Statesmen and Pigskins


Behold a passage from the sequel, Tom Brown at Oxford: “A man’s body is given him to be trained and brought into subjection and then used for the protection of the weak, the advancement of righteous causes.”

Concern over Americans’ fitness did not begin with Michelle Obama, for sure. In 1833, the New York Mirror complained, “A healthy man in New York would be a curiosity.” In 1843, writes JJM, “Ralph Waldo Emerson worried about physical health in the United States and contrasted it unfavorably with what he perceived in England.” Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote that the Canadians were “a more athletic race of people than our own.”

The disgrace! But think of all those Tim Horton’s doughnuts!

Theodore Roosevelt — I love this simile — wrote, “I do not like to see young Christians with shoulders that slope like a champagne bottle.”

Higginson, an abolitionist minister, made an incredibly moving statement about runaway slaves:

These men and women, who have tested their courage in the lonely swamp against the alligator and the bloodhound, who have starved on prairies, hidden in holds, clung to locomotives, ridden hundreds of miles cramped in boxes, head downward, equally near to death if discovered or deserted — and who have then, after enduring all this, gone voluntarily back to risk it over again, for the sake of wife or child — what are we pale faces, that we should claim a rival capacity with theirs for heroic deeds?

What a sentence — maybe the most remarkable I have read this year.

Looking back on his life, TR wrote, “I rarely took exercise merely as exercise. Primarily I took it because I liked it.”

I thought of golf: Some people just love hitting balls on the range. They don’t necessarily do it to get better, to improve their score on the course, although that’s a nice result. They just love hitting balls, as an activity.

Some people would rather slit their throat than do that: They’re players, pure and simple. (This applies at the pro level too: Bruce Lietzke apparently never practiced, though he warmed up a little. Guys like Kite and Watson: I think they love it.)

Someone praised the character of Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard, in this fashion: “He is a regular cedar-post, firm, sound, and always in the same place.”

What a commendation. Too few are like that, in my experience.

Eliot was a skeptic about football, and sometimes a foe. JJM sums up an attitude: “If baseball and football were honorable pastimes, then why did they require umpires and referees?” Eliot said, “A game that needs to be watched is not fit for genuine sportsmen.”

You’ll really love this: JJM writes, “A pitcher who threw a curveball engaged in an act of deception, reasoned Eliot.”

I wouldn’t go that far. I’m pro-curveball and all. Wish I had thrown a better one. But you know what I’ve never liked? On the basketball court, pretending to have been fouled, when you weren’t. That’s a dirty ploy, I think.

Also, frankly, I never liked it when a basketball coach “iced” another player — when he called timeout before an opposing player had to shoot a critical free throw, in order to make it more difficult for him.

Call me a priss, but I just don’t think that’s sporting. If I were a coach I wouldn’t do it, and if it led to my firing, fine.

I’m no Eliot, though: He “believed it was improper for a running back to attack the weakest part of an opposing team’s line — he thought the honorable thing required him to attack the strongest.”

Ay, caramba. I’m glad someone out-prisses me . . .

I’m with Eliot here, though:

Even the behavior of spectators appalled him. Before the start of a game against Yale in Cambridge, he heard a group of his students chant, “Three cheers for Harvard and down with Yale!” He regarded this as bad mannered: “Of course it’s right to be enthusiastic for your own side, but why sing a song that’s rude to our guests?” So he proposed an alternative: “Why wouldn’t it be better to sing ‘Three cheers for Harvard and one for Yale’?” His suggestion did not catch on.

Once, I attended a University of Michigan basketball game at Crisler Arena, in Ann Arbor. Michigan beat its opponent. As the visiting team left the court, the loudspeakers blared, “Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back no mo’ no mo’ no mo’ no mo’.” I thought it was the most disgusting thing I had ever witnessed.

When a boy, I was introduced to Fritz Crisler (1899-1982). He said, “Not to be confused with the violinist” (Fritz Kreisler, 1875-1962).

Teddy Roosevelt was many, many things in life. He was not a chubby-chaser. Here he is upon viewing paintings by Rubens: “I don’t like a chubby Minerva, a corpulent Venus, and a Diana who is so fat that I know she could never overtake a cow, let alone a deer.”

Well, then.