[On July 6th, 1963, President John F. Kennedy’s Executive Order establishing the Presidential Medal of Freedom went into effect. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of the Medals recipients, leading up to a weekend post on the most recent, most controversial honoree yet.]
On the diverging American stories of the first two athletes to receive Presidential Medals.
After John F. Kennedy’s 30 1963 honorees and Lyndon Johnson’s 34 more between 1963 and 1964, things slowed down a bit—between 1965 and 1974 Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford awarded a total of 50 Presidential Medals of Freedom. Those honorees continued to fall mainly into the diplomatic, social, cultural, and artistic categories I’ve discussed over the week’s first two posts, with 1969’s large group (Nixon’s first choices as president) a particularly striking bunch: expected recipients like the Apollo XI astronauts alongside more surprising (if of course just as well-deserved) ones like Ralph Ellison and Duke Ellington. And across that first decade-plus of Presidential Medals of Freedom, one group of prominent and influential Americans remained conspicuously absent—as far as I can tell, no athletes were awarded medals during this era. [Baseball player and WWII intelligence operative Moe Berg was awarded a Medal of Freedom, the less formalized predecessor to the Presidential Medal, by Harry Truman in 1945; Berg turned down the honor.]
That trend finally changed in Ford’s second and third (of three) years of choices (he had awarded three medals in 1974, to orthopedic surgeon Charles Lowman, automobile executive and diplomat Paul G. Hoffman, and former Nixon Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird): in 1976, one of Ford’s three medals went to track and field superstar and Olympic standout Jesse Owens; and in 1977, one of his 26 medals went to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. Both men were alive but well past their peaks of both athletic performance and fame—the 63-year-old Owens had been retired from competition since the mid-1940s and would pass away four years after receiving his medal; the 63-year-old DiMaggio lived another quarter-century but had retired from baseball in 1951—which made them understandable choices for these first 1970s athletic medals (compared, that is, to more recent or active athletic superstars like Muhammad Ali or Hank Aaron). But despite those similarities in age and stage of career at the time of their respective honors, I would argue that Owens and DiMaggio represent two profoundly different career paths, ones that reflect the fundamentally distinct 20th century experiences and Americas of black and white athletes.
In the 25 years between his retirement from baseball and his Medal of Freedom, DiMaggio had become if anything an even bigger legend than during his playing days—from his 1950s marriage to Marilyn Monroe to his namedrop in Simon & Garfunkel’s 1968 hit song “Mrs. Robinson” to his 1970s work as national spokesman for Mr. Coffee, DiMaggio was never far from the public eye. Whereas Owens, to quote a passage from my forthcoming book Of Thee I Sing, came home from his Olympic triumph “to the same segregated and racist nation where as a collegiate athlete, despite setting three world records and tying another in a 45-minute span at a May 25th, 1935 meet, he had been unable to receive a scholarship and forced to eat and stay in ‘blacks-only’ establishments when the team traveled. Such discriminatory realities continued to affect Owens after his Olympic triumphs: after he accepted a few endorsements the U.S. athletic association immediately withdrew his amateur status, ending his collegiate career; over the next few years he would have to race against amateurs and horses in order to make ends meet. Moreover, President Roosevelt never invited Owens to the White House nor publicly congratulated him; as Owens put it, refuting claims that Hitler had refused to shake his hand in Berlin, ‘Some people say Hitler snubbed me. But I tell you, Hitler did not snub me. I am not knocking the President. Remember, I am not a politician, but remember that the President did not send me a message of congratulations because, people said, he was too busy.’” While both men were invited to the White House in the 1970s, that is, it’s fair to say that each carried these historical and communal legacies with him.
Next Medal post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other honorees you’d highlight?
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