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4-H and Sports & Fitness


Like many other areas of 4-H, sports, recreation and fitness have transitioned over the decades, leaving behind an interesting history. That illustrious history shows that sports was a part of 4-H activities going back to the first clubs in some states, yet never became part of 4-H in others. Wrestling matches, bowling leagues, basketball teams were all popular. Competitive sports were particularly big in 4-H during the decades of the 1930's, '40s and '50s with many local clubs having both basketball teams and softball teams. It was a good way to retain older teens, particularly boys, in the program.

During the 1960's, sports transitioned into "recreation" programs of all types, and by the 1980's the popular term was "fitness."

Regardless of whether we are talking about sports, recreation or fitness, it was a popular segment of 4-H in many states both at the club level and in the camping programs. The leader magazine, National 4-H News, carried a number of stories relating to these areas, however beyond these records very little history has been documented.

The rooters and onlookers were tense for the 1947 4-H softball finals of the Illinois Sports Festival. Batter is William Binger of the Adams County champion team, and catcher Don Hinshaw of the McLean County champion team which won the tournament. (from National 4-H News, October 1947.)

Sports in Early 4-H Work

The November 1921 issue of Farm Boys and Girls Leader encourages young people to engage in sports during their winter club meetings to stay healthy and active. Wrestling, basketball, volleyball, indoor baseball and other sports are suggested. "Play some games no matter what kind. Test your strength and your skill with your associates. Keep your body in balance with your mind and then you will be 100 percent efficient. This world has little use or place for the boy or girl who lacks pep and ambition. Exercise in the open air, play games and be on your toes for what ever job is before you."

The following issue, January, 1922, carried a major photo feature on wrestling and encouraged county agents to consider offering boys' wrestling matches after the club business meetings were completed.

An article in the July 1922 Farm Boys and Girls Leader reports that leaders of boys' clubs in several states are organizing baseball clubs and are playing under the name of their club. They wear the club cap and where possible secure green and white uniforms. The article encouraged both boys and girls clubs in other areas to organize similar community sports through their clubs... including baseball, tennis, rifle practice, boating, hiking, swimming, fishing and cycling.

4-H Sports Team Competitions

Particularly during the decades of the 1930's, 40's and 50's, sports and fitness were important parts of the 4-H program with many local clubs having basketball teams and softball teams with competitive 4-H leagues at the county level and even state competitions.

As reported in the National 4-H Club News, the basketball fever got so high in Iowa this past season that 19 counties sent teams to the first state meet sponsored by the Blackhawk County Farm Bureau and County Agent A. J. Marken, and held in the new Waterloo YMCA building. The Muscatine and Blackhawk teams played the final match, the former winning by 22 to 21 in a game that had the onlookers roaring.

The project has aroused wide interest among club folks. It is likely to be continued. The "Y" officials called the 4-H teams the finest lot of sportsmen ever to use the building. There was not one case of "crabbing". It is interesting to note the calibre of the winning team, a fine clean-cut lot of boys.

All of the boys in the tournament had good club records and two were presidents of their clubs. E. Rogers, club leader of the winning Muscatine team, and also its coach, said "I think the contest has a great value for counties taking part as it can be used to stimulate membership and health work. I would caution against enrolling new members because of their athletic ability alone."

A feature in the October 1947 issue of National 4-H News reports on the 4-H softball competition at the Illinois Sports Festival at the University of Illinois in Urbana (See top photo of this section). Both boys 4-H clubs and girls 4-H clubs have organized teams all over the state, arranging match games with other 4-H clubs in the area, sometimes from the adjoining county. All over Illinois the summer softball games are regular weekly entertainment for farm and village folks, and in many places everyone went. Around 300 4-H softball teams played in Illinois during the summer of 1947 involving 4,000 4-H'ers, and 69 of these teams were in the finals at the university.

As reported, "The playing of these nines was something to watch. Many teamed up like professionals. Pitchers were fast, and often as interesting as big leaguers. Errors were few and far between. In the tighter games competition was red hot. Home folks, old and young, jammed the side lines, and had to be pushed back time and again. Rooters were as vociferous as at any big league ball game."

Even at the county levels, the energy and enthusiasm runs high. Over 2,500 people saw the Macoupin county final game which was featured at the county Farm Bureau picnic and 4-H stock show, with eight teams competing.

