Sports

Was Donald Trump Good at Baseball?

The president has long claimed he could have gone pro. We looked into it.

Donald Trump throwing a pitch in 2006.
Donald Trump throws the first pitch before the start of a Red Sox–Yankees game in 2006.
Jessica Rinaldi/Files/Reuters

In President Donald Trump’s memory, he was a high school baseball star.

“I was supposed to be a pro baseball player,” Donald Trump wrote in 2004. “At the New York Military Academy, I was captain of the baseball team. I worked hard like everyone else, but I had good talent.”

That passage was written by Trump for a book called The Games Do Count: America’s Best and Brightest on the Power of Sports, compiled by Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade. It’s the earliest instance I could find of the president claiming to have been a standout player.

“I will never forget […] the first time I saw my name in the newspaper,” he continued. “It was when I got the winning home run in a game between our academy and Cornwall High School. It was in 1964 and it was in a little local paper. It simply said, TRUMP HOMERS TO WIN THE GAME. I just loved it and I will never forget it. It was better than actually hitting the home run.”

Trump, who played first base, wrote that “being a pro was in the equation” until he attended a tryout with “another young kid named Willie McCovey.” Apparently, the sight of the future Hall of Famer in action convinced him to give up baseball for good.

In a 2010 interview with MTV, Trump said, again, “I was supposed to be a professional baseball player,” this time adding a flourish: “Fortunately, I decided to go into real estate instead.” Three years later, Trump inflated his claim on Twitter, pegging himself not just as a pro prospect but the best player in the state.

To biographer Michael D’Antonio, Trump went further still, arguing in 2015 that he’d been the best athlete in every sport at the New York Military Academy. He added that he’d decided against a baseball career because “in those days you couldn’t even make any money being a great baseball player.”

At this point, the claims were all Trump’s. But about a month after Trump announced he was running for president in the summer of 2015, the NYMA coach that Trump mentioned in his tweet, Theodore Dobias, chimed in. Dobias told the Daily Mail that Trump was scouted by the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies, and repeated to Rolling Stone that the Phillies had been interested. “He was quite the athlete,” Dobias said, going on to praise the future president’s cleanliness and his ability to get along with everyone.

There is ample evidence that Trump was a model cadet at the private academy in the Hudson Valley—although his academic record has been hidden. He rose through the ranks to become “cadet captain” and led not only his fellow students but an entire Columbus Day parade down Fifth Avenue in 1963.

But was Trump a high school baseball phenom too? Trump’s achievements at NYMA, in both academia and sports, are a key chapter in the story he tells of his lifelong success. But after years of watching Trump lie about sports, among other things, I wanted to know how much of the baseball part of his life story was true.

Many grown-ups recall high school glory. Far fewer can cite newspaper articles as proof. Except it seems likely that Trump got his own headline wrong—or made it up entirely. After combing the Evening News and the Cornwall Local, the only local newspapers to regularly cover NYMA sports, and doing an extensive search on Newspapers.com, I’ve been unable to find “TRUMP HOMERS TO WIN THE GAME” in any local paper, nor “TRUMP WINS GAME FOR NYMA,” a headline he’d mention to D’Antonio for his book The Truth About Trump.

Perhaps that’s because in 1964, NYMA didn’t play Cornwall High School, according to the schedule in its yearbook. They didn’t play in 1963, either.

What I have been able to find is box scores from some of Trump’s games, and the picture they paint of the player is not pretty.

As for Willie McCovey, he was eight years older than Trump. When Trump was a senior in high school, McCovey was in his fifth year in the major leagues and already an All-Star.

Donald Trump was the fourth of five children raised in a very wealthy and exceedingly strict household in Queens. He was a disobedient child but a keen baseball player and fan. According to the Washington Post, when he was in sixth grade he wrote a poem about the sport that was published in his school yearbook.

I like to see a baseball hit and the fielder catch it in his mitt…

I like to hear the crowd give cheers, so loud and noisy to my ears.

When the score is 5-5, I feel like I could cry. And when they get another run, I feel like I could die.

Then the catcher makes an error, not a bit like Yogi Berra.

The game is over and we say tomorrow is another day.

Back then, Trump was a scrappy catcher, throwing himself in front of pitches and base runners. And as a hitter, he was apparently less interested in getting on base than in showing off his power. “If he had hit the ball to right, he could’ve had a home run because no one was there,” a classmate told the Post. “But he always wanted to hit the ball through people. He wanted to overpower them.” Once, when he made an out with a borrowed bat, he smashed it to pieces and never apologized to the owner, per the Post.

