Friday, December 13, 2019

Books: "The Strenuous Life" On Teddy Roosevelt's Influence On Sports

The Strenuous Life: Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of the American Athlete
By Ryan Swanson
Diversion Books; hardcover, 320 pages; $26.99

Ryan Swanson is an Associate Professor of History at the University of New Mexico's Honors College. He earned his Ph.D. in history from Georgetown in 2008 and has been studying and researching Theodore Roosevelt and his role in athletics in the United States for the past decade.

In the richly detailed new book, The Strenuous Life, Swanson tells the story of Roosevelt's personal fitness odyssey and incredible athletic boosterism, and how it changed America.

"During the time Theodore Roosevelt occupied the White House, modern sports emerged in America," Swanson writes. "In essence, the period was a supercollider. Sports banged around in a pressurized drum at speeds and volumes previously deemed impossible. Out of the pressurized period came a labyrinth of infrastructure, tradition, and sporting norms. An American athletic paradigm emerged. It is the same athletic paradigm, to a significant extent, that still reigns today."

Roosevelt was plagued by crippling asthma as a child, and while he was at Harvard, he was told by a doctor that if he gave up exercise completely, he might die of a heart attack.

Roosevelt pressed on, and he developed a lifelong obsession with athletics that he carried into the White House. As President, he boxed, practiced Ju-Jitsu, played tennis on the court that abutted the Oval Office, conducted harrowing "point-to-point" walks, and invited athletes to the White House constantly.

As would be expected, Roosevelt's personal quest had broad reverberations. During his administration, America saw an unprecedented rise in sports and recreational activities. Baseball's first ever World Series took place, interscholastic sports began, and schools started to place a legitimate emphasis on physical education. The NCAA formed, and the United States hosted the Olympics for the first time. 

The "Bull Moose" resided squarely in the midst of this sea change. He fought desperately, and sometimes successfully, to shape American athletics in accordance with his world view.

Swanson said of why he chose to focus solely on Roosevelt's impact on athletics in the country, "There are just so many connections...Roosevelt did everything that he could to shape sports at the turn of the century because he saw them as an antidote to heal the rapidly industrializing world. Along the way, Roosevelt was on his own highly publicized athletic journey, one that spanned from childhood until his death...

"In terms of participation, Roosevely preferred tennis, boxing, and cross-country hiking/jogging. Regardless of the activity, Roosevelt tried to sweat as much as possible (always trying to shed some weight) and push himself to the point of exhaustion.

"As a spectator, Roosevelt was a football fan first. He attended many college football games during his presidency, including the 1901 Army-Navy game. The idea of a sitting US president attending a game seems natural to us now; TR started it.

"Just as significantly, however, Roosevelt hated baseball. Despite repeated, repeated invitations from baseball's leaders during his presidency, Roosevelt simply would not attend MLB games. He launched what I call a cold war against baseball during his presidency - a war that he lost!"

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