Politics & Policy

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.

‐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.

‐I was impressed by this line, too: After shooting a grizzly bear, Roosevelt said — boasted — “The bullet hole in his skull was as exactly between his eyes as if I had measured the distance with a carpenter’s rule.”

‐His arch-rival, Woodrow Wilson, was a big fan of football too — a fan and a coach. “The sport mesmerized him,” says John.

‐Once, his squad was down two touchdowns. The fans were glum and silent — unhelpful, thought Wilson. “Now is just the time to yell,” he exhorted them. He took it upon himself to lead the yelling. The squad came back to earn a tie.

‐“Athletics are a safety-valve for animal spirits,” said Wilson, “and if these don’t have a safety-valve, they mix kindly with other spirits. If the men don’t play foot-ball they will play less legitimate games.”

‐You know how British commentators, covering soccer, say, “Arsenal are not at their best today,” and, “Spain have outfoxed France”? Wilson once asked, “Why is it that Harvard don’t win in football?”

‐More on this question of honor in football (and other games): A Cornell professor wondered, in JJM’s words, “If football instills moral values, why does it require a referee? Surely well-bred young men should be able to police themselves.”

Football is probably too messy a game for that — you need outside eyes. But there is a game in which participants police themselves, even today. That is golf.

Once, Jones called a penalty on himself in the U.S. Open, probably costing him the tournament. Praised for his act, he bridled, having none of it: “Sooner praise a man for not robbing a bank.”

‐Roosevelt is compulsively readable, isn’t he? Compulsively readable, whatever we think of him: “The man on the farm and in the workshop here, as in other countries, is apt to get enough physical work; but we were tending steadily in America to produce in our leisure and sedentary classes a type of man not much above the Bengal baboo, and from this the athletic spirit has saved us.”

‐More TR: “The Latin I learned in college has helped me a little in after life in various ways, but boxing has helped me more.”

‐President Eliot didn’t like President Roosevelt, and he wasn’t all wrong when he faulted his “doctrine of Jingoism, this chip-on-the-shoulder attitude of a ruffian and a bully.”

‐TR, in turn, denounced “the futile sentimentalists of the international arbitration type.” Would you like to know something interesting? He won the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation in the Russo-Japanese War, true. That was the main reason for his prize. But he also won it for his support of international arbitration. In fact, he gave the court at The Hague its very first case (a dispute with Mexico).

Come to think of it, his mediation in the Russo-Japanese War was a form of international arbitration.

‐I got a kick out of this: In the autumn of 1904, TR was in the third year of his presidency, piling up accomplishment after accomplishment. He had piled up accomplishments well before he assumed the presidency. And he was celebrating his 46th birthday.

Henry Cabot Lodge cracked, “You have made a very good start in life. Your friends have great hopes for you when you grow up.”

‐Like Eliot, and unlike Wilson, Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia was a college president who opposed football. He was a friend of the pro-football TR. In fact, it was TR who nicknamed him “Nicholas Miraculous.” Like TR and Wilson, Butler would win the Nobel Peace Prize, or a share of it — in 1931. (He won for being a pacifist jerk, basically.) (The committee did not put it quite this way.)

‐At the University of Wisconsin, Frederick Jackson Turner, the great historian, was against football — at least against an unreformed football. A student mob surrounded his house. (What is it about Wisconsin and mobs surrounding houses? We saw this recently in the Left’s disgusting fight against the reform of public-employee unions.) One student yelled out, “When can we have football?” Turner yelled back, “When you can have a clean game.”

‐I loved this:

At a cabinet meeting later that year [1907], Roosevelt’s interior secretary, James Garfield (who shared a name with his presidential father), teased his boss about Harvard’s football team. Garfield suggested that instead of playing Yale, perhaps Harvard should take on Vassar, which was then a women’s college. “The subject of football has been too sore for me to discuss with Harvard and Yale members of the Cabinet,” wrote Roosevelt. “I behaved with what dignity I could under distressing circumstances!”

‐Post-reform, Wilson said, “The new game . . . seems far more enjoyable than the old. The new rules are doing much to bring football to a high level as a sport, for its brutal features are being done away with and better elements retained.”


To order Jay Nordlinger’s new book, Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.


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