Category Archives: Book Review

Dixie’s Last Stand: Race, Football, and Alabama as a Site of Change

Alabama was an important site of change during the 1950s and 60s. Montgomery and Birmingham were at the heart of the civil rights movement. George Wallace stood on the steps of Foster Auditorium trying to prevent desegregation in Tuscaloosa. Football, too, was changing and a part of this change. In their new book Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath, and Dixie’s Last Quarter, Randy Roberts and Ed Krzemienski retell the stories of Bear Bryant and Joe Namath, and highlight a period of transition in southern football culture and the American South.

“Football and race, race and football — they were what white Alabamians talked about, argued about, and commiserated about. They were what unified a state sharply divided racial, class, and educational lines…” Roberts and Krzemienski suggest (20). Football offered a respite from the troubles of 1950s and ‘60s, particularly in Alabama. Gridiron success was an integral part of Southern culture and unified the region’s anti-integrationist position through Gentleman’s Agreements.

The football team at the University of Alabama began to lose its footing during much of the 1950s, however.  After winning only four games in three seasons, the Crimson Tide knew it was time for a change.  Alabama hired Paul “Bear” Bryant to rebuild a once proud program in 1958. One of the nation’s leading college football coaches, Bryant was an Alabama alum who built successful programs at both Kentucky and Texas A&M. Now back at Alabama, he was hailed as a savior. But a savior of what?

According to Kurt Kemper, football was a deeply regional game during the 1960s and symbolizing regional practices and cultural values. The South took pride in their all-white football teams and used their success to reinforce their way of life. Indeed, victories over integrated teams in bowls games did not threaten them, but rather proved that they were superior.

The tension between all-white Southern football and pressures from other schools, governmental officials, and the civil rights movement lay at the heart of Roberts and Krzemienski book. The authors interweave the narratives of race and football during the most heated years of civil rights activism in Alabama suggesting that although the Crimson Tide restored their football legacy the South’s time was fleeting. Young, brash, and northern quarterback Joe Namath serves as one of the main foils to the well-established and revered Bear Bryant.

Immediately, everybody knew Namath was different. He was a working class kid from a broken home in Western Pennsylvania with star- written all over him. Namath headed to Alabama only after his other options fell through. He had scholarship offers from schools such as Iowa, Notre Dame, and Maryland, but failed to score high enough on his entrance exams to be eligible in the Big Ten or ACC.

Although Bryant became a larger in life figure, he, too, came from a working class background. He deeply believed in not only working hard but outworking his opponents, and upon arriving at Alabama rebuilt the team in his image. Respect and integrity were integral parts of his leadership but loyalty and never giving up were also crucial. Bryant was fiercely competitive.

Namath often tested the fiery old coach with his rowdy behavior and penchant for pushing the limits. But Bryant was tested in other ways too. The Saturday Evening Post tried to defame Bryant with a report that he and Wally Butts, the athletic director and former football coach at the University of Georgia, conspired to fix a football game. Both men were innocent, but it took a long drawn out libel suit to restore Bryant’s name. He received jabs from other publications and journalists too. Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times stirred the pot as he condemned segregation in the South writing “an all-white team has no business being no. 1” in reference to Alabama’s 1961 championship team (137).

Throughout the fast paced narrative, Roberts and Krzemienski carefully posit important questions about the role of football for southerners during desegregation. Football was undoubtedly a symbol of white southern identity. President Kennedy often made football references in his speeches as he tried to reach out to the cultural values of southerner during an increasingly tense time. Even if football was an important Southern cultural symbol, Bryant and the Crimson Tide tried to steer clear of controversy.

To be sure, Bryant and Alabama saw change looming. They played an integrated Penn State team in the 1959 Liberty Bowl, and lost. The hiccup, however, was mostly brushed under the table. In fact, few southern newspapers even noted that Penn State had black players.

Change loomed larger away from the football field.  Throughout the book Roberts and Krzemienski sketch the larger story of civil rights. Rosa Parks jump started the movement with the Birmingham bus boycott in 1955 before Bryant returned to Alabama. In the summer prior their 1961 national championship, however, the freedom rides were in full swing. The election of George Wallace in 1962 intensified the struggle as Kennedy and the weight of the federal government turned its sights towards the University of Alabama.

