The Complicated Legacy Of Pioneering Football Coach Amos Alonzo Stagg

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Amos Alonzo Stagg was a pioneering coach in football and baseball. In his later years, he used his platform to fight for an unexpected cause. (AP/Joe Rosenthal)
Amos Alonzo Stagg was a pioneering coach in football and baseball. In his later years, he used his platform to fight for an unexpected cause. (AP/Joe Rosenthal)

When he began reading about one of the most influential coaches ever to have presided on the gridiron, Paul Putz was pursuing his Ph.D. thesis, which had to do with, as he puts it, “the blending of sports and Christianity.” He did a lot of his research in the library at the University of Chicago, where Amos Alonzo Stagg had coached football from 1892 until 1932.

"You’re sitting in a quiet room. It’s often a very cold room," Putz says. "You’re sitting on a hard, wooden bench from, you know, 9:00 a.m., as soon as the library opens, until close. Day after day, you’re just looking through old documents. But you have to look through every single last one of the documents, 'cause you might miss something."

And there was a lot to look through, because Coach Stagg lived for a very long time.

"So, he’s born when Abraham Lincoln is president, before the emancipation proclamation. He lives to see the Civil Rights Act legislation pass," Putz says.

A Man And Leader Of His Time

When Amos Alonzo Stagg began his 40-year tenure as the football coach at the University of Chicago, he was introducing to the Midwest a game that had been pretty much entirely the property of the East, and a particular slice of the East at that.

"It’s an Anglo-Saxon, elite game that was intended for the Ivy League colleges at Princeton and Yale and Harvard," Putz says. "And those schools start playing football because they want to strengthen Anglo-Saxon manhood and make sure that the men who come out of those schools, who are going to lead the nation, make sure that they have these traits of physical masculinity and bravery."

Paul Putz found that Coach Stagg bought into that conviction that football was for white future leaders.

"In the 1920s, an African-American newspaper reporter asks Stagg about his views on black athletes playing football," Putz says. "And Stagg, he talks about how there are successful black athletes in track and so on. But he says they lack the courage and bravery to play football."

Paul Putz wasn’t surprised. Well before he’d started poring over papers at the University of Chicago, he knew that so-called "muscular Christianity" was comfortable with the exclusion of blacks from lots of endeavors. Stagg was a man of his times, and those times had begun before Lincoln freed the slaves.

But the telegram Paul Putz found next in the archives did surprise him.

"I open up the folder that contains his correspondence with Henry Stimson and I immediately perked up, because I knew, ‘Oh, this is a famous figure,'" Putz says.

Henry Stimson served as Secretary of War under presidents William Howard Taft, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

"There’s this telegram that Stagg had fired off to Stimson and it says explicitly, 'Since you were responsible for sending Japanese Americans to internment camps in the first place, will you send a message of support for returning Japanese Americans to Stockton?' And when I saw that telegram, it did surprise me," Putz says. "It definitely sparked a real interest in figuring out that story."

That story began more than 100 years ago, when Coach Stagg did something that in one respect was genuinely progressive, even revolutionary. He took his University of Chicago baseball team to Japan.

"This is sort of an unprecedented activity, to take a college team, go on a tour that’s going to take up almost a quarter of the school year," Putz says. "But Stagg does this in 1910, takes a trip to Japan. He does it again in 1915 and then in 1920, in 1925, and so there’s four trips to Japan that Stagg takes. Ultimately, it leads Stagg to develop some friendships and relationships with the Japanese citizens that he meets."

One of those citizens was an aspiring coach named Heita Okabe, who later visited Stagg in Chicago. The two men developed a friendship that would last for half a century, enduring the interruption of the Second World War. Much of their correspondence was conducted by letters like this one, which Stagg sent in May of 1930:

Last year’s class has brought in many boys who are athletically inclined, more than for several years past. I hope that I will not pass on until we have recovered most of the prestige in athletics which the University of Chicago once had.

Coach Stagg would not pass on for more than three decades. But as it happened, two years after he wrote that letter, Stagg left the University of Chicago. It wasn’t his idea. He was 70. His superiors felt he was too old.

Stagg's Campaign For Equality

College of the Pacific in Stockton, California disagreed. Stagg coached there until 1946, meaning, of course, that he was in California when President Roosevelt decided that Americans of Japanese descent represented a potential danger to the U.S. and established internment camps.

One of the enthusiastic architects of that policy was Henry Stimson, Roosevelt’s Secretary of War. He’d also been Coach Stagg’s classmate and good friend at Yale, and the two had continued to correspond. All of which might not have mattered particularly to Ph.D. candidate Paul Putz if his laborious search through Stagg’s papers at the University of Chicago hadn’t turned up that telegram Stagg had sent to Stimson in April of 1945, shortly after the president suspended the internment order:

On April 15, I am presiding at a large meeting for discussion of the resettlement of Japanese-Americans of this community. Since the War Department was responsible for their withdrawal from California, I would deeply appreciate you telegraphing me a brief statement endorsing our endeavors for fair play for those returning.

"Ultimately, Stimson decides not to send a personal letter of support," Putz says. "So Stimson, instead, he sends along a canned statement from the War Department that talks about fair play for Japanese-Americans and that sort of thing."