When Trump was 13, he and a friend started collecting switchblades that they’d play with in parks. Donald’s father, Fred Trump, already alarmed by his behavior in school and in church, promptly shipped him off to NYMA to be straightened out.

The academy, where Trump arrived in 1959, was hardly a common destination for the children of New York City’s elite. Trump had been raised with a chef and chauffeur, and was shocked by this strict, abrasive, and intensely physical environment. Scuffles and fights were common. Trump allegedly got into an argument with his roommate Ted Levine that got so heated he tried to throw Levine out of a second-story window. But by all accounts, Trump responded well to the rigidity of a military academy; it was the ideal educational incubator for someone with an unquenchable thirst for competition and a love of physical dominance.

Donald Trump's yearbook photo as a cadet at the New York Military Academy.
Donald Trump’s 1964 yearbook photo as a cadet at the New York Military Academy.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mike Groll/AP

Trump dove headlong into NYMA’s extracurriculars. His eighth-grade yearbook mentions “Don Trump, who not only plays an excellent first base, but also has a good batting eye.” By the time he graduated, the “Athletics” entry of his yearbook included seven different sports. Under “Awards, Medals and Honors” were listed “Coach’s Award, Baseball, ’64” and “Captain’s Award, Baseball, ’64.”

“He caught my eye right away because he was so aggressive and so coachable,” Dobias, the freshman baseball coach, told Gwenda Blair in The Trumps. “Lots of kids you can talk to until you’re blue in the face and nothing happens, but Donald would react to instructions. If you told him he wasn’t throwing the baseball correctly, he’d do it right the next time.”

Dobias took an interest in Trump and his development, telling Blair that he made Trump “unofficial assistant baseball coach” during his senior year. But Dobias was never the varsity baseball coach during Trump’s time at the academy—Ralph Petrillo and Michael McCann were the coaches—so Dobias couldn’t have bestowed such a title on Trump. (Dobias died in 2016.)

In the course of reporting this piece, I talked to seven students who overlapped with Trump on NYMA’s freshman and varsity baseball teams. Just like Dobias, the men have a lot of stories, the residue of a brush with a kid who became famous and then became president. Most of the stories are impossible to confirm. But one that I was able to verify with two people paints Trump as less coachable than Dobias (who, again, was never Trump’s varsity coach) claims he was.

It was 1964 and NYMA was scheduled to play Cheshire Academy, a strong opponent. NYMA’s regular third baseman was away at his sister’s wedding. McCann, the coach, announced to the right-handed Trump, the regular first baseman, that he would be playing third base so the left-handed Barry Chasen could play first. It is a baseball truism that you can’t have a left-hander play third—the angles are all wrong.

But Trump, in front of at least a few other players, told his coach no. He was the first baseman. Then he told McCann that he’d been the first baseman longer than McCann had been the head coach. McCann eventually backed down. Trump played first that day and the left-handed Chasen played third.

As far as I can tell, McCann never spoke publicly about Trump’s baseball career.* But Dobias was not the only person vouching for Trump’s talent. The guy Trump supposedly tried to throw out of a window is also a corroborating witness. “He could have probably played pro ball as a pitcher,” Levine told Business Insider. “I think he threw 80 miles an hour. I was the catcher. He made my hand black and blue every day.”

When I reached Levine, he echoed his past comments. “As good as you could probably be in our high school. He was very large, a lot of leverage. Well-gifted, intelligent. And athletic. He probably could have played at some level of professional ball. That’s what I remember. He was probably, in my opinion, the best athlete in the school.”

It’s worth noting that Levine was never on the varsity team with Trump, only the freshman team. And in a 10-minute interview, he called Trump “my friend” three times and said that he can call the president on a personal number any time he wants.

Jim Scherz, an outfielder and fellow member of the class of 1964, told me that Trump was well-liked on the team and, as co-captain his senior year, well-respected. “In my memory, he had a very sweet swing,” Scherz says. “Almost a Ted Williams–like swing.”

Twin brothers Dick and Bob Guido, who were two years ahead of Trump, recalled a “pretty good” (Bob) to “average” player (Dick). “I thought his defensive skills were better than his offensive skills,” said Dick.

“He was a darn good first baseman,” said Joe Kinego, an outfielder who was a year ahead of Trump. But “best baseball player in the state? I probably would doubt that.”