Bryant was out of the state in the summer of 1963, but Joe Namath remained on campus. As “segregation forever” ended, and the first black students enrolled at the University, Namath was selling price-gouged sandwiches to the federalized troops. A few months later in Birmingham, the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed. The Tide rolled on.

The Kennedy assignation affected the 1963 football season rescheduling a few games. The suspension of Joe Namath for breaking team rules affected it more. Alabama ended the season with two losses, but ranked 8th in the AP poll.

Namath returned for his senior season in 1964, but suffered a knee injury that lingered most of the year. The injury didn’t matter as Alabama scraped together an undefeated, 10-win regular season, and were voted national champions despite losing their bowl game. When he played, Namath was a star. He’s strong arm, pinpoint accuracy, and quick release sparked his team and provided several quick-strike touchdowns. Even with the knee injury, there was no question he was headed for the pros.

The talented young quarterback from Western Pennsylvania teamed with Bryant to restore Alabama’s southern football tradition. Namath, however, also pushed the old coach, and the sport in general, towards change. The 1965 Orange Bowl, their final game together, was the first prime-time color TV football broadcast. In the weeks leading up to the game, Namath negotiated an unprecedented $427,000 contract with the AFL’s New York Jets. Thanks to Namath’s star power and NBC’s TV contract with the AFL, the economics of professional football were transformed.

That’s where Roberts and Krzemienski end their book. For them, the 1964 season was “Dixie’s Last Quarter.” Alabama’s 1964 national championship was the last won by an all-white team that did not play a single integrated team. It would not be until 1971 that a black player would suit up for the Crimson Tide, but pressure for integration steadily increased after the 1965 season. What was once a point of southern pride became a lightening rod as the “national condemnation over segregation…threatened to overshadow Alabama’s football success” (Kemper, 199).

Rising Tide is a football book first. It’s filled with big personalities and game action, but it’s not light on context. Roberts and Krzemienski never stray far from the tension of change and the backdrop of civil rights This allows them to reveal the larger cultural tensions of the era and position Alabama as an important place during the 1950s and ‘60s for reasons that aren’t so obvious. The book is a fantastic contribution to the shelf of any sports fan, but also broadens our understanding of southern culture and sports during the civil rights era.

Book Review: The Games the Presidents Played

I’m in the midst of reading for my prelims this summer. The progress is moving slowly and has been a bit haphazard so far, but I think I’m starting to find my feet.

One of the latest books I have read was so engaging that I felt compelled to post something here about it. The book wasn’t originally on my reading lists but I added it for fun. It covers a topic that I’ve personally been interested in for quite a while now: sports and the American Presidency. It’s a rare book that I read slowly (and completely) over the past few days, conquering a couple chapters each night to unwind before going to sleep. Now having completed it, I’m convinced it’s a book useful to just about all U.S. historians.

The book is John Sayle Watterson’s, The Games the Presidents Played: Sports and the Presidency. The book spans twenty-three chapters organized into five sections tracing the changing relationship that sports and recreation have had with U.S. Presidents and the presidency. Beginning with George Washington and ending with George W. Bush, Watterson does his best to discuss each office holder, but the bulk of the text (4/5ths) covers the 20th century. While Watterson suggests George Washington may have been the greatest presidential athlete, he makes it clear that Theodore Roosevelt fundamentally changed the role and meaning of sports for modern presidents.

Watterson defines sports and games fairly loosely, including things like fishing, hunting, horseback riding, bridge, and poker alongside activities more common and recognizable to readers such as baseball, golf, and tennis. His broad definition allows him to paint an overview of presidential athletic endeavors. Although his definition is sometimes too broad and slippery, it allows him to traverse the 18th and 19th centuries with a rich texture of anecdotes that bring his presidential characters to life before going into more detail with the 20th century office holders.

