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Theodore Roosevelt,
a “thorough believer in vigorous manly out-door sports,”
Warns of Sports Becoming “a permanent business”
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Two weeks before taking the oath of office of vice president, Roosevelt enjoys a hunting expedition to Colorado and explains the difference between sport as salubrious exercise and pastime, and sport as big business, to a Denver newsman. In the context of his published writings on the subject, Roosevelt believed that when sports become “a permanent business,” the participants do not contribute anything to society other than their athletic prowess. Worse still, the rise of professional sports – rather than universal participation in amateur activities – was a “sign” of national “decadence,” akin to the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT. Typed Letter Signed, as Vice President-elect, to Earl Marble, editor of The Mecca. Colorado Springs, February 18, 1901.

Inventory #21846       Price: $4,500

Complete Transcript

                                                      Colorado Springs, Colo., February 18th, 1901.
Mr. Earl Marble,
           Editor “The Mecca”,
                      1910 Pennsylvania Ave.,
                                   Denver, Colo.
My dear Mr. Marble:-
             Mr. Stewart has handed me your exceedingly kind letter.
             I really appreciate the articles in the “Mecca”.
             I wish I could have spoken to the Legislature but I was not willing to make an inadequate or hurried effort and had not one moment in which to prepare a proper speech.
            Let me say that I particularly like the editorial on page 4, where you speak of my being a sportsman. I am a thorough believer in vigorous manly out-door sports, but when they become, instead of a pastime, a permanent business, or whenever they interfere with serious work, then they are a sure sign of decadence.
            Very sincerely yours.
                      Theodore Roosevelt

Historical Background

Roosevelt replaced the deceased Garrett Hobart on the Republican ticket for the 1900 election, in which William McKinley again defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan. Roosevelt, now a national hero after his glamorous participation in the Spanish-American War, gave rousing speeches on the hustings, allowing McKinley to remain above the fray. After the sweeping Republican victory, as biographer H.W. Brands writes, Roosevelt “disappeared on a hunting trip while Edith … located a house to lease in Washington. For five weeks, in the dead of the first winter of the new century, he hunted … on Colorado’s western slope.” He and his guide, John Goff, “bagged … twelve cougar and five lynx skins.” Roosevelt was sworn in on March 4, 1901. President McKinley died on September 14, 1901, having been shot eight days previously at the Buffalo World’s Fair. TR was sworn in as the twenty-sixth president that same day.

Roosevelt was the most high-profile advocate of sport and the “strenuous life” in turn-of-the-century America. He believed that the rise of industry and big cities limited the opportunities for men to exert themselves to develop sound character and healthy bodies, as he himself had, taking up boxing and rowing at Harvard and in his rambles on the Great Plains. Roosevelt was also a Social Darwinist and historian of the frontier. He argued that frontier struggles with the environment and with Indians had created a new breed of man, the American, conditioned and destined for world greatness. The closing of the frontier as a crucible for manhood was a threat to his nationalistic vision, and he advocated imperial ventures abroad, and the encouragement of wilderness preservation and outdoor activities at home, to compensate.

It may seem odd that Roosevelt criticizes one aspect of sports while celebrating the virtues of the sporting life that he embodied. This was in fact a common theme in his writings on the subject. In an essay, “Professionalism in Sports,” published in The North American Review in August 1890, Roosevelt advocated hunting and backpacking and approved of more common collegiate activities such as “rowing, foot-ball, base-ball … sparring, and the like.” However, he insisted that “any good is accompanied by some evil … A young man who has broken a running or jumping record … or played on his college nine … has a distinct claim to our respect; but if, when middle-aged, he has still done nothing more in the world, he forfeits even this claim…” Further, “the existence of a caste of gladiators in the midst of a population which does not itself participate in any manly sports is usually, as it was at Rome, a symptom of national decadence.” In an article published in The Outlook on March 31, 1900, just after assuming the vice presidency, Roosevelt criticized British society for its “excessive devotion to sports and games,” which “has proved a serious detriment to the British army, by leading the officers and even the men to neglect the hard, practical work of their profession for the sake of racing, foot-ball … – until they received a very rude awakening at the hands of the Boers.”  

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), a fervent nationalist, environmentalist, and reformer. He was a Republican state assemblyman, then president of the New York Police Board in 1895-1897, where he fought administrative corruption. Roosevelt organized and led a regiment, “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders,” in Cuba in the Spanish-American War. He used his newfound celebrity to win election as governor of New York (1898-1900), and was nominated as vice president under William McKinley for the Election of 1900. In 1901, he became president upon the assassination of McKinley and was re-elected in 1904. He insisted on a strong navy, civil service reform, national conservation efforts, and federal regulation of trusts, monopolies, and meatpackers. Roosevelt declined to run again in 1908, instead throwing his support behind William Howard Taft, but he decided to run as a third-party candidate against Taft in 1912 because he was disappointed in his successor’s performance. The split in the Republican Party enabled Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win in 1912. Though he was mentioned as a candidate in 1916, Roosevelt retired from politics, but was a strong advocate of entering World War I on the side of Britain and France.

References

Brands, H.W. TR: The Last Romantic (New York, 1997).
Roosevelt, Theodore. “Professionalism in Sports,” The North American Review (August 1890).
Roosevelt, Theodore. “Character and Success,” The Outlook (March 31, 1900).


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