I know you will understand how sorry I am to disappoint you.

Warmest personal regards,

Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War

If he was disappointed, Coach Stagg didn’t leave any written evidence of it. He took what he could get, and he ran with it. Or, more precisely, he used it in a community meeting he attended. And in his next communication with Secretary Stimson, Stagg is clear about the purpose of the meeting and its result.

"He tells Stimson how the meeting went," Putz says.

After refreshing myself on the Constitution, at the end of the meeting, I introduced the following resolution, which was unanimously approved:

'Whereas, by the constitution of the United States, all persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens of the United States, and whereas, by the Constitution of the United States, all citizens of the United States are guaranteed the rights of life, liberty and property, we citizens of this community, holding a common belief in democracy and the ideals of fair play and desiring to create the unity and mutual understandings resulting from a common citizenship, wish to insure the returning Japanese-Americans their rightful privileges as citizens.”

Coach Stagg would find other allies in his quest, including one fellow who had amassed considerable authority since he had been Stagg’s student — and a competitive race walker — at the University of Chicago. When the local chapter of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in Stockton made it clear that Japanese-Americans would not be welcome when they returned to the community, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes sent a telegram supporting his fellow citizens — all of them.

"And when Stagg sees Ickes’s telegram, he brings that telegram to one of these, the meetings of his citizens group, he reads it to the group," Putz explains, "He uses this to sort of give them encouragement and to let them know, 'Hey, even if locally, in Stockton, we’re getting opposition, we have the support of Harold Ickes. We have the support of others who defend the cause we’re supporting.'"

After Stagg’s successful meeting, he got in touch with his old friend to tell him about his efforts in Stockton. Ickes, who had opposed the establishment of the internment camps, was delighted:

I have always felt that all that the people needed was the right kind of leadership, and you can furnish that in your community.

It’s interesting to note that by the time Stagg was calling these meetings, waving around these telegrams and letters from members of the administration, and leading the campaign to accept into his community citizens who’d been deprived of their liberty and stripped of their property, Stagg was 82 years old. He’d found a cause that transcended athletics, and he’d embraced it with all the energy of a linebacker tying up the man with the ball. And for Stagg, it was personal, as Paul Putz discovered when he began reading about another of Stagg’s former players.

"Lou Tsunekawa plays football for Stagg from 1936-1938, then goes off and fights in World War II," Putz says. "He’s actually wounded in France in 1944. So Tsunekawa is sent back to the United States in 1945. And one of the first things that Tsunekawa does when he returns to the United States is he sends Stagg, his old coach, a postcard. Stagg writes back a letter."

Dear Tsune: You speak of convalescing at Ft. Lewis. I hope that does not mean that you are still suffering from your wounds.

"And it’s really a tragic letter to read, because here’s this Japanese-American soldier who was wounded fighting for the United States in France. And Stagg has to write him as he’s sitting in a hospital and has to tell him that, 'you probably shouldn’t come back to Stockton right now, because right now I’m organizing this campaign to try to defend Japanese-American citizens, and if you came back, you probably wouldn’t be welcome,'" Putz says.

I certainly hope you make a good recovery. Mrs. Stagg joins me in warm regards and many good wishes.

Two years later, in 1947, Stagg was able to resume his correspondence with his fellow coach, the Japanese visitor whom Stagg had tutored in the arts of football when Stagg was coaching in Chicago. Heita Okabe’s news from Japan was hard for Stagg to hear:

My only son went to die in the defensive air battle at April 12, 1945. Now my family are only three. My wife is 50 years old, daughter is 21 and myself 67 this September. Our daily life sad, hard, miserable. Only hope of peoples is in reliance of the good policy of the U.S.A.

Stagg's Legacy

"You know, I originally thought that these letters that I found as I was doing my research — that I would hold on to them and I would wait for the dissertation," Putz says. "But as I was watching the election take place, and the rhetoric, and then as I saw athletes like Colin Kaepernick speak out against racism in sports, and using their platform in that way. And as I saw the reaction against athletes like Kaepernick doing that, it really seemed to me that this speaks to the moment that we’re in right now."

These days Colin Kaepernick’s gesture feels like old news, as do the similar gestures of various other football players, as well as basketball players and soccer players.

"As I was watching the election take place, and the rhetoric, and then as I saw athletes like Colin Kaepernick speak out against racism in sports ... it really seemed to me that this speaks to the moment that we’re in right now."

Paul Putz

The protests are bigger now, and noisier, and they’re not limited to playing fields. They’re in the airports, they’re in the streets.

But the story of Amos Alonzo Stagg’s energetic defense of the rights of Japanese-Americans 72 years ago provides another reminder — perhaps a more hopeful reminder — of a particular truth. This man who, in the 1920s, confidently said that black athletes lacked the “courage and bravery” to play football couldn’t have known many black athletes at the time.

He did come to know — and know well — various Japanese and Japanese-Americans, and getting to know them convinced him that — at a time when his conviction was attacked and ridiculed — they were precisely as entitled as anybody else to be treated by everybody else as equals.

This segment aired on February 18, 2017.


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Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



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