Indeed, these stories are in many ways the strength of the book and why I believe it will be useful for a large cross-section of U.S. historians. Watterson uses sports and games as means to explore and develop an understanding of presidential personalities and style. Stories that may seem to some readers like bar trivia offer a window into the daily lives of presidents revealing their hobbies and foibles. For example, Watterson shares two stories about Washington and Lincoln getting into bar fights. Washington overpowered his attacker, who was surprised at the future president’s strength, while Lincoln intimidated his opposer with his quick wit and imposing stature. As I read the book, I couldn’t help but picture teaching a U.S. History survey armed with these stories.

To be sure, the book was filled with more than just presidential sports trivia and fun anecdotes. Watterson relies on papers and correspondence from presidents, their doctors, and other staff members to present a larger picture of the how and why athletic activities were utilized. Many used them simply for exercise and stress relief. Some used games as an opportunity to control or change their public image. Others yet used sports as an opportunity to meet with donors and advisors. As the book illustrates, spors and games were used for a variety of means that continued to change over the course of the 20th century.

Changes in the role and use of sports depended on the personality, health, and political skill of the president. Likewise, the specific historical moment played an important role in shaping both pubic opinion and the availability of leisure time for presidential sports. Watterson concludes by offering 10 guidelines for future president to follow in their engagements with sports, carefully noting that the expectations are always changing, particularly with the potential of a female president on the horizon.

The book is interesting other ways as well. Watterson discusses more than just the personal habits and engagement of individual presidents with sports. He also connects their policies to larger movements. This is most vividly done though the example of Gerald Ford and the opposition to Title IX. Although it is likely that Ford personally agreed with the lobbying of University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler that football should be exempt from the laws strictures, he instead removed himself from the decision making process. In this way, Ford protected his own football legacy while letting important gender equality legislation move forward.

As a sports historian, I enjoyed the book because it offered a solid overview of the development and evolution of the United States’ sporting culture, albeit from the top down. Watterson’s discussion of sports and exercise suggest future studies into the two activities as separate but inextricably linked entities. Finally, and perhaps most simply, he offers a clear illustration of how and why sports matter in politics and to politicians concluding that a certain degree of sports competency will be a requirement for  all future presidents.

Finally,  I think this book is useful for all U.S. historians because of its well written and concise stories and mini-biographies.  As I mentioned earlier, the book is a goldmine of anecdotes and engaging lecture material. While the coverage is light in the early years, there is enough material to be used for both halves of the U.S. history survey. It’s probably too long and too narrow to assign to undergraduates in a survey, but could be serviceable in a sports history of American presidency course.

The Longue Duree Integration of College Football

The story of integration and the color line is old hat to most people. Lane Demas recognizes this in his new book Integrating the Gridiron. Demas bases the book on the premise the integration was messier and more diverse than we have been led to believe in the traditional sports narrative. By looking at the integration of college football, he seeks to add temporal and regional diversity to the traditional narrative of the color line in sports.

Demas’ first chapter outlines his desire to complicate the integration model. For him, the national narrative has focused on four big individuals – Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, and Muhammad Ali – when telling the history of the color line and integration in sports. While he does not discount the roles of these individuals, Demas believes that integration was more the process of grassroots events and process, and happened at different times throughout the country. To be sure, this argument is not entirely new but his application of this method to college football is.

Demas lays out his argument using four examples over of a forty-year period. He starts with familiar terrain and Jackie Robinson’s UCLA career. The West Coast was seemingly more accepting, according to Demas, thanks in large part to the Great Migration. Although schools such a USC integrated earlier, they later re-segregated because of concerns about inappropriate behavior between star black athletes and adoring white, female fans. After mincing stories about Pacific coast football, he selects the 1938-1941 UCLA teams as his exemplar. The UCLA team was the first to have more than four black players, several of whom were stars. Indeed, Demas notes that Robinson, although the most famous today, was not the best black player on the team (he suggests that Kenny Washington was the best).

