Saturday, October 18, 2014

This Day in Sports History (Rice Immortalizes Notre Dame ‘4 Horsemen’)

Oct. 18, 1924—In the fading afternoon twilight in the press box at New York’s Polo Grounds, New York Herald Tribune columnist Grantland Rice pondered how to convey the excitement of the University of Notre Dame’s 14-7 win over Army that day, in a way that would distinguish his piece from that of talented friends on rival papers. 

Suddenly, a chance conversation from the year before and an anecdote he’d heard that week about the moviegoing habits of the Fighting Irish inspired the courtly Southerner to compare the winner’s swift backfield to a whirlwind force and to the “Four Horsemen” of the Apocalypse, in perhaps the most famous lead in the history of American sports journalism.

Rice’s dramatic opening and the importance of the game itself (a major clash of collegiate football powers) led the sportswriter’s editors to splash the piece on the front page, above the fold, of the Sunday paper. The column proved a public-relations bonanza for Notre Dame, providing one of the legendary moments in an athletic history filled with them.

In his heavily distributed column “Sportlight,” Rice was not above alluding to the Greek and Roman literature he had studied at Vanderbilt University. This afternoon, however, he referred to a piece of literature better known to religious-minded Americans, including the winning team—the Book of Revelation:

"Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.”

There was some poetic license involved with this—not a surprise, really, since, liberally sprinkled among the 67 million words produced throughout his five-decade career, Rice tossed in his own verses for the sake of variety. Purists noted, for instance, that there was no way that the Army team could be “swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds,” because the field sprawled out below the precipice under Coogan’s Bluff. Moreover, for subsequent generations of English majors raised on the prose of Ernest Hemingway, much of this is sounded like purple prose.

But Rice had his share of friends and admirers, even among those who wrote in ways that differed dramatically from his. Stanley Woodward, who acted as mentor to a generation of famous sportswriters as sports editor at the Herald Tribune, observed that among Rice’s legacies to subsequent practitioners of the craft was “rhythm and euphony.” Roger Kahn, author of the masterful elegy for the Brooklyn Dodgers, The Boys of Summer, noted simply that the “Four Horsemen” passage was “the most remarkable lead ever written on a football game”—one that, like the cyclone that functioned as the article’s central metaphor, “swept away all before it.”

As Rice recalled the creative process that led to this in his autobiography nearly 30 years later, The Tumult and the Shouting (excerpted in a fine football anthology just published by the Library of America, Football: Great Writing About the National Sport), after being nearly run over by three of the players in the Notre Dame backfield as he was standing on the sideline, he told a friend, “They’re like a wild horse stampede.”

But when he remembered this, Rice was in his early 70s, ailing, and, likely, forgetful about a more immediate influence on his thinking. Back in October 1924, George Strickler, then coach Knute Rockne's student publicity aide and later sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, told Rice and other reporters during halftime who were marveling over the exploits of quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, left halfback Jim Crowley, right halfback Don Miller, and fullback Elmer Layden that they were “just like the Four Horsemen,” a reference to the movie the team had seen the Wednesday before they traveled east for the game: The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, starring an exotic new newcomer to Hollywood named Rudolph Valentino.

Reporting that day was as talented a group of sportswriters as may ever have watched a single game: Damon Runyon, Paul Gallico, Gene Fowler, Westbrook Pegler, Jack Kofoed, Davis Walsh, and Frank Wallace. Significantly, though, it is only Rice’s account that is still remembered.

The hyperbolic nature of his prose and the prominence given his story by The Herald Tribune accounted for much, but not all, of the reasons for this. Once Notre Dame made it home to South Bend, Strickler quickly got Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden, all dressed in their uniforms, to mount horses from a local livery stable, and made sure that the wire services received the resulting image. The photo became indelibly associated with a team that went on to win the Rose Bowl and compile an undefeated record. The power of Rice’s words, then, was multiplied by a single image.

If the 1920s represented the Golden Age of Sport, then Rice was its bard. What he did with this passage illustrated what contemporaries regarded as his greatest gift, and what many today see as his greatest failing: transforming a transitory athletic moment, place, and people into mythological status.

A couple of years ago, Tommy Craggs posted a devastating critique of Rice’s literary failings (“Why Grantland Rice Sucked”) on the sports Website Deadspin. The notion of a sportswriter comparing a minor-league baseball game to Gettysburg, Bull Run or Waterloo is, indeed, laughable.  

But at least some of this is unfair to Rice. As a onetime college athlete himself, he knew intimately the competitive instincts and stresses of those who played sports, and he was part of a writing fraternity that was not interested in exposing the peccadilloes of players. It would take a full two generations after the appearance of the “Four Horsemen” column before that laissez-faire attitude changed.

What had altered, too, was the nature of the media covering these events. For No Cheering in the Press Box, a 1974 oral history of sportswriting edited by Jerome Holtzman, Strickler mused that by then, it would have been impossible for Rice and his brethren to practice the craft the way they had before:

“Your stories today are shorter because of the economics of getting out a newspaper. Your columns are narrower. Your type is larger. And when you start to trim a Grantland Rice or a Davis Walsh, you get down to the straight Associated Press story. You trim out the little touches, the man's nuances. You trim out the man himself. So how are they going to build up another Red Grange?”

(The reference to Grange is apropos here. While Notre Dame was crushing Army, Grange was leading the University of Illinois to victory over Michigan with an electrifying, five-touchdown performance, leading Rice, in a typical bit of versification, to term him the "gray ghost.") 

The other basic change was what boosted this particular column by Rice to begin with: the image. With the rise of television—and especially the multiple cameras and instant replay that were increasingly used—viewers could now see for themselves, in real time—and repeatedly thereafter—any plays. They didn’t need the likes of Rice to talk about the action. The emphasis, then, switched to the individuals associated with the game.  

More has disappeared, however, than the romantic style of sportswriting epitomized by Rice (who, incidentally, in perhaps his best-known bit of verse, wrote: "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"). The Polo Grounds, scene of countless legendary baseball and football contests, was demolished in 1964. 

Even the types of backs hailed by Rice could no longer exist today. The biggest of the Four Horsemen, Layden, weighed only 164 pounds. In contrast, on this year's much-ballyhood Fighting Irish roster, quarterback Everett Golson and running backs Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston, and Greg Bryant average 200 pounds.

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