Thursday, April 9, 2015

Grantland Rice, Josh Billings and Arthur Schopenhauer - the Win-or-Lose History of "How You Play the Game"

Grantland Rice[i], one of the giants of American sports journalism, popularized the now well-known idiom, “it’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game,” which is paraphrased from the closing lines of his poem, Alumnus Football

"Keep coming back, and though the world may romp across your spine,
Let every game's end find you still upon the battling line;
For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name,
He writes - not that you won or lost - but how you played the Game."

Alumnus Football, Grantland Rice, Omnibus of Sport, New York and London, Harper & Brothers, 1932.

But although the prose was memorable, and the sentiment inspirational, neither the prose nor the sentiment were new when these lines first became widely known in the early 1920s.  Grantland Rice wrote the original version of the poem for an Alumni Meeting at Vanderbilt University in 1908; and the sentiments expressed in its most famous lines are a restatement of an older piece of wisdom; something that Forrest Gump might have said while waiting for a bus:

Some high-foreheaded philosopher has said that his life is like a game of cards, success not so much in winning the game as in playing a poor hand well. 

The Daily Astorian (Astoria, Oregon), February 6, 1883, page 1.

Forrest Gump did have a high forehead; but it’s more likely that the “high-foreheaded philosopher” here was Arthur Schopenhauer.  In 1851, Schopenhauer wrote:

Terence makes the remark that life is like a game at dice, where if the number that turns up is not precisely the one you want, you can still contrive to use it equally well . . . .  Or, to put the matter more shortly, life is like a game of cards, when the cards are shuffled and dealt by fate.  But for my present purpose, the most suitable simile would be that of a game of chess, where the plan we determine to follow is conditioned by the play of our rival, - in life, by the caprice of fate.  We are compelled to modify our tactics, often to such an extent that, as we carry them out, hardly a single feature of the original plan can be recognized.

Arthur Schopenhauer, Counsels and Maxims, being the second part of Arthur Schopenhauer’s Aphorismen zur Lebensweisheit, Translated by T. Bailey Saunders, Second Edition, London, Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1891, page 111-112 (Schopenhauer’s German-language original was published in 1851).  

Arthur Schopenhauer
Schopenhauer, in turn, may have borrowed the card-game analogy from Sir Walter Scott, whose advice to young professors encouraged them to work hard to prepare for whatever hand life might deal them:

“The mischance of those who fall behind, though flung upon fortune, more frequently arises from want of skill and perseverance.  Life, my young friend, is like a game of cards – our hands are alternately good or bad, and the whole seems at first glance to depend on mere chance.  But it is not so; for in the long run, the skill of the player predominates over the casualties of the game.  Then do not be discouraged with the prospect before you, but ply your studies hard, and qualify yourself to receive fortune when she comes your way.” – Sir Walter Scott.

The Musical World, London, No. CXI. – New Series, No. XVII, April 26, 1838, page 291.

American humorist, Josh Billings, repackaged Schopenhauer’s high-brow philosophy into a more accessible, lowbrow version; one that more closely resembles Grantland Rice’s later, more heroic prose:  

As in a game ov cards, so in the game ov life, we must play what is dealt tew us, and the glory consists, not so mutch in winning, as in playing a poor hand well.

Josh Billings on Ice, and Other Things, New York, G. W. Carleton & Co., 1868, page 89.    

Josh Billings (L); Mark Twain (C); Petroleum Nasby (R)

Josh Billings was a contemporary of Mark Twain, and nearly as famous during his lifetime.  Like Twain, he dispensed folksy, home-spun humor and advice; like a frontier Woody Allen:

“Give me liberty, or give me deth” – but ov the 2 I prefer the liberty.

Much of it is pretty funny stuff, if you can get past the stilted spelling.  But he was unrepentant about his spelling:  

I hold that a man has jist as mutch rite tew spel a word as it is pronounced, as he has tew pronounse it the way it aint spelt.

Perhaps his bad spelling dun him in.  Twain survived, but have yew ever heard of Billings? 