In addition to these players, the UCLA was unique because of the way it local and student media embraced the team. They avoided racial language and accepted their stars for their talent and skin color. The sportswriters often defended their black players from racist attitudes, particularly those of opposing coaches and awards voters. For Demas, this serves as an “integration” event on the West Coast because the team fueled a change in attitude that led to greater acceptance and rights for black players. The ultimate indicator of this change was UCLA’s hiring of Washington as a freshman coach after his playing days.

The next major event for Demas is that national controversy surrounding Johnny Bright and Oklahoma A&M (now State). Racism was prevalent in Oklahoma as the state followed segregation. Sports, however, were a major interest of both Oklahoma Universities leading it to play a major role in pushing them towards more inclusiveness. A&M wanted more prestige and to join the Big 6, which included OU. They invested heavily in sports and sought to dominate the Missouri Valley in hopes of gaining entry to the better Big 6 conference.

This desire for acceptance contrasted from their racist views in a football game against Drake in 1951. Drake was integrated and has a star running back, Johnny Bright. Prior to the game in Stillwater, Bright received threats of violence. Once the game began, the team made good on those threats. A lineman unexpectedly punched him and broke his jaw after he handed the ball off. He sustained a few other hits and had to be removed from the game and taken to the hospital. With their star player injured Drake lost the game.

Oklahoma media ignored the incident following the game, while Iowa media was enraged. The national media played the fence. Drake appealed to A&M and the Missouri Valley for sanctions, but both refused. Drake and Bradley (another integrated college) withdrew from the conference in protest. The controversy hung over A&M, but they eventually gained admittance to the Big 6 (which became the Big 7). A condition of their entrance, however, was that all schools must field integrated teams. This forced OU and Missouri to also integrate. For Demas, the Bright incident played a role in these future decisions because schools like Kansas State and Nebraska were already integrated and worried about the safety of their players.

Demas treads on slippery and correlational ground with the Big 7 example as well as his next chapter on the 1956 Sugar Bowl. Like the Bright example, the Sugar Bowl itself did not force any major or immediate changes but rather served as a symbolic turning point. The Sugar Bowl invited Georgia Tech and Pittsburg to play, but Georgia newly elected governor tried to force a boycott because Pittsburg had a black player. The Governor faced a huge public relations disaster as result of his boycott stance. Southerners marched and protested in favor of playing the game not because they wanted integration but because they loved football. Their protests followed a “we play anyone” mentality that underscored their views of superiority. In the end, the game took place and Georgia Tech won. The win came on a key mistake by Bobby Grier, Pittsburg’s black player, which further proved “they” were better. Demas includes this story because it illustrates football as a force bigger than race and politicians. While this is true, it was mostly through ironic and subtle ways and it resulted in no major changes to the segregationist policies of the South.

The book’s final integration event is the “Black 14” of the University of Wyoming. The fourteen players were kicked off the team because they wanted to wear black armbands in a game against BYU protesting Mormon views that blacks could not enter the priesthood. At Wyoming the protest was seen as ungrateful and putting oneself over the team. Coach Eaton was a legend statewide and had numerous supporters. He saw the issue as one of team rules and coaching authority. He received support from many fellow hardnosed, disciplinary coaches, including Bear Bryant. Eventually the University president and Governor Stanley Hathaway (future Secretary of Interior) intervened and tried to negotiate with the coach and players. The negotiations failed. In some small way, the protest was a success as the Mormon Church eventually changed it stance in 1978.

For Demas, this event symbolizes a rise in activism and pressure by athletes for more rights and support for black athletes. The protest was supposed to be one of many spurred on by San Jose State professor Harry Edwards that called for support and solidarity among blacks. Indeed, at other schools similar protests led to the hiring of academic support staff, coaches, and even the recruitment of a black cheerleader.

Overall the book offers a series of interesting anecdotes and some neat facts, but it overall argument is fairly weak. Demas is correct to draw the attention of sports scholars to various integration events and show the temporal and regional diversity of the civil rights issues in sports. In practice, however, he does not fully explore and connect his examples with what he purports their outcomes are.

