November 7th, 2020 | Amanda Williams, MacArthur Memorial

These Fields of Friendly Strife: General MacArthur and American Sport

In his autobiography, General Douglas MacArthur wrote: “I have always loved athletics and the spirit of competition moved me to participate in as many sports as possible. I became the quarterback on the eleven, the shortstop on the nine…[and] the tennis champion of the campus.” According to biographer William Manchester, “what…[MacArthur] achieved in sports he achieved by sheer stamina.” He was not a born athlete, but he was a tenacious competitor and developed a lifelong passion for sport in his youth.

As a teenager in 1893, MacArthur was sent to West Texas Military Academy. In his third year, he joined the football team. He sat the bench his first year on the team, but in his fourth and final year at the academy, he was the team’s quarterback. He was too slight to be imposing, but he impressed his teammates with his dogged determination to get the job done. According to a former West Texas teammate, the “scrimmages were hard on him. You could see his lips turn blue, but he would get up and fight again.” In his final year at West Texas, MacArthur led the team to an undefeated unscored upon season. This season marked the end of his career as a football player, but it ushered in nearly six decades of devotion to organized American athletics.

In 1899 MacArthur entered the US Military Academy at West Point. He played baseball, but as another MacArthur biographer, D. Clayton James, points out, at 5’11’’ and 135lbs, he “wisely did not try out for football.” Despite not playing on the Army football team, MacArthur served as team manager in 1902. During this time, he learned valuable lessons about the behind the scenes support required to ensure a team victory.

Graduating in 1903, MacArthur would go on to become a famous wartime leader. This fame eclipses his contributions to American sport, but it was these wartime experiences that further refined his vision of the importance of athletics and its place in American society.

Extensive combat experience in World War I led him to develop a profound belief that athletics was the best training ground for those who would face the real-world pressures of business or command. Sport requires split-second decisions, disciplined training, and the ability to win or cope with defeat. In MacArthur’s mind, this was the perfect environment to shape leaders – both on and off the field. He was convinced of “the value of organized group athletics in creating and maintaining morale” and in instilling shared values. He would write that the “effect upon the army at large of an extensive system of competitive sports, controlled by competent and well-prepared officers, cannot be overestimated.” It was the perfect system to teach individuals how to balance their unique talents with team objectives. He was also convinced that leaders needed to learn how to coach – to improve their ability to communicate and to learn to look out for the total welfare of those they led.

After World War I, he had an opportunity to put these beliefs into practice. Appointed Superintendent of West Point in 1919, MacArthur arrived at a school that was colloquially known as the Monastery on the Hudson. As an institution it had remained unchanged since the Civil War. He immediately embarked on a series of reforms designed to modernize the institution and make its graduates more prepared for modern command. The most popular of all the reforms involved athletics. Once voluntary, during MacArthur’s tenure athletics became a core part of the West Point experience. The justification for this new requirement was simple. Athletics taught leadership, mental and muscular coordination, and courage. MacArthur

believed that these qualities determined “the destiny of the intellect.” It was not enough for cadets to be book smart – they also needed to learn to work as teammates, and they needed exposure to adversity and pressure.

Nine intramural sports were started at West Point. MacArthur appointed a young officer, Matthew Ridgway, to be faculty director of this new program for athletics. Rivalries between cadet teams blossomed. Cadets even took to referring to the Intramural sports as “Intra-murder” sports because of the intensity of the competition. Always a competitor at heart, MacArthur relished this. While he opposed the brutality and bullying of hazing, he found organized sport as the perfect crucible. He composed the following quatrain and had it carved above the school gymnasium doors:

“Upon the fields of friendly strife

Are sown the seeds

That, upon other fields, on other days

Will bear the fruits of victory.”

Had he not been a professional soldier, MacArthur might have become a coach. As Superintendent, he frequently lurked on the edges of the football field during practices. The star of the team at that time was “Red” Blaik, a Third Team All American. In the first decades of college football, before teams fielded distinct defensive and offensive units, players that lined up on the ends of the line on both offense and defense were referred to simply as “ends.” Blaik was considered one of the best “ends” of his time. MacArthur took great interest in Blaik’s career and in the decades to come, both men would keep up a correspondence about football.

Douglas MacArthur and Earl Blaik

Credit: MacArthur Memorial

In 1919, MacArthur sent General John J. Pershing tickets to the Army/Navy game. He wrote to Pershing: “Army will turn out…a well-rounded team. The line is excellent, the ends good, and the backs fair, with a superb fighting spirit. It will not be a great team, but it will take a great

team to beat it.” During MacArthur’s tenure, Army never bested Navy. Despite this disappointing record, he laid the groundwork for future teams. He lobbied congressmen to appoint gifted athletes to West Point and this effort would pay dividends in the thirties and forties. Even after his departure from West Point in 1922, wherever he was stationed in the world, he would fire off messages and exhortations to the West Point coach. He would also astound his staff with his encyclopedic knowledge of college athletes, team strategies and lineups.

