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Hooverball: The sport invented to stop the president getting fat

Invented for a president, beloved by Crossfit — this weird sport has a storied history.

The year is 1928, Herbert Hoover has just been elected president in a landslide. He takes a trip to South America, planned to be a meet-and-greet with heads of state, and prepares for his upcoming presidency. While traveling he sees something far more important and influential than shaking hands and meeting politicians — a game called “Bull-In-The-Ring,” being played by Navy sailors on the battleship Utah.

Sailors enjoyed the game immensely, and was their preferred way to pass time while at sea. It involved nine players standing in a circle, with the tenth, “the bull” situated in the middle. Players would throw the ball across the ring, while the bull would try to intercept it. The player who threw the intercepted pass would become the bull, and the game would continue.

Seeing this sparked Hoover’s imagination. What if it was possible to codify a version of “Bull-In-The-Ring” to become a fully-fledged team sport? Work on the sport began as a way to keep the oft-sedentary Hoover fit. Dr. Joel T. Boone, White House physician at the time, used medicine ball workouts one-on-one with Hoover as a way to improve his health, and it wasn’t long before the entire cabinet began playing on the White House lawn in teams. Soon a new sport was born: “Hooverball.”

And it’s weird as hell.

Two teams of four players each would take to a volleyball-like court with a similar-sized net, but instead of using a volleyball, players would hurl a six-pound medicine ball over the net. Players would be required to catch the ball without it hitting the ground before throwing it back — much like volleyball. It was Dr. Boone’s belief that the strenuous act of throwing and catching a weighted ball was so pronounced a single hour of playing Hooverball had the same physical impact as three hours of tennis or six hours of golf. It wasn’t just Dr. Boone who believed in the sport, hundreds of sports scientists did.

The best part of Hooverball was how much players believed in Hooverball. There was a cult of Hooverball, if you will, which resulted in its proponents making some seriously ludicrous claims. Will Irwin, a friend of the president and his biographer, wrote about the sport in a 1931 article :

“It is more strenuous than either boxing, wrestling or football. It has the virtue of getting at nearly every muscle in the body.”

So here we had a sport invented to make the president lose weight, now being touted as the most physically-strenuous activity of the decade. There was a fervent belief that Hooverball would sweep the nation and become the United States’ new favorite sport.

Alas, that didn’t materialize — but it doesn’t mean we didn’t get some amazing things out of it. The rules of Hooverball were inherently loose. Players were encouraged to house-rule the game to make it better suit them directly. It also created all sorts of throw innovations, designed to deliver the ball more effectively and score more points. We had throws like ...

  • The Body Twist: A player holds the ball at their waist and twists in a rapid motion to hurl it over the net.
  • The trebuchet: Pretty much like it sounds. You throw with one arm, using the other like a fulcrum to catapult it over the net.
  • Over the head: It’s pretty much in the name. A two-handed throw focused on force.
  • The spike: Similar to a volleyball spike, except the player catches the ball mid-air and tries to drive it down to the ground as much force as possible.

Like all beautiful things that fly too close to the sun, Hooverball didn’t leave a lasting impact on the sporting world. Perhaps that was because the efficacy of the sport wasn’t what it was billed to be, or perhaps naming it after Hoover helped kill the game. The penchant for attaching Hoover’s name to objects and movements became a punchline by 1932, and with that it’s wholly possible the concept of Hooverball was looked at with the same kind of failure as his presidency, forged during the Great Depression. For decades it remained dormant until the world of CrossFit discovered the long-forgotten sport. Greg Glassman, the godfather of CrossFit wrote an article in 2003 extolling the virtues of the sport saying:

“We had to give it that CrossFit flavor so we played on sand with a twenty-pound ball and an aggressive ball snapping Pit bull. It was indeed hard; everyone was tired, and one well known Brazilian Jiu-jitsu Black Belt got bit.”

Dog bites aside, it wasn’t long until gyms across America looking to add to their CrossFit regimens added Hooverball as a workout. The sport developed to stop a president getting fat was now being used by the health conscious across the country as a means to increase their strength and stamina.

For a while it appeared that a major comeback of Hooverball was on the horizon. Not only were people playing, but there were plans to hold major tournaments in the sport. The Hooverball National Championships appear to have been held in 2017, but there’s no evidence they took place in 2018 or 2019.

What makes this all the more strange is that it appears interest in Hooverball vanished as quickly as it came into being. Dozens of YouTube videos of people playing the sport and general interest all dropped — and now there’s very little information on the sport still being played on a regular basis.

But, we will always have the memories. Of a time passed, of a game long-forgotten, a sport devised for a president and played by the common man. Hooverball will live forever, in its own way.