Your Village: Does Iowa have a state sport?

‘Field of Dreams’ (1989)

There seems to be a new push to make the “Field of Dreams” some kind of big baseball location, which made me wonder if Iowa has an official state sport or if they’re going to make baseball the state sport? —RB, Iowa City

Iowa doesn’t have an official state sport. Only 17 states do and two of them, Massachusetts and New York, have claimed baseball as their own. That doesn’t mean Iowa couldn’t. Seven states have the cardinal as their state bird and a dozen have tapped the white-tail deer as an official mammal (Iowa is official-mammal-less). But why do that when there’s a sport that is played nowhere but Iowa? I’m talking about Hoover-ball.

Pandemics permitting, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch has held the Hoover-ball National Championships on a more-or-less annual basis since 1988, attracting teams of friends interested in tossing a medicine ball (4 lbs for men’s and women’s teams, 2 lbs for youth teams) over an 8 ft. high volleyball net at each other. Participants come from all over the greater West Branch area, and presumably a couple of other places. It’s scored using the same system as tennis.

This magpie’s nest of a game was invented by Adm. Joel Boone, Hoover’s physician while he was president from 1929 to 1933. It was meant to be a way for the president to get some exercise, but Hoover extended its reach and made members of his cabinet gather on the south lawn of the White House at 7 a.m. to throw a six-pound medicine ball over a volleyball net.

“Except for Sundays, we played medicine ball every morning of the week, including official holidays,” Hoover’s Secretary of the Interior wrote in his memoirs. According to the secretary, they played “in cold and wind, snow and rain” and on days when the rain was too heavy, they played in the White House basement.

Hoover-ball, of course, never caught on — a game created to keep rich and powerful men from getting too fat didn’t have much popular appeal as the country sank into the depths of the Great Depression — but it would still be less problematic as a state sport for Iowa than baseball.

Adrian “Cap” Anson, born and raised in Marshalltown, is without question the most important baseball player to come out of Iowa. “GREATEST HITTER AND GREATEST NATIONAL LEAGUE PLAYER-MANAGER OF 19TH CENTURY . . . .300 CLASS HITTER 20 YEARS,” his plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame says. He’s credited with helping to introduce such now standard features as the hit and run play and the pitching rotation. He was also fiercely racist, even by the standards of the late 19th century.

Anson was famous for refusing to take the field if an opposing team had a Black player, as some did when he started playing. He became the leading player to push for expulsion of Black players, and the creation of all-white baseball leagues. Aside from the team owners who entered into the so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” that kept Black players out of major leagues until 1947, Anson did more than almost anyone else to bring racial segregation to baseball.

Hoover was a massive baseball fan, but if he ever noticed the game he loved only had white players he never mentioned it. And Iowa, in its embrace of Hoover, manages not to mention that he left the state as soon as he was able, and never returned here to live. Maybe that should be Iowa’s state sport: ignoring unpleasant facts. It’s something the Reynolds administration already excels at.

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This article was originally published in Little Village’s June 2022 issues.