A poem using the life-is-a-game-of-cards metaphor appeared regularly in print in the United States for decades, from as early as 1876.[ii]  In the poem, the high and low numbers correspond to the highs and lows of life, and each suit is assigned to a different stage of life; hearts are love, diamonds are wealth, clubs denote war, and the last spade, “digs up the player’s graves.”

The Tarboro' (North Carolina) Southerner

Alumni Football

Grantland Rice first delivered his poem, Alumni Football, to a gathering of alumni at his alma mater, Vanderbilt University, in 1908: 

Dr. Young was followed by Grantland Rice, ’01, the Alumni Poet.  Mr. Rice’s verse was characteristic and technical, and brought uproarious applause.

(Manufactured for the Vanderbilt Alumni gathering, 1908, where it first happened)

Bill Jones had been the shining star upon his college team;
His tackling was ferocious and his bucking was a dream.
When husky William tucked the ball beneath his brawny arm,
They had a special man to ring the ambulance alarm.

Bill hit the line and ran the ends like some mad bull amuck;
The other side would shiver when they saw him start to buck;
And when a rival tackier tried to block his dashing pace,
His first thought was a train of cars had waltzed across his face.

Bill had the speed, Bill had the weight—the nerve to never yield;
From goal to goal he whizzed along while fragments strewed the field—
And there had been a standing bet, which no one tried to call,
That he could gain his distance through a ten-foot granite wall.

When he wound up his college course, each student's heart was sore;
They wept to think that husky Bill would hit the line no more.
Not so with William—in his dreams he saw the Field of Fame,
Where he would buck to glory in the swirl of life's big game.

Sweet are the dreams of campus life—the world that lies beyond
Gleams ever to our inmost gaze with visions fair and fond;
We see our fondest hopes achieved—and on with striving soul
We buck the line and run the ends until we've reached the goal.

So, with his sheepskin tucked beneath his brawny arm one day,
Bill put on steam and dashed into the thickest of the fray;
With eyes ablaze he sprinted where the laureled highway led—
When Bill woke up his scalp hung loose and knots adorned his head.

He tried to run the Ends of Life, when lo! with vicious toss
A bill collector tackled him and threw him for a loss;
And when he switched his course again and crashed into the line,
The massive guard named Failure did a two-step on his spine.

Bill tried to punt out of the rut, but ere he turned the trick
Right tackle Competition tumbled through and blocked the kick;
And when he tackled at Success in one long, vicious bound,
The fullback Disappointment steered his features in the ground.

But one day, when across the Field of Fame the Goal seemed dim,
The wise old coach Experience came up and spoke to him.
"Old boy," said he, "the main point now before you win your bout
Is keep on bucking Failure till you've worn that lobster out!

Cut out this work around the ends—go in there low and hard—
Just put your eyes upon the goal and start there yard by yard;
And more than all, when you are thrown or tumbled with a crack,
Don't lie there whining; hustle up and keep on coming back.

Keep coming back for all they've got, and take it with a grin
When Disappointment trips you up or Failure barks your shin.
Keep coming back; and if at last you lose the game of Right,
Let those who whipped you know at least they, too, have had a fight.

Keep coming back; and though the world may romp across your spine,
Let every game's end find you still upon the battling line.
For when the one Great Scorer comes to write against your name,
He marks—not that you won or lost—but how you played the Game."

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Such is Alumnus Football on the white-chalked field of Life:
You find the bread line hard to buck, while sorrow crowns the strife;
But in the fight for name and fame among the world-wide clan,
"There goes the victor" sinks to naught before "There goes a man."

Vanderbilt University Quarterly, Volume 8, Number 3, July 1908, pages 218-219.

I have seen at least five versions of the poem (1908, 1914, 1919, 1926, 1932); all of them different.  Most of the differences are minor changes in punctuation or slight rearrangement of words; but many of the changes are significant; new stanzas, omitted stanzas, rewritten stanzas.  The differences reflect changes in the game of football, world politics, society, and his changed perspective as he matured.  