The US Olympic Team also benefited from MacArthur’s interest in sport. He had risen to prominence in athletic circles following the success of his intramural program. The program had even been adopted by the leading colleges of the country. When the president of the US Olympic Committee died shortly before the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, MacArthur was offered the job. A major general at the time, he immediately sought permission to accept the job from Army Chief of Staff Charles P. Summerall. General Summerall was a sports enthusiast himself and was more than willing to allow MacArthur to serve on detached duty for the duration of the Olympics. He was familiar with MacArthur’s theatricality and ability to charm, and he hoped that MacArthur’s involvement with the US Olympic Team would result in good publicity for the Army. With Summerall’s approval, MacArthur enthusiastically accepted the job.

USA Olympics

Credit: MacArthur Memorial

As Summerall hoped, American participation in the 1928 Olympics “was a MacArthur production.” MacArthur quickly solved a looming crisis between the AAU and the NCAA that would have jeopardized the participation of American athletes in the games and then accompanied the U.S. Olympic delegation aboard the SS Roosevelt to Amsterdam.

For the duration of the games, the Roosevelt served as the headquarters and home of Team USA which included a pre-Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller and thirteen year old diving sensation Dorothy Poynton. MacArthur appears prominently in many of the team photographs taken aboard the Roosevelt. As had happened with the men under his command in World War I, Team USA quickly became not just his responsibility, but his family. Team USA returned this affection, and the MacArthur Memorial archives contains letters from American athletes, managers, and officials from the 1928 Olympics – who by the 1940’s, were cheering on the General as he fought a different fight.

The games were not without drama. Controversy erupted during the women’s swimming competition when Hilda Schrader, a German champion swimmer, broke the shoulder straps of her bathing suit. She was forced to remain in the water until the suit could be adjusted. In the stands and in full view of the press corps, MacArthur made a show of averting his eyes. It was a titillating affair for the press who found women in sport to be objects of curiosity. As the leader of Team USA though, MacArthur seems to have looked at Team USA through one lens. Male or female – they were America’s athletes and he devoted his days to their success. No competition was insignificant to him.

During the competition, he also coached them – even if that was not his job. When the US boxing team nearly withdrew from their events because of what they perceived as unfair judging, the New York Times reported that MacArthur curtly informed the team manager: “American’s never quit.” Duly chastised, the boxing team remained in the competition and all four members made it to the quarter-finals.

MacArthur also spent time with everyone. It didn’t matter who it was: male or female, athlete or observer, fan or jaded sportswriter, royal or commoner, American or foreign – MacArthur was a sensation with all. Most clearly expected a boring, two-dimensional martinet. Instead, they all found him to be an articulate, well read, friendly, and cultured. His enthusiasm for the games endeared him to many.

According to biographer D. Clayton James, “he lived the glories and disappointments of the outcomes as intensely as any of the athletes.” During the 10,000 meter race, caught up in the excitement of the race, MacArthur leap out of the dignitaries’ box and ran all the way to the ribbon to be there when the victorious athlete crossed the finish line. When the U.S. rowing team was competing, MacArthur had his chauffer drive parallel to the river as they raced along – cheering the team along and experiencing the thrill of the competition with them.

When some US athletes did not initially do as well as expected – MacArthur called a team meeting. He later wrote:

“I rode them hard all along the line. Athletes are among the most

temperamental of all persons, but I stormed and pleaded and

cajoled. I told them we represented the greatest nation in the world,

that we were there to win, and win decisively.”

He also began to hold regular meetings with the various team managers. Few enjoyed these meetings. A sports writer reported that these meetings had a “chilling temperature as a bank directors meeting,” but that in the end, they “produced good results.”

When the games closed on August 12, 1928, the United States finished first in the medal count with 24 gold medals, 21 silver medals, and 17 bronze medals, followed by Finland in a distant

second, and Germany in third place. Team USA also held seventeen new Olympic records, and seven world records.

In his after action report to President Calvin Coolidge, MacArthur summed up his experience as President of the US Olympic Committee in his most flowery prose:

“I recall a passage in Plutarch wherein Themistocles, being asked whether

he would rather be Achilles or Homer replied: ‘Which would you rather

be, a conqueror in the Olympic Games or the crier who proclaims who are

conquerors? And indeed to portray adequately the vividness and brilliance

of that great spectacle would be worthy even of the pen of Homer.”

This description may seem overwrought, but to MacArthur, the sentiment was genuine.

