Rice, Grantland

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RICE, Grantland

(b. 1 November 1880 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee; d. 13 July 1954 in New York City), sportswriter who was the most powerful and far-reaching voice in U.S. sports for nearly half a century, and who first said it mattered "not that you won or lost, but how you played the game."

Rice was born into a family whose roots in the U.S. South dated to the Revolutionary War. He grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, and graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1901. During his senior season at Vanderbilt he was the captain of the baseball team, and his slick fielding and power at the plate attracted the attention of scouts from the Nashville team of the Southern League. However, his father forbade him from signing a professional baseball contract. Rice turned to journalism, accepting a job at the Nashville Daily News. He moved quickly to the Atlanta Journal, where he wrote about the young baseball player Ty Cobb. In autumn 1905 he moved to the Cleveland News and stayed for a year and a half before returning to Nashville to join the staff of the Nashville Tennessean in 1907.

During this apprenticeship, Rice developed the singular style that would mark his career and influence so much of sportswriting. He sprinkled his prose with references from Greek and Roman mythology, and used metaphors of battles and crusades to describe golf matches and college football games. His articles were terribly overwritten by modern standards, but they were colorful and clear and enormously popular with readers. From the very beginning, Rice interspersed verse and rhyme with his prose; at the height of his career his reputation as a poet rivaled his reputation as a sportswriter. Rice published four books of verse during his lifetime and critics praised his work; one called it "a sturdy clarion of fellowship, humor, and work" and compared him to the popular U.S. poet James Whitcomb Riley.

Rice's most enduring phrase came from a poem entitled "Alumnus Football," first published in the Nashville Tennessean in 1908. It was an ode to football as a metaphor for life, and the phrase that immortalized Rice came in the penultimate stanza: "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." "Alumnus Football," slightly rearranged so that the famous couplet would stand at the poem's close, was reprinted in his column throughout Rice's life, and was included in two of his books of verse, Only the Brave (1941) and the post-humous The Final Answer (1955).

In 1906 Rice married Katherine Hollis of Americus, Georgia. They had one child, Florence, who gained considerable fame on her own as a Broadway and Hollywood actress in the 1930s and 1940s. Rice moved to New York City and syndication in 1911, writing first for the Evening Mail and then for the New York Tribune (later the New York Herald Tribune). When the United States entered World War I, he enlisted and served in France with the 115th Field Artillery. He reached the height of his popularity and influence following the war, in the 1920s and 1930s.

"Granny," as he was known to the athlete and reader alike, became a virtual one-man media conglomerate. His column was syndicated in more than 100 newspapers, with a combined daily readership in excess of 10 million. He wrote a weekly column in Collier's magazine; hosted a weekly radio program on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC); edited annual guidebooks for college football and Major League Baseball; edited The American Golfer magazine; and produced and hosted Sportlight Films, an Academy Award–winning series of one-reel films that concentrated largely on participatory sports such as golf, tennis, hunting, and fishing. Rice's newspaper readers also got game-day stories from big events such as the World Series, major golf championships, and football bowl games.

In those days of limited radio coverage, it is not unfair to say that U.S. fans saw sport largely through Rice's eyes. It was a gentle and kindly view, and Rice's mythmaking, celebratory style became known as the "gee whiz" school of sportswriting. The "aw nuts" school was best embodied by Rice's close friend Ring Lardner. Rice lauded the virtues of sportsmanship and fair play, and in many ways created the heroes of the golden age of sport. He christened the football player Red Grange as "The Galloping Ghost" and the backfield of Notre Dame University's football team "The Four Horsemen." The culture of athlete as celebrity began during the 1920s, and Rice played a significant role in making Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, and Bobby Jones household names. Along the way he became as well paid and as well known as any of the athletes he wrote about.

Following the end of World War II, Rice slowed notably. He traveled less and his columns became less topical as he reminisced frequently of games and athletes past. Still, he remained the nation's most widely syndicated sportswriter, and successors such as the Pulitzer Prize winners Red Smith and Jim Murray were quick to cite him as an influence throughout their careers.

Rice died of a heart attack at the age of seventy-three, and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York. He was eulogized on the front pages of newspapers across the country. His posthumous memoir, The Tumult and the Shouting (1954), outsold all previously published sports books. Jimmy Cannon of the New York Post summed up Rice's life and career by noting that the values he wished for sport were values that defined his own life and personality. "He cherished decency above all and searched for it in the characters of those he knew," wrote Cannon. "It was often hard to find but Granny didn't become discouraged. His dream remained pure and glowed with an obsolete splendor because of his faith in the goodness of men."

Rice's memoir is, The Tumult and the Shouting: My Life in Sports (1954). The first full-length biography of Rice was written by Charles Fountain, Sportswriter: The Life and Times of Grantland Rice (1993). See also Robert Downs and Jane Downs, Journalists of the United States (1991), and William Harper, How You Played the Game: The Life of Grantland Rice (1999). An obituary is in the New York Times (14 July 1954).

Charles Fountain