Bob Zuppke and College Football in the Archive

In the early days of football, coaches became symbols of their universities. Their duties often extended beyond the athletic field and into university and community politics. In his biography of University of Illinois football coach Bob Zuppke, Maynard Brichford highlights the intersections in the stories of a coach, university, and sport. Zuppke was an institution in his own right at Illinois and within the Big Ten.

Zuppke had a distinguished record as coach of the Illini between 1912 and 1941. He was a pillar of stability. Illinois had four different university presidents during his tenure. Under his tutelage, his teams won two national titles and seven conference championships. Brichford, however, is quick to shift the focus away from his on-the-field success to his larger role within the university and its community as well as his commitment to higher education. Indeed, the biography serves more as a glimpse into the life of Zuppke and the University of Illinois than the sport of football.

Born in Germany in 1879, Zuppke moved with his parents to Milwaukee and was raised in the upper Midwest. Unlike many of his contemporary coaches he did not have a stellar athletic career. Instead, he was a student of sports and absorbed knowledge from others and read books on coaching and psychology. Brichford lists A.A. Stagg and Fielding Yost as two of Zuppke’s influences through their football coaching manuals and clinics. Likewise, he notes that the coach traveled east to learn different styles of football, including several trips to watch Harvard practice under coach Percy Haughton (who also wrote his own coaching book). Through this cross-pollination of football ideas Zuppke created his own “system” that relied on trick and surprise plays. While Brichford cautions that it’s difficult to assign primacy to sporting innovations, he counts the “huddle,” multiple pass flea-flicker plays, and the screen pass as hallmarks of his style of play.

This rise too football prominence also followed a different path of other big-name college coaches. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Zuppke began coaching at the high school level while also teaching history and physical education classes. He saw lots of cross over between history and football, Brichford explains, in the ways Greek and Roman troops used formations and worked together. He taught and coached at a small school in Michigan for a year before moving on to Oak Park in Chicago. There he served as athletic director and oversaw all sports. His track and field teams dominated the Illinois state-meet, which was initially organized by Stagg but sometimes held at the University of Illinois. His football teams fared well too and developed both a regional and national reputation. He took intersection trips, including on to Seattle and another to Boston.

These trips and his success earned Zuppke several college job offers. Schools like Northwestern and Purdue offered him large salaries and faculty positions, but he rebuffed them in favor of Illinois. Although Illinois offered less money, Brichford suggests, Zuppke took the job because he thought Illinois had better men to work with.  At Illinois he was the first professional, non-alumni coach. Unlike Stagg and others of this era, he never held the position of athletic director but did help coach basketball and baseball.

Fundraising, however, was also a large part of his job. Brichford devotes substantial space in his biography discussing Zuppke role in fundraising and public relations. Illinois’ various presidents saw the football team and its coach as a prime marketing tool for donations and as a way to woo votes (and money) from the legislature. Zuppke traveled around the state and the region giving talks to alumni groups, typically twenty to forty per year. These speeches and fundraisers were an essential part of his campaign to build Memorial Stadium following the Great War. Beyond football, Zuppke served as the Urbana-Champaign Boy Scout masters for several years while coaching.

In addition to these face-to-face interactions, Zuppke also developed a media persona. Later in his life he wrote columns and published articles. He had a contract with Christy Walsh Syndicate to tell his life story and signed on with Grantland Rice to write a book on sports. Zuppke, however, was perhaps the most famous for his “Zuppkeisms.” Brichford devotes a whole chapter to these sayings, which include motivational quotes and tips for life such as “a good back should keep his feet at all times and never lose his head.” This chapter is one of the few times that Brichford’s dry writing style lets the coach’s personality shine through.

Brichford is University Archivist Emeritus at Illinois and it is fairly clear that he is more concerned with sharing the history of the university than crafting an engaging story about its coach. While the book is well researched, its narrative is dry and offers few transitions. Instead, Brichford strings together facts about Zuppke’s life and career while mixing in larger trends at the University of Illinois, but not the broader spectrum of college football or higher education. This lack of a narrative unity and plot leave the reader wanting more. The author often lists facts and figures about Zuppke as if they are impressive or unique, but rarely substantiates these claims by offering comparison. For example, Brichford explains that Zuppke received a $4,000 per year allowance when he retired in 1942, three-fourths of which came from the athletics association. Without reference to the standards at other schools the reader does not know whether it is the allowance itself or the amount that is important.