Every year he became more convinced that sport was an essential part of the fabric of a free nation. He concluded his report to Coolidge with this sweeping vision of what sport meant for America:

“Athletic America is a telling phrase. It is talismanic. It suggests health and happiness. It arouses national pride and kindles anew the national spirit. In its fruition it means a more sturdy, a more self-reliant, a more self-helping people. It means therefore, a firmer foundation for our free institutions and a steadier, more determined hold on the future….Nothing is more synonymous of our national success than is our national success in athletics…”

Coolidge found MacArthur’s report perplexing and a little too dramatic. Nevertheless, MacArthur’s sentiments were appreciated by many. His quote about America and athletics would later be engraved on a panel in the Douglas MacArthur Room in the US Olympic House in New York City.

During World War II, MacArthur kept up with college football and fired off messages to “Red” Blaik who was by that time coach of the West Point football team. MacArthur was ecstatic in 1944 when Army defeated Navy for the first time since 1938. In response to this victory, MacArthur sent Blaik the following message: “The greatest of all Army teams. We have stopped the war to celebrate your magnificent success.” The message was vintage MacArthur hyperbole at its finest – but of his enthusiasm for the win, there can be no doubt.

During the Occupation of Japan, MacArthur again turned to sport as an invaluable tool in the real world. He was very aware of the cultural importance of baseball to both the USA and Japan and he worked hard to create an atmosphere within the Occupation that allowed baseball diplomacy to bridge the gap between the former enemies. Baseball did not come to Japan because of MacArthur, but he had a great deal to do with its return and revitalization. Sport, he found, was cross culturally beneficial.

After MacArthur’s dismissal during the Korean War, he became an even greater advocate for athletics. He also continued to correspond with “Red” Blaik about the Army team. In 1951, a cheating scandal rocked the Army football team. The cadets involved in the cheating were dismissed by a Presidential Order. Thirty-seven of those cadets were football players – mainly singled out because they knew about the cheating and did not report it. “Red” Blaik’s son, then starting quarterback for the Army team, was one of the cadets dismissed.

The scandal shook the Korean War off the front page of many newspapers and captured the attention of Army brass and President Harry S. Truman. Under fire, Blaik drove to New York City to seek the counsel of MacArthur. Explaining the situation, Blaik asked MacArthur if he should resign as coach. MacArthur vehemently protested, telling him to stay on, and that he should never “leave under fire.” Blaik stayed on as coach and during the difficult rebuilding

seasons of 1951 and 1952, MacArthur continued to encourage him to resist calls for his resignation. Below average seasons were difficult to bear, but sticking to values was the key tenet of MacArthur’s concept of sport. It paid off. In 1953, a new West Point team rebounded with a record of 7-1-1, including a win over Navy.

MacArthur’s faith in Blaik was well founded. In his career, Blaik would coach three Heisman trophy winners and eleven Hall of Fame players. But his dynasty would not end there. Twenty of his assistant coaches would go on to become head coaches – including Vince Lombardi – the namesake for the Super Bowl Trophy.

MacArthur wasn’t finished yet thought. Towards the end of his life, his country would call on him again – to use his passion for sport and his status as a veteran statesman to yet again save American sport from crisis. At the request of President John F. Kennedy, an 82 year old MacArthur was asked to solve yet another dispute between the AAU and the NCAA that threatened to derail U.S. participation in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. Acknowledging his great contribution to American sport, all sides agreed to his mediation and soon came to an agreement. According to President Kennedy, MacArthur’s participation in this process made American participation in the Tokyo Olympics possible – at a time in American history when a victory in the Olympics meant a victory in the Cold War.

MacArthur’s legacy to American sport continues. Every year since 1959, the National Football Foundation has awarded the MacArthur Trophy to the best NCAA Division I college football team. The 400oz silver trophy was designed by Tiffany’s and was a gift of an anonymous donor in honor of General MacArthur. Like the Stanley Cup, the MacArthur trophy is one of a kind,

and is kept by the winner for a year. MacArthur’s famous quote “There is no substitute for victory” is engraved on the trophy. Since 1998 and the advent of BCS games, this trophy has been awarded to the winner of the BCS National Championship game.

In addition, since 1965, the Norfolk Sports Club of Norfolk, VA has presented the General Douglas MacArthur Award to a graduate of a Virginia High school who is recognized as an outstanding athlete in a college or university program. Past recipients have included Curtis Strange, Ralph Sampson, Bruce Smith, Mia Hamm, Dre Bly, and Heath Miller.

MacArthur is mostly remembered as a military leader, and few today remember his contributions to American sport. His interest in athletics was both personal and professional. A competitor at heart, he simply loved athletics and found it one of the greatest outlets and accomplishments of mankind. As a professional soldier, he recognized the practical benefit of athletics on leadership and citizenship.

In 1959, the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame presented MacArthur with its Gold Medal Award for his contributions to college football. On receiving the award, the General explained: “In war and peace, I have found football men to be my greatest reliance.”1 He said football, but as he demonstrated throughout his career, whatever the sport, athletes and coaches were people he greatly admired.

1 Earl Blaik, You Have to Pay the Price, 39.

Article and all photographs provided by the MacArthur Memorial.