Changes in one line, for example, reflect changing dance styles.  In 1908, a “massive guard named Failure did a two-step on his spine;” in 1914, it was a “tango”; and in 1932, it was a “toddle.”

Different versions of one couplet illustrate the growth of the automobile industry, the decline of the railroad, and the start of World War I:

1908:     And when a rival tackler tried to block his dashing pace,
His first thought was a train of cars had waltzed across his face.

1914:     And when the rival forwards tried to stand him on his head
The coaches called an armistice to put away their dead.

1920:     And when rival tackler tried to block his dashing pace
He took the oath an army truck had rolled across his face.

1932:     And when some rival tackler tried to block his dashing pace,
On waking up, he'd ask, "Who drove that truck across my face?"

In 1908, the automobile was still a relative novelty and “trucks” were not well known. WWI ushered in the era of mechanized warfare and the use of army trucks.  By 1932, trucks were a familiar sight.  In 1914, although the United States was not yet at war, World War I had begun and talk of an “armistice” was in the news.[iii]

In 1919, Rice even paraphrased his own poem in a story about life, sports, and having a “yellow streak.”  This version is closer to the modern idiom:

At the finish the Official Scorer who waits at the journey’s end is much more likely to count your scars than your medals.  It isn’t so much a matter of whether you won or lost, but how you played the game.

The Yellow Streak, Grantland Rice, American Magazine, volume 88, Number 6, December 1919, page 210. 

In 1908, Grantland Rice, the “alumni poet,” was a recent graduate (Class of 1901), but had already achieved a certain amount of notoriety writing for the Atlanta Journal and the Cleveland News:

Grantland Rice, the bard of Georgia, calls the turn nicely in his jingle:

It’s easy enough to cheer the home team
   When everything moves like a song,
But the rooter worth while is the one who can smile
   And cheer when everything’s wrong.
                              – Cincinnati Enquirer.

There is a great deal more truth than poetry in Grantland’s jingle.

Washington Times (Washington DC), July 6, 1904, Page 8.

This "jingle" sounds as though it could have inspired Judge Smails' boat-launch ditty in Caddy Shack?  It also demonstrates that even Rice was not above borrowing or revising others' material:

It’s easy enough to be cheerful
  when life rolls along like a song,
but the man worth while is the one who can smile
  when everything goes dead wrong. – Ella WheelerWilcox.

Wheeler Wilcox is best known for her poem, Solitude:

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
  Weep, and you weep alone.
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth
  But has trouble enough of its own

Despite the occasional artistic license, some writers considered Grantland Rice one of the greats early in his career: 

The leading writers on the game from all sections were there.  Henry Chadwick, the veteran of 82 years, the historian of the game, fanning with Grantland Rice, the brilliant writer from Atlanta, Ga.

The Topeka State Journal (Kansas), October 16, 1905, Last Edition, page 6.

Grantland Rice, the brightest light that the south ever turned out as a baseball writer, is now a benedict.  Rice was with the Atlanta Journal for years, but is now with the Cleveland News.

Pensacola Journal (Florida), April 25, 1906, page 8.

Grantland Rice was more than just a baseball writer; he was also a professional baseball executive and college coach.  In 1904, he served as Secretary of the South Atlantic League, and reportedly coached the Vanderbilt baseball team in 1908. 

Best known as a baseball writer, he published a collection of baseball poetry in 1910.  Base-Ball Ballads (Nashville, The Tennessean Company), featured a collection of more than fifty baseball poems, many of which had previously appeared in his columns; including, two sequels to Casey at the Bat, and July!, about sport’s perennial losers’ sad refrain, “Wait’ll next year!”

In the first Casey sequel, Rice paints a picture of how Casey’s notorious strikeout triggered a general decline in the town of Mudville:

Alas for Mudville’s vanished pomp when mighty Casey reigned;
  Her grandeur has departed now; her glory’s long since waned.
Her face upon the map is lost, and no one seems to care
  A whit about the town since Casey fanned the air.

The Topeka State Journal (Kansas), December 25, 1906, Last Edition, page 2.