Despite these weaknesses, Brichford’s biography is useful and informative. It sheds light on an important and sometimes overlooked coaching figure. His research is also useful to those studying the history of higher education as he often mixes in information about structural changes of the athletic association, board of trustees and other governance, and sheds light on the influence of donors and alums. Perhaps most important is his documentation. While his situation may be unique since he helped construct the archive and collect the sources reference in his book, it serves as a template for other football biographers to follow. Reading his notes gives other researchers and idea of what type of evidence may be available as well as where it and how its filed. Indeed, these are important insights into the archival structure of sports related documents.


The Ghost of Heisman?

To fans familiar with college football John W. Heisman is legendary. Each fall the “best” football player in the country receives an award bearing his name. Few, however, know the story about its namesake. Sharing this story is goal of John M. Heisman and Mark Schlabach in their new book Heisman: the Man Behind the Trophy. Hot off the presses published by Howard Books (a division of Simon & Schuster) in October, the book relies heavily on the authorial authority of Heisman’s great nephew and popularity of ESPN columnist Schlabach. Together the authors offer a standard chronological narrative of the famed coach’s life focusing primarily on his various coaching stints.

Heisman was born in 1869 and football was normal part of his youthful existence. He was raised in Pennsylvania and Ohio on the fringes of the sporting landscape before the game’s rules had been standardized. The middle son of a cooper, he and his two brothers initiated neighborhood games and often coming home battered and bruised. It was not until Heisman attended Brown University that he was exposed to real “scientific” football. Although the school did not sponsor a team of its own, he became active on local club teams. Football, however, was not his career ambition. His father pressed him to become a lawyer — a career Brown was ill equipped to prepare him for. So, after two years in Providence he transferred to the University of Penn.

Penn not only had a law school, but also a football team. There the undersized Heisman succeed because of his hard work and grit. Football became his passion and a viable option as a back-up career. When a head injury blurred his vision and threatened his studies, coaching emerged as a clear alternative. Paying coaches, however, was not yet a universally accepted practice in the college sports world. A.A. Stagg became one of the profession’s pioneers in 1890. Heisman followed suit in 1892.

Although Stagg often serves as the model, Heisman’s career looked more like that of Glenn S. “Pop” Warner took his first job in 1895. He also earned a law degree but instead chose coaching. Indeed, while Stagg endured a long tenure at the University of Chicago, Heisman and Warner were peripatetic. The authors devote a chapter to each of Heisman’s coaching stops. These chapters are formulaic, beginning with a description of how/why he was lured to the specific job and then providing a brief overview of his coaching successes. To be sure, they include some interesting anecdotes, such as the brief rivalry between Warner and Heisman when the face off as the coaches Georgia and Auburn. Another interesting tidbit and connection is the tale of Heisman’s recruitment of Joe Guyon — a former Carlisle player and All-American under Warner — who demanded that his older brother be offered a coaching job. Eventually the coach obliged, but he remained reluctant to shady recruitment practices.

Besides a few anecdotes like these, however, the authors rarely dig deeper beyond the surface of Heisman’s X’s and O’s. Instead, he is presented as a venerable disciplinarian with a keen eye for innovation. They quote extensively from many of his published articles citing his demand for order in routine in their dress, diet, and sleep patterns. A great deal of research is present in the text, but rarely do the authors know what to do with it. Several chapters feature half-page long quotes with little to no interrogation or analysis. They accept Heisman’s written work as face value without questioning its authenticity. Indeed, the go as far as to label him a “prolific” writer without explaining the context of the era or looking at contemporary coaches. Heisman’s heyday as a writer coincided with the apex of coach-driven sports narratives. Pop Warner, A.A. Stagg, and Knute Rockne all published serialized autobiographies in Colliers and the Christy Walsh Syndicate. Ghostwriting was common practice. To be fair, Heisman may be unique. The methods and processes of ghostwriting varied among coaches and publications, and the use of personal papers inherited by his Great Nephew may reveal this to be true. Yet, the authors fail to address these concerns or present that argument. They expect readers to take their narrative at face value and trust its authority.

