Statesmen and Pigskins


John J. Miller’s latest book was published last year. The paperback version came out recently. I bought it and read it. Better late than never — a wonderful book.

It is The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football. As I said on this website yesterday, when making book recommendations, “JJM loves football, loves America, and loves stories. These loves shine through every page.”

JJM, as you know, is a National Review writer and the director of the journalism program at Hillsdale College. Let me jot just a few notes about The Big Scrum — things that caught my eye, things that charmed me, things that provoked me. I could go on and on, but won’t. Let me give you a kind of sampler.

His opening line is, “I met my wife on the way to a football game.” A very good opener. I thought of Richard Nixon (so help me): “I was born in a house my father built.”

Longtime readers know my two favorite opening lines of all time: “It was a morning when all nature shouted Fore” (P. G. Wodehouse, “The Heart of a Goof”) and “Job was not a patient man” (Marchette Chute, The Search for God).

John, a Michigander and Wolverine, writes, “Our family celebrated Christmas, Easter, and all the other usual holidays. Then there was one more, on what was always the biggest game day of the year: the Saturday in November when Michigan played Ohio State.”

You might be interested in this: The father of a friend of mine was an assistant football coach at Michigan. He was also our Little League baseball coach. He said, “The big rivalry is Michigan-Ohio State. That’s the rivalry the public knows about and cares about. But what we care about most is: beating Michigan State. If we don’t beat OSU, oh, well. If we lose to MSU — there’s hell to pay.”

The Athletic Department did not like to lose to Michigan State.

John includes a drawing by Frederic Remington of a football game. He says that Remington was “a famous artist of the American West, but football was also a common subject of his work . . .” Had no idea. I thought Remington sculpted things western, period.

“Prior to the Civil War,” writes John, “organized athletics were almost unknown” in America. “Afterward, they became ubiquitous.” He quotes Foster Rhea Dulles, who wrote, “With the gradual passing of so much of what the frontier had always stood for, sports provided a new outlet for an inherently restless people.”


This sentence sort of startled me: “The New York Times, which was a Republican paper . . .”

Hayes beat Tilden in an agonizing election — he won in the Electoral College, as GWB would, some 125 years later. JJM writes that “bitter Democrats” in 1876 gave the winner a nickname: Rutherfraud B. Hayes. I thought of a Republican taunt, heard during the Florida recount of 2000: “Sore-Loserman” (in place of “Gore-Lieberman”).

“Get out of Cheney’s house!” they yelled outside the vice-presidential mansion.

I enjoyed the language of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A newspaper report about the Harvard-Yale football game referred to the “Yales,” not the “Yalies.”

And do you know this old rule about language? A term will start out as two words, get hyphenated, and end up as one word. A classic example is “wild life,” “wild-life,” “wildlife.” (I wrote “cellphone” before other people did, because I knew it would wind up there anyway.)

In this book, we read about “foot ball” and “touch downs.” We see those terms with hyphens too. Single words would come later.

Theodore Roosevelt uses “mollycoddle” as a noun — I had never heard that. America had better not produce “mollycoddles instead of vigorous men.”

In 1905, 18 people died playing football — think of that. A lot of people said, “If football doesn’t reform, it should be banned.”

John writes, “After watching a Yale-Harvard match in 1903, one writer condemned the game: ‘The dirty players in football are the thugs of society, and the disgrace of the university that tolerates their presence on the team.’”

Seems modern, somehow. At least not totally foreign.

A man described TR as a boy: “a sturdy, self-reliant little chap.” I love that word, “self-reliant.” The quality, too. Where did it go?

In medieval England, “large crowds would descend upon an inflated pig’s bladder and try to deliver it to certain demarcated points.” That’s where we get “pigskin.”

It’s almost TMI . . .

Wouldn’t that baby, like, burst? Anyway . . .

Behold a passage from Tom Brown’s School Days, by Thomas Hughes:

From the cradle to the grave, fighting, rightly understood, is the business, the real, highest, honestest business, of every son of man. Every one who is worth his salt has his enemies, who must be beaten, be they evil thoughts and habits in himself or spiritual wickedness in high places, or Russians, or Border-ruffians, or Bill, Tom, or Harry, who will not let him live his life in quiet till he has thrashed them.