“I heard him say he could have played Major League Baseball,” says Keith Vanderlip, a pitcher a year ahead of Trump. “But he wasn’t that good.”

Another classmate, Sandy McIntosh, wrote up the following anecdote in the New York Daily News in 2017:

We were walking together near the baseball field where, he reminded me, he’d played exceptionally well. He demanded that I tell him the story of one of his greatest games.

“The bases were loaded,” I told him. “We were losing by three. You hit the ball just over the third baseman’s head. Neither the third baseman nor the left fielder could get to the ball in time. All four of our runs came in; we won the game.”

“No,” he [Trump] said. “That’s not the way it happened. I want you to remember this: I hit the ball out of the ballpark! Remember that. I hit it out of the ballpark!”

Ballpark? I thought. We were talking about a high school practice field. There was no park to hit a ball out of. And anyway, his hit was a blooper the fielders misplayed.

Based on my reporting, it seems like Trump was a solid defensive first baseman but a bad hitter. Perhaps that’s why, while Trump was voted “Ladies’ Man” by his classmates in his senior yearbook, “Most Athletic” went to Jim Toomey, Trump’s baseball co-captain. Toomey also won the school’s Laidlaw Athletic Award, which appears to have honored the best athlete in the school.

What about the Coach’s Award that Trump got? Several teammates pointed out that this was not equivalent to a Most Valuable Player award, which had a different name and which Trump never got. The Coach’s Award was apparently given to someone who was an exemplary team player rather than the most talented or most accomplished player.

In other words, Trump wasn’t the best player on his team.

The most definitive answer to the question of Trump’s former athletic prowess lays four miles up the river from NYMA, in the Newburgh Free Library. Tall metal filing cabinets contain microfilm of the archives of dozens of now-defunct Hudson Valley newspapers, going back to the early 19th century. One of these newspapers, the Evening News of Newburgh, New York, covered NYMA in considerable detail during the years Trump was there.

The local papers didn’t cover every NYMA game, but I was able to find accounts of about a quarter of the ones played during Trump’s sophomore and junior seasons, while papers covering opposing teams captured a few of NYMA’s away games his senior year.

The first mention of Trump in an NYMA baseball story came during his sophomore year in 1962. “Don Trump made some fine fielding plays for Coach Ralph Petrillo’s NYMA club,” the final line of the story reads. In a 4–1 loss to Cheshire, Trump played first base, hit sixth, and went 0 for 3. I found three total box scores from his sophomore year. In those games, he went 1 for 10 at the plate.

Newspaper box score clippings from when Trump played baseball at NYMA.

His junior year, Trump went 2 for 10 in the three game stories I found in the archives. In Trump’s senior season, I couldn’t find much of any NYMA baseball coverage in the Evening News. But the Poughkeepsie Journal and Journal News had him hitting 1 for 9 in three games.

Combined, the nine box scores I unearthed give Trump a 4 for 29 batting record in his sophomore, junior, and senior seasons, with three runs batted in and a single run scored. Trump’s batting average in those nine games: an underwhelming .138. (I found one additional mention of a hit and another of a hitless game in games that didn’t have box scores.)

Nine games may seem like a small sample size, but NYMA played only a dozen or so games per baseball season, suggesting that Trump’s entire high school career spanned between 30 and 40 games.

It’s perhaps unfair to draw conclusions from a fraction of those games, but the box scores showed that in his sophomore year, Trump’s .100 batting average in those games was the lowest of any of the five players who had at least eight at-bats. As a junior, he did a tad better, hitting .200, albeit on a team that mustered a mere 11 hits over three games. Trump’s senior year, four teammates had more hits than he did.

I asked Keith Law, a senior baseball writer for the Athletic and author of The Inside Game who covers the MLB draft, if Trump’s numbers sounded like those of a pro prospect.

“There’s no chance,” said Law, who once worked in the front office of the Toronto Blue Jays assessing high school players. “You don’t hit .138 for some podunk, cold-weather high school playing the worst competition you could possibly imagine. You wouldn’t even get recruited for Division I baseball programs, let alone by pro teams. That’s totally unthinkable. It’s absolutely laughable. He hit .138—he couldn’t fucking hit, that’s pretty clear.”