These expectations are not unfair given the book’s target audience. The narrative is interesting and informative as it describes the coach’s life. They share little-known facts such as his Reno divorce in 1919 that caused him to resign from Georgia Tech, and his affinity for the theater. Heisman worked as an actor in the offseason and also managed acting troops. The book is at its best when the authors let Heisman’s personality peek through the words providing a glimpse into the culture of early football. The story of his African American player, Charles West, at Washington and Jefferson highlights his moral high ground and naturally explains many of the regional characteristics that defined the game. Conversely, their descriptions of Heisman’s struggles coaching at academically rigorous schools (UPenn and Rice) leave the reader wanting more. Did he struggle because he was getting older and could no longer relate to players? Was it his authoritative and disciplinarian style? Or could he simply not lure talented players to those schools because of their academic standards? These questions go unanswered.
The authors try to balance their desire to be historically accurate and their overall aim of telling a popular, feel-good story about a coaching icon. These mixed goals are obvious in the haphazard selection and placement of background information. They spend several pages describing the Pennsylvania oil boom of the 1850 and 60s linking it to the John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and John Wilkes Booth when only a few sentences would have sufficed.

Despite this scathing critique, Schlabach and Heisman offer a solid overview of John W. Heisman’s life and football career. The book will be interesting and informative for those unfamiliar with Heisman or early football. It is also useful for its notes and citations. While they rely heavily on an unpublished manuscript penned by Heisman in 1928, this source is balanced with numerous published materials providing a beginning point for future researchers on the life of John W. Heisman, his contemporaries, or early college football.

Richard White’s Railroaded and Contingent History

I read Richard White’s Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (2012) this summer (which means instead of gutting it, I read nearly every word). It’s a fantastic book that, at times, reads like a novel. White does a tremendous job of exploring the personalities and interactions between politicians, robber barons, reformers, and railroad workers. His breadth of research is on display as in one chapter he discusses the schemes of Leland Stanford and Collis Huntington with their “friends” and then offers an in-depth and personal character sketch of “A Railroad Life” that shows the plans in action through the lens of a railroad worker. These snapshots illustrate White’s extensive research. He condenses years of personal letters and journal entries into short 10-15 page sketches that recognize the agency of individuals, the sweeping influence of monolithic railroad companies, and unforgiving environmental conditions.

White’s central argument is that the railroads were as much a product of failure as they were success. He describes a world of corruption and greed that haphazardly built railroads as a way to fleece the government and accumulate wealth instead of meeting market demands. For him, the interesting story of the Gilded Age and railroad construction is the ineptness of politicians and railroad magnates. While they were given sweetheart deals, lavish land grants, and subsidies, they also experimented in insider trading and corporate money laundering that threatened their very existence. Through their failures, they managed to become more powerful by lobbying for even more subsidies, which put more of the U.S. economy in their hands. The book illustrates the ridiculous mismanagement and greed of the robber barons and explains how and why railroads in the U.S. West took the shape they did. He counters the traditional Gilded Age narratives of the competent businessman who rises to the top because of his acumen, asserting, “it was the triumph of the unfit, whose survival demanded the intervention of the state, which the corporations themselves corrupted” (509).

The book is fits a variety of history subfields including business, political, transnational, environmental, and the U.S. West. White shows that the transcontinental idea was not unique to the United States. Mexico and Canada also constructed their own lines often relied on funding schemes and faced problems similar to the United States. Likewise, robber barons crossed national boundaries in search of wealth and opportunity. He contends that railroads and railroad building shaped the North American West and played a significant role in (re)defining space and place by dictating both the cost of shipping and travel, and which cities became desirable destinations.

