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  • The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football
  • John S. Watterson
Miller, John J. The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football. New York: Harper-Collins, 2011. Pp. 258. Illustrations and photographs, appendix, and index.

Did Theodore Roosevelt really save college football? Certainly, the story of President Roosevelt and the crisis of college football has made a good, though not an always accurate, story.

Fortunately, John J. Miller avoids the myth of President Roosevelt saving football by presidential edict. If Roosevelt saved football, as Miller demonstrates, it was by using the bully pulpit and then working behind the scenes with Coach Bill Reid of Harvard.

The Big Scrum is really two stories. The author begins with a mini-biography of Theodore Roosevelt combined with a history of American football. Roosevelt, the weak, asthmatic child, develops his physique and his avidness for outdoor sport; the second [End Page 192] follows as American industry and Muscular Christianity transform organized sport, especially football. The two themes periodically intersect as Roosevelt embraces the “strenuous life,” as exemplified in his favorite childhood book, Tom Brown’s Schooldays. As a Harvard freshman, he travels to New Haven in 1876 to watch Yale defeat Harvard—and later jumps to the defense of football when his nemesis, Harvard president Charles Eliot, threatens to abolish it at his institution.

The author also follows the gridiron career of Walter Camp, the coach-adviser at Yale, who becomes both an ally and then an antagonist of Roosevelt in his efforts to reform football. Miller has done his homework, combing the Walter Camp papers for the chapter, “Camp Days,” and, of course, the Roosevelt Papers at Harvard. He also plucks interesting anecdotes and useful material from secondary sources, more than one might expect in a scholarly book (I found that he had used my appendix on football deaths as his only appendix). However, he carefully references the material from primary and secondary sources.

The story takes off as football becomes more violent and newspaper publicity plays up deaths such as Richard Von Gammon at Georgia. Roosevelt joins Camp as a defender of football against the onslaught of Eliot and E.L. Godkin, influential editor of The Nation. The strands that Miller develops early in the book, such as chapters on Roosevelt, Camp, and Eliot, come together in the 1890s. In the 1905–1906 crisis, all of his characters emerge to play their roles in football reform as foils to Roosevelt.

One might still have reservations about Theodore Roosevelt saving college football. It is sometimes overlooked that Eastern football drew record crowds for the big games, even in the crisis year of 1905. Critics of football lacked the power to abolish football at all but a few schools—at Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler wielded a sharper axe than most of his counterparts. As for Northwestern, the author erroneously states that it abolished football indefinitely, when it only quit the gridiron for two years. Roosevelt may have pushed the Naval Academy’s Paul Dashiell and followed Bill Reid’s Harvard reform agenda. But, as the 1906 and subsequent football seasons indicated, the reforms quieted the furor only temporarily, creating the potential for more death and serious injuries. And, though he may have helped to put reform in motion, Roosevelt had no part in the changes after 1906.

Probably the last chapter, “The Air War,” is least convincing. The author begins the chapter with the shopworn account of Notre Dame’s upset of Army in 1913 using the forward pass. If Knute Rockne and quarterback Gus Dorais helped to popularize the pass, they were not alone. Glenn Warner of Carlise and Eddie Cochems of St. Louis University already had the pass in their arsenal soon after it was legalized.

That said, Miller has written easily the best account of the 1905–1906 crisis and the factors leading up to it. That he wrote the book for a general reader should not keep scholars from reading his work. He has uncovered and organized the details of that crisis and the trends leading up to it better than anyone before him. In his year of research and writing, he scoured secondary works and archives...


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pp. 192-194
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