fails to return the ball to the proper court area.
  • The ball is served from the back line.
  • The serve is rotated among one team until the game is won. Teams alternate serving after each game. Teams change courts after every two games.
  • The ball must be caught on the fly and immediately returned from the point it was caught. There is no running with the ball or passing to teammates.
  • Each team’s court is divided in half. A ball caught in the front half of your court must be returned to the back half of your opponent’s court. This prevents spiking. If the ball doesn’t reach the back court, the opponent is awarded the point. Balls caught must be played. The mid-court line is part of the front court.
  • A ball that hits the out-of-bounds line is a good return.
  • A player who catches the ball out-of-bounds, or is carried out-of-bounds by the force of the ball, may return in-bounds before the return.
  • A ball that hits the net on its way over is a live ball. (If it was thrown from the front court, it must reach the opponents back court to be good)
  • Teams may substitute freely at dead ball situations.
  • Good sportsmanship is required. Points in question should be played over.
For Women’s Play
  • Women serve from the mid-court line.
  • Women may pass once before a return.
  • Women may return the ball to any area of the opponents court.
Watch this video to learn how to play Hooverball. Video credit: Herbert Hoover Presidential Foundation

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