I realize my praise for White’s book is maybe a bit too effusive. The worst criticism I can offer is that the book is 500-plus pages, even though it is a quick read. The honest truth is I have a bit of a history crush on Richard White. He’s someone I aspire to emulate in my scholarship. I based one of the major themes of my master’s thesis on his concept of the “middle ground” and have always considered myself somewhat of a U.S. West historian. Railroaded is just the latest in his string of excellent scholarship on the American West, and I think it offers a lot of lessons on how to do history in the 21st century.

As I noted above, it crosses subfield boundaries and attempts to integrate a variety of approaches. White admits that he aspired to write more of a transnational and comparative history of railroads in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada at the outset, but the sources led him a different direction. This confession is important because emphasizes the role of sources in determining our outcome not our initial questions and goals. It is too easy, especially for us younger historians, to forget this and try to shove our metaphorically square sources into the round questions we are asking. Beyond this, much has been made of the immense time White spent researching the book: twelve years. As a reader this shows in important ways. The research packed into each of the “railroad life” sketches is tremendous. Each life helps move the narrative forward and balances the larger narrative about the robber barons with on-the-ground-stories of ordinary people. The juxtaposition of these lives teamed with the political and environmental conditions of the day provides a comprehensive view of the time period. And within that view, it becomes evident that nothing was predestined.

In his last few concluding pages, White makes a big deal about the idea the contingency of history. “Contingency –the idea that what happens in the world is often a result or the unexpected combination of quite particular circumstances– is the mark of history as a discipline…” he writes, “To say that choices are not limitless, that we always act within constraints imposed by the past, is not the same thing as saying there were, or are, no choices. A belief in contingency has as its corollary an obligation to imagine alternatives” (516). Of course, contingency is nothing new. The focus on rooting out teleological and Whiggish history is rabid among my graduate students peers in our historiography seminars.

The idea of imagining alternatives is one that I haven’t really thought much about. For White, however, this is part of avoiding Whiggish history. “Contingency,” he writes, “ demands hypotheticals about what might have happened. They are fictions, but necessary fictions. It is only by conceiving of alternative worlds that people in the past themselves imagined that we can begin to think historically, to escape the inevitability of the present, and get another perspective on issues that concern us still” (517). Thinking this way does several things for us as historians. First, its helps us isolate the significance of the events we are studying. By suggesting alternative outcomes we can isolate the impact of actions, decision, events, etc. Second, considering alternatives forces us to write a much more comprehensive history where we look more deeply into the larger debates, conditions, and contexts of events. By presenting various options we can better understand the motives and rationale for decisions, which might offer further insight into the priorities of individuals and/or cultures.

Considering alternatives and admitting that history is contingent requires us to take a step back as well as get inside of the head of our actors. To be sure, many of us already do this, at least partially. I often think about decisions and options from the perspective of my human actors. I’m uncertain, however, of how I would do it with non-human actors. It seems possible to do with institutions and organizations, but the environment seems trickier. This is why taking a step back is important. Environmental alternatives seem like they are easier to consider on a macro level. For example, let’s consider the Dust Bowl. We may start with the following question: would the Depression have been less severe without the Dust Bowl? Which then leads us to questions about if and how we could have prevented the Dust Bowl until we’ve constructed an alternative. This alternative then gives multiple perspectives to think about the history of the Dust Bowl and reduces our reliance on inevitability.

I admitted earlier that I haven’t thought too much about the idea of constructing alternatives, but that many of us historians do it naturally, at least at the individual level. Thinking about alternatives at all levels is important because it forces us to find each point of historical contingency. Crooked lines connect these points and texture our narratives with a lush understanding of the “what-ifs” of the past that make the reality more meaningful.

White ends his book with one last “what-if.”  What if the transcontinentals were never built, what would the American West be like, he wonders. He imagines a different world with fewer booms and busts, more land for Native Americans, and less environmental degradation and waste. There might be railroads, too. But he sees fewer of them that cost less and run more efficiently. This counterfactual hints at causation and connects the past to the conditions of the present. It is both a judgment and an eye-opener. He confirms that the railroads and robber barons played a significant role in shaping modern America, but suggests that it is in ways readers may not have previously considered.