Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Book Review: The Big Scrum

Well, my New Year's non-resolution to read at least one book about football every month lasted a whole three months before falling by the wayside. I did read Scorecasting in April, but (i) it's not a real football book, and (ii) I didn't find it interesting enough to review here. But April has passed, and I can't go back and read a book about football then, so it's time to move on.

It's a relatively familiar story, to many football fans: the game called football at the dawn of the twentieth century was a bloody scrum more like a particularly violent version of rugby than today's more elegant (well, sometimes) game. The brutality came to a peak in 1905, when 18 players died. Teddy Roosevelt used the bully pulpit to declare football needed to be changed, and the powers that be got together and instituted a series of rules changes, most notably the introduction of the forward pass. Football opened up from the scrum, fewer people died, and life went on. The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football by John J. Miller retells this story, and a lot about Theodore Roosevelt's devotion to a strenuous life. An awful lot about Roosevelt's devotion to a strenuous life, from a sickly youth up to his time as President in 1905 and beyond.

The key 1905 rules changes come toward the end of The Big Scrum and cover 30 or so pages toward the end of the book. The first 180 or so pages cover the development of football as a game, and more detail than I particularly cared on Theodore Roosevelt's opinions on a vigorous life and on the wonderful virtues of football (which game, I will note, he spent just as much time playing as yours truly or, for that matter, Pope Urban II). The main antagonist in the story is Harvard's President, Charles W. Eliot. Whereas in Stagg's University, when Chicago dropped football, President Hutchins was opposed to all athletics, Eliot like Roosevelt was a follower of Muscular Christianity, and personally devoted to fitness; it was to football's brutality, team nature, competitiveness, and emphasis on winning that he found fault with.

In telling the story of the 1905 rules changes, Miller does not seem to trod any new ground, but draws on standard accounts, most notably the work done by John Sayle Watterson. Of course, many people will not have read Watterson's work (yours truly included, even though I do own and have skimmed much of College Football), and Miller's story will be of greater value to them. If you're like me, you want and plan to read Watterson, and Ronald A. Smith's work, and maybe even Mark Bernstein and Allison Danzig. If you are like me, you can safely give The Big Scrum a pass.

If, on the other hand, you have nary an interest in reading more detailed and scholarly treatments of how college sports and football in particular developed, and you're interested in Theodore Roosevelt's life story explored through his interest in the strenuous life, you might enjoy The Big Scrum.

Aside from finding Theodore Roosevelt and his avocation of the strenuous life and the great virtues of a game he never played quite tiresome, I have no complaints about the writing of The Big Scrum. Includes many footnotes for a book directed at a more popular audience, all of which may be skipped by those not interested, and an index, both of which should be standard in books of this nature but which sadly are not. As I often do with nonfiction books, I read the bibliography first and saw Miller cited most of the books I expected him to, including all of those referenced above, but not Nelson's Anatomy of a Game or Walter Camp's American Football (though he does cite Camp's later 1896 work). Miller writes for National Review, a conservative/Republican periodical, but I did not feel the heavy hand of partisanship in Scrum.

For more on Miller and Scrum, see Hey Miller, his website. Miller does a book podcast, Between the Covers, which I listen to regularly but whose guests may tax your partisanship tolerance. Blogfriend Nate Dunlevy of the Colts blog 18 to 88 reviewed Miller's book and did a podcast (mp3 link) with him.

1 comment:

Jon said...

I picked this up and read it over a day. I do get a kick out of the name droping in the book. I've written blogposts that were nothing more than that.

I haven't read all that much on the origins of football; I am more of a baseball historian, so I found this a good intro, but I realize it isn't deep enough.