A Good Loser Is No Good

Robert Zuppke? Red Grange? Harry Gaspar? Robert Haven Schauffler? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Traditionally, displaying good sportsmanship and being a gracious loser has been extolled. Yet, a harsher and more controversial perspective has inspired an acerbic family of mottoes. Here are three examples:

  • A good loser is no good.
  • A good loser is a perennial loser.
  • A good loser is still a loser.

Would you please explore the history of the first saying?

Quote Investigator: In 1924 a newspaper in Santa Ana, California discussed prominent sports figure Robert Zuppke who won multiple national championships while he was the football coach at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The newspaper reprinted quotations from Zuppke that originally appeared in a magazine article. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

In the Nov. 8 issue of Liberty, Zuppke speaks his mind in part as follows:

“When I say that a good loser is no good I am merely making a statement that every American, whether in sport or in business, knows is true if he will stop and think. It is not commendable or desirable to be a good loser.”

Coach Zuppke further elaborated on the topic; he wanted intense efforts from his players:

“It is my experience that all quitters are good losers. The right kind of player must have a fear and horror of losing. If he hasn’t he will not tap his reserve energy in a game.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1904 “Life” magazine printed a prayer containing a traditional positive usage of the term “good loser”: 2

Help me to win, if win I may; but—and this, O Powers! especially—if I may not win, make me a good loser.

In May 1911 a precursor saying was employed by Harry Gaspar who was a member of Cincinnati Reds baseball team based in Ohio. Gaspar was describing his manager Clark Griffith: 3

“Griffith is a prince among managers,” said Harry Gaspar while playing hearts after breakfast this morning. “I have never worked for a better manager, and never want to. He is a hard loser, and that is one reason I admire him. Show me a good loser and I will show you a darn fool.

There is a natural tension between being a “good loser” and a “hard loser”. Yet, the writer Robert Haven Schauffler believed that the two types of losers could be combined as indicated in his article titled “What Is Sportsmanship?” in “The Outlook” in November 1911: 4

Though the sportsman is a good loser, however, he is a precious hard loser. He battles till the last trench. He never says die.

In November 1924 Zuppke criticized the notion of a “good loser” as mentioned previously. Also in November, a columnist in Joplin, Missouri attributed the saying under examination to Zuppke. The phrase “apple sauce” in this context meant “nonsense”: 5

Nine times out of ten when you hear an athletic coach or player being referred to as a “good loser” you can put it down as apple sauce. In the words of Bob Zuppke, “a good loser is no good.” The famous old Illinois coach never spoke truer words of wisdom when he made that statement.

In December 1924 a newspaper in Charlotte, North Carolina printed a section for high school journalists, and the sports reporter credited Zuppke with the saying: 6

Coach Bob Zuppke of Illinois says, “A good loser is no good.” Zuppke has this placard on the walls of his gymnasium, dressing rooms, and his office. The Illinois mentor states that a man that is a good loser has his soul and mind on something other than the game.

In 1929 “The Brooklyn Daily Times” of New York published a collection of Zuppkeisms including the following three: 7

  • A good football player is just human, a framework with intestines draped inside like a pretzel.
  • A good loser is no good.
  • What counts most is guts.

In 1935 the famous American football player Harold ‘Red’ Grange published a piece in “The Rotarian” about college football: 8

It is supposed to teach good sportsmanship. Again the definition of the term is involved. If playing fairly, but giving no quarter and asking none, is good sportsmanship then I’m for it, “hook, line and sinker!” If it means losing gracefully and painlessly then you can have it. One of the epigrams of my old coach, “Bob” Zuppke, who is a good Rotarian, was: “A good loser is no good.” I, too, prefer a die-hard.

In 1937 Red Grange published the book “Zuppke of Illinois” which included the quotation from Zuppke together with an explanation: 9

“A good loser is no good!” Zup once remarked and recently I reminded him of the epigram, hoping that it might touch him off on one of his favorite subjects, the psychology of football.

“That statement has to be qualified,” Zup said. “A boy who is basically a good loser, is satisfied to lose and won’t fight hard to win. The boy I value on my squad is the one who hates to lose, prepares not to lose, and burns up inside when he does lose. Note that I said he burns up inside. Externally, he should lose gracefully enough, congratulate the opponent if necessary, but all the time he should feel deep down in his bones that if the contest were to be repeated, he’d win.”

In conclusion, Robert Zuppke should receive credit for the expression under exploration. He used the phrase within a 1924 magazine article. He was also quoted in a biographical work in 1937.

Image Notes: Self-satisfied winner standing on a platform with two others from 3dman_eu at Pixabay.

(Thanks to researchers Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro who wrote about this family of sayings in “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” from Yale University Press. Thanks also to researcher Barry Popik who explored this topic on his website. Additional thanks to discussants Jonathan Lighter and Dan Goncharoff. Special thanks to Bill Mullins who located the May 8, 1911 citation.)

Update History: On June 28, 2019 the citations dated May 8, 1911 and November 11, 1911 were added to the article.

Notes:

  1. 1924 November 6, Santa Ana Register, Section 3: Sporting News, West Winds: Here and There in Local Sports by Eddie West, Quote Page 17, Column 3, Santa Ana, California. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1904 June 2, Life, Volume 43, A Prayer by Eliza Atkins Stone, Quote Page 529, Column 2, Published at the Life Office, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1911 May 8, The Cincinnati Post, Griffith Will Buy a Hat for Every Member of Red Team by Ros, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Cincinnati, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1911 November 11, The Outlook: A Weekly Newspaper, Volume 99, What Is Sportsmanship? by Robert Haven Schauffler, Start Page 622, Quote Page 625, Column 2, The Outlook Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1924 November 23, Joplin Globe, Talking it Over With L. H. A.: Good Losers, Quote Page 10, Column 5, Joplin, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1924 December 7, Charlotte Sunday Observer, Section: The Observer Junior, Talking Things Over by Wade Ison (Sports Editor Central High), Quote Page 3, Column 3, Charlotte, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1929 October 7, The Brooklyn Daily Times (Brooklyn Times Union), Section: Sports, Gridiron Greats by Joe Godfrey Jr., Quote Page 2A, Column 4, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1935 October, The Rotarian, Volume 47, Number 4, Paths To Glory by Harold ‘Red’ Grange, Start Page 11, Quote Page 13, Column 1, Rotary International, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1937, Zuppke of Illinois by Harold E. (Red) Grange, Chapter 6: The Psychology of Football, Quote Page 47, A. L. Glaser Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Internet Archive at archive.org)