In the second sequel, Casey finally redeems himself:

Oh, somewhere in this favored land dark clouds may hide the sun,
  And somewhere bands no longer play and children have no fun;
And somewhere over blighted lives there hangs a heavy pall;
  But Mudvillee hearts are happy now – for Casey hit the ball!

The Pacific Commercial Advertiser (Honolulu, Hawaii), April 15, 1906, page 13.

In his poem, Game Called, Rice used a revised version of the now-famous lines:

“Game called” – upon the field of life
   The darkness gathers, far and wide;
The dream is done, the score is spun
   That stands forever in the guide;
Nor victory, nor yet defeat
   Is chalked against the player’s name,
But down the roll the final scroll
   Shows only “how he played the game.”

Grantland Rice, Base-Ball Ballads, 1910 (also, The Washington Times (Washington DC), July 29, 1912, last edition, page 11).

The poem, Alumnus Football, seems to have flown under the radar for several years.  Presumably, the Vanderbilt Quarterly had limited circulation; and it is unclear (to me, at least) whether the poem was reprinted in-full, before 1914.  Despite such limited exposure, however, Alumnus Football's now-famous closing lines appeared in print sporadically beginning in about 1911. [iv]

For example:

The rooting at the football game Saturday was the best ever heard in Cresco.  Mr. Wells is proving to be a splendid voice trainer, especially from the standpoint of noise.  

“For when the One Great Scorer comes To write against your name,
He writes – not that you won or lost, But how you played the game.” 

The Cresco Twice-a-Week Plain Dealer (Cresco, Iowa), October 25, 1912, page 2 (It sounds like the hapless Cadets lost the game; perhaps they lost another one to the Decorah Vikings.).

A full version of the poem appeared in Rice’s regular column in the Washington Times', Bingles and Bunts, column in 1914,[v] but the phrase does not seem to have been very well-known until about 1920.  In 1919, Walter Camp quoted the poem in his annual Football Guide.  He dedicated the book to “all the Hobey Bakers”[vi] – former college football players who died in WWI:

Spalding's Official Foot Ball Guide - 1919

Newspapers in at least Washington DC and Philadelphia printed full versions of the poem in October 1920.  

Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia), October 11, 1920, page 18.

By the end of the year, and continuing into 1921, his famous lines were well on their way to becoming a sporting cliché; the lines were widely used, without credit to the author, in Christmas, New Year’s, and graduation notices in various newspapers, and even incorporated into automobile advertising:

But the original closing lines have been largely forgotten:

Such is Alumnus Football on the white-chalked field of Life:
You find the bread line hard to buck, while sorrow crowns the strife;
But in the fight for name and fame among the world-wide clan,
"There goes the victor" sinks to naught before "There goes a man."

Vanderbilt University Quarterly, Volume 8, Number 3, July 1908, page 219.

[i] Grantland Rice is one of the most revered sports journalists in American history.  His name is attached to one college football’s most prestigious annual awards (after the Heismann Trophy); and he coined one of the best sports nicknames of all time, the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame (the entire backfield of Knute Rockne’s 1924 Notre Dame football team). 
[ii] The poem, attributed to an anonymous poet, is said to have appeared in E. Harrison’s, The Imperial Speaker (London, Merton House), in 1865. See, The Bazaar, the Exchange and Mart, Volume 21, September 6, 1879, page 155.
[iii] The Day Book (Chicago, Illinois), October 13, 1914 (less than a month before the second version of Alumnus Football appeared in print.   The Japanese and Germans have agreed to a temporary armistice in Tsing Tau while the dead and wounded are removed.
[iv] The Logan Republican (Logan Utah), December 23, 1911, page 1; The Logan Republican, May 4, 1912, page 4.
[v] The Washington Times (Washington DC), November 1, 1914, Sunday Evening, page 17.
[vi] Hobey Baker was a star football and hockey player at Princeton University.  He died while test-flying a recently repaired airplane before his planned return to the United States at the end of WWI.  The Hobey Baker Award, college hockey’s Heismann Trophy, is named in his honor.