The thin coverage of Trump is conspicuous. Even at schools as small as NYMA, standout players got extensive ink in the local papers. In the same era, a pair of stars at a similarly sized school nearby, Storm King, regularly got extensive write-ups. Longtime Evening News sports editor Bo Gill made it a point to know about the best players in the area and to pay them appropriate attention. It stands to reason that if Trump had really excelled, I would’ve been able to find at least one story dedicated to him in his home papers.

Yet there appears to be no coverage whatsoever of Trump in his local papers during his senior year, when he was supposedly on the radar of at least two professional teams.

About that: The Red Sox and Phillies told me that their scouting records don’t go back as far as 1964, meaning they could neither confirm nor deny Dobias’ claims. Yet, as Law noted, it’s unlikely either team would have dispatched scouts to check out a first baseman at a tiny private school far from any of the baseball hotbeds and playing weak competition.

Of Trump’s former teammates, only Kinego remembers scouts showing up at their games. The six others couldn’t recall anyone ever being scouted.

“I think that would be unusual,” Dick Guido says. “I think we had a pretty good club back in those days. But I would be surprised—and I could be wrong—that we would be on the radar of a Major League Baseball team.”

Vanderlip, the team’s ace pitcher through Trump’s junior year, remembers being scouted by college teams several times but always in summer leagues, never at NYMA.

Law is even more skeptical. “I’ve never heard of a legitimate high school prospect in this era who hit less than about .275,” he says. “It’s almost unthinkable. Nobody is scouting that guy.”

It’s worth noting that Trump himself has never said that he was scouted, only that he attended a tryout and could have gone pro. It was Dobias who made the scouting claim. (I reached out to the White House to ask about Dobias’ and Trump’s claims. Deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley replied via email, saying that “President Trump loves baseball and has a deep appreciation and profound respect for the game. By all accounts, President Trump was an outstanding baseball player who garnered interest from some professional teams.”)

It’s entirely possible Dobias was as invested in inflating Trump’s origin story as Trump was himself, considering him a credit to the school. After all, Dobias was a legend at NYMA. An immigrant from Czechoslovakia, he entered the academy at 16 and would leave only to go fight in the U.S. Army’s Italian campaign during World War II. He came back to NYMA after the war, graduated, and was given the honorific of major. He got married there, raised his family there, and died there. Sandy McIntosh, the Trump teammate who wrote about the president in the Daily News, called Dobias “the academy’s unofficial PR man” and said he “contributed to the Trump myth.”

“As I understand it, Dobias and Trump were very tight,” Scherz recalls.

In a picture accompanying a 2015 NPR story on Trump’s NYMA days, Dobias wore a Make America Great Again hat.

On the 127-acre NYMA campus in sleepy Cornwall, New York, where you’re greeted by two decommissioned howitzers, you have to look carefully for evidence of Trump’s tenure. There are no buildings named for the school’s most famous alumnus—or, for that matter, any former cadet who went on to bigger things, like director Francis Ford Coppola or composer Stephen Sondheim. Trump’s name isn’t mentioned on the NYMA website.

But Trump’s picture is framed in a hallway in the main building, part of a school hall of fame. There’s also a plaque beside the door to a classroom, noting the donation he made to refurbish it in honor of his parents. In the gym, his name is inscribed among the 2005 inductees to the academy’s sporting hall of fame. In 2001, Trump returned to give the academy’s commencement address. He showed up by helicopter with a model girlfriend on his arm, bragged that he’d bought the Empire State Building, which he hadn’t, and urged the graduates to “think big.”

The dorm Trump lived in has been condemned. But NYMA’s billionaire owner Vincent Mo, who bought the academy in a bankruptcy auction in 2015, refuses to tear it down. After all, visitors like to take selfies in front of it.

Donald Trump’s baseball career ended on these grounds. He didn’t play at Fordham University or at the University of Pennsylvania, where he transferred his junior year of college. He joined the squash team at Fordham but never played hardball again.

For many years, Trump and late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner were very close. Trump threw out a first pitch at Yankee Stadium before a game with the Red Sox in 2006. Trump was so enmeshed with the Yankees that he reportedly considered longtime team president Randy Levine for White House chief of staff.

Nonetheless, Trump is the first president since Teddy Roosevelt not to throw out a first pitch at a professional baseball game while in office, upending 110 years of tradition. In that respect, at least, he’s made baseball history.

Listen to an episode of Slate’s sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen, below, or subscribe to the show on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotifyStitcherGoogle Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Correction, May 7, 2020: This piece originally stated that Michael McCann, one of Trump’s varsity baseball coaches, had died. He is alive.