In 1922 Rice became the first play-by-play announcer carried live on radio for the World Series game. Rice preferred writing to radio and rose to fame in 1924 when his column in the New York Herald-Tribune referred to the University of Notre Dame's backfield as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In 1930 he started a nationally syndicated column that would eventually appear in 100 newspapers.
His expressive writing helped to raise sports players to heroic status. He often compared the challenges of sports to mythic stories and the greater human condition. Rice frequently delved into the greater social and personal meaning of sports.
Rice sometimes used self-penned poetry in his columns, a famous example being Game Called. He turned a poem he had written many years earlier into a eulogy for Babe Ruth ("Game called by darkness - let the curtain fall,/ No more remembered thunder sweeps the field."). The well-known saying "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game" is derived from his poem Alumnus Football.
Rice was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee but moved to Nashville with his family and soon acquired a lifelong love of the outdoors and sports. He entered Vanderbilt University in the fall of 1897, after prepping at Wallace School. A good athlete, the slender (6'2," 135 pounds) Rice played end on the college football squad and shortstop on the baseball team. Baseball was his best sport, and in recognition of his outstanding abilities, he was named varsity captain during his senior year. A scholar as well as an athlete, Rice excelled in his favorite courses: English literature, Latin, and Greek. His grades earned him membership in Phi Beta Kappa.
Rice briefly aspired to a professional baseball career, which both his father, Bolling Rice, and grandfather opposed. In the mid-summer of 1901, Rice accepted a position at the Nashville Daily News, writing sports and covering the State Capitol and the Davidson County Courthouse. In 1902 Rice moved to the Atlanta Journal as sports editor. There he became an associate of Don Marquis, Frank Stanton, and Joel Chandler Harris. He also met his future wife, Kate Hollis of Americus, Georgia. They married in 1906, and became the parents of one daughter, Florence. He later became a sports-writer for the Nashville Tennessean.
In 1910 he accepted a job with the New York Evening Mail, which had a reputation for building circulation by accentuating its columnists. Rice's columns on the New York Giants' manager John McGraw, pitching ace Christy Mathewson, and teenage golf sensation Bobby Jones quickly created a loyal New York following. In January 1914 the New York Tribune used a full-page ad to announce the addition of the talented Grantland Rice to the sports staff.
When the United States entered World War I, the thirty-eight-year-old Rice enlisted as an army private. He spent fourteen months in military service, mostly in France and Germany. In the spring of 1919 he returned to New York City to resume his journalistic career.
Rice was the first play-by-play announcer carried live on radio when he served as the principal announcer in the 1922 World Series. He was also behind the microphone for the 1923 Series, but decided before the first game was over that he was a sportswriter and not a sports announcer.
Besides his daily column, which was syndicated in 80 to 100 newspapers, Rice edited American Golfer magazine and contributed to Collier's and Look magazines. He became the successor to Walter Camp in the selection of college football All-America teams beginning in 1925 and narrated the weekly Sportlight films. Rice's talent earned him the friendship and respect of well-known members of his craft including Ring Lardner, Heywood Broun, Damon Runyon, W. O. McGeehan, and Rex Beach; he also authored several books of poems.
Sports and poetry seemed to blend perfectly for Rice, who observed that "Rhythm, the main factor in both, is the main factor in life itself." His most enduring and oft-quoted stanza was: "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."
His talent for taking the mundane and giving it profound dimensions was first widely recognized when he dubbed the great backfield of the Notre Dame team of 1924 the "Four Horsemen" of Notre Dame. A Biblical reference to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, this famous account was published in the New York Herald Tribune on October 18, describing the Notre Dame vs. Army game played at the Polo Grounds:
|“||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 team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.||”|
The passage added great import to the event described and elevated it to a level far beyond that of a mere football game. This passage, although famous, is far from atypical, as Rice's writing tended to be of an "inspirational" or "heroic" style, raising games to the level of ancient combat and their heroes to the status of demigods. He became even better known after his columns were nationally syndicated beginning in 1930, and became known as the "Dean of American Sports Writers." He and his writing are among the reasons that the 1920s in the United States are sometimes referred to as the "Golden Age of Sports."
The prolific Rice wrote six books of poetry and eight of prose. The Best of Grantland Rice was issued posthumously in 1963.
Before leaving for service in World War I, he entrusted about $75,000, to a friend. On his return from the war, Rice discovered that his friend had lost all the money in bad investments, and then had committed suicide. Rice accepted the blame for putting “that much temptation” in his friend’s way. Rice then made monthly contributions to the man’s widow for the next 30 years.
According to author Mark Inabinett in his 1994 work, Grantland Rice and His Heroes: The Sportswriter as Mythmaker in the 1920s, Rice very consciously set out to make heroes of sports figures who impressed him, most notably Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, Bill Tilden, Red Grange, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, and Knute Rockne. Unlike many writers of his era, Rice defended the right of football players such as Grange, and tennis players such as Tilden, to make a living as professionals, but he also decried the warping influence of big money in sports, once writing in his column,
In 1966, Grantland Rice won the J.G. Taylor Spink Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame. His last typewriter is on display in the Hall's library.
The Grantland Rice Bowl was an annual college football bowl game, one of four regional National Collegiate Athletic Association college division championships from 1964 to 1972. It was the Mideast Regional championship, played in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, from 1964 to 1968. In 1969, the regional alignments shifted and the game was relocated to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where it remained until 1975. In 1973, under the newly restructured college division playoff system, the game became the national Division II semifinal. In 1976, the game was played as the Division II semifinal in Fargo, North Dakota, and in 1977, was played in Anniston, Alabama. With the formation of the NCAA Division 1-AA and the modern playoff structure, the game ceased to exist.
A sports-writing scholarship named for Rice and fellow Vanderbilt University alumnus and former Rice colleague Fred Russell is awarded each year to an entering Vanderbilt freshman who intends to pursue a career in sports-writing. The accomplished list of past winners includes author and humorist Roy Blount, Jr.; Skip Bayless of ESPN; Dave Sheinin of The Washington Post; and Tyler Kepner of The New York Times.
For many years, a portion of one floor of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism was designated the "Grantland Rice Suite."
A street in his hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee is named in his honor (Grantland Street).
The pressbox at Vanderbilt Stadium (Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee) is dedicated to Rice and named after Rice's protégé, Fred Russell.
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