The coach of team representing Adams county, Elmer Cornwell, when asked if he felt the softball program interfered with other 4-H project work, responded that some folks thought a little too much emphasis was placed on it, but he believed it was a help to strengthen 4-H work. Other sponsors of the game took a similar view. The Winnebago county Farm Bureau people belong so strongly in the game program they plan to make one of the finest athletic grounds in the State, covering 24 acres.

The article continued, "What the game can mean in a youth program was illustrated by the Festival boy champions, the Hudson nine from McLean county. These boys were marvels in the perfection of their playing, their teamwork and sportsmanship. Their morale was unwavering, even though they played six hard games in the two days, using the same pitcher, Bob Zimmerman throughout.

"In the five years the Hudson team has been playing and building up its machine the members have learned lessons in working together which will help to pull them through tight spots in later life.

"Coach and leader Harry Wierman, gas distributor, said No. 1 rule is not to let the boys get into arguments, and they did not at any time in the finals; Herschel Adams is co-manager of the team.

"All of the boys have good 4-H records covering five years, stated Wierman, and he believes the game has definitely kept many boys in 4-H work. Several have carried on in college.

"As their reward for winning Wierman promised the boys a trip to Chicago to see a big league baseball game."

Another county story from 1947 relates to the popular 4-H Winter Sports Festival in St. Louis County, Minnesota. On the Canadian border, the county has 112 4-H Clubs. Under the direction of H. J. Aase, county 4-H agent, the strong winter sports program offsets the county's summer camping program. Offering a variety of sports and activities including skiing and jumping, ice skating, toboggan slides and broom ball, thousands turn out to participate in the 4-H Winter Sports Festival. The leaders firmly believe in the winter outing, realizing that club work is not all just work. The young participants meet new friends at the Festival and work diligently in their projects throughout the year so they can go again.

The March 1949 issue of National 4-H News carries a full page advertisement from the United States Rubber Company, donor of the National 4-H Recreation and Rural Arts Program, offering a 4-H Club Handbook on Baseball and Softball. The handbook was prepared under the direction of Frank Leahy, famous Notre Dame head coach, having played tackle on Knute Rockne's last three teams at Notre Dame. As coach, he lead Notre Dame to three national championships during the 1940's.

The Place of Sports in 4-H Work

In a feature article in the June 1966 National 4-H News - nearly 50 years ago - Frank Graham, Chairman, Extension Youth Developmnt, University of Missouri, builds a case for why 4-H should be an integral part of a strong 4-H program. As told to Elwood Shaffer, Editor, Graham says:

Sports can make a real contribution to the 4-H program, if they are kept in proper perspective. Competitive sports and recreation help participants to devlop a wholesome interest in physical activities, of course. But besides that, they can develop such positive mental traits as:

Joy     Self decipline
Enthusiasm     Sociability
Self-confidence     Teamwork
Persistence     Health procedures

These activities can also tach wise and constructive use of leisure time, and an understanding of one's own aptitudes or limitations.

Missouri county 4-H programs include athletic competition in various forms. One county has been operating a 4-H softball league since 1947. Another has a baseball league, another a basketball tournament, another a bowling league.

These activities help boys and girls in the following specific ways, I believe:

Sports help make young people well rounded. They develop physically, mentally, morally and socially. As a nation, we are falling short of top physical condition, the experts say. We need more exercise, and 4-H can help. Mental development comes from sports in the form of alertness and good reactions and reflexes. Learning good sportsmanship is a moral gain, I feel, and learning to win or lose gracefully develops boys and girls socially.

Sports can contribute to good citizenship by teaching teamwork, cooperation and democratic participation. They also teach leadership, a useful trait in a good citizen. I'd like to point out here that sports and recreation can teach all these benefits to ALL boys and girls, not necessarily just to champions of varsity athletes.

Sports give young people an intelligent view of competition itself. This is a competitive world we live in. If you compete in sports, you get a better view of the way things are in adult life. We learn in sports that if we are operating at only 10 or 20 percent efficiency, we just aren't in the running.

Sports teach youngsters that in group activities, they should make contributions in areas where they are most capable. 4-H'ers find out in athletics when and how to contribute. And the lesson of cooperation is strong, because youngsters realize in competition that their strengths are other people's weaknesses and vice versa.

Sports teach enjoyment - an essential factor in mental health and relaxation. A person in good physical condition doesn't wear down as easily; this eases mental fatigue.

Through the teaching of courage, self discipline and persistence, sports give participants a different view of all tasks - an attitude that a job CAN be done rather than a search for reasons why it can't be.

Sports are a springboard to participation in other educational activities of 4-H. One of our youth agents in Missouri declares that nothing is more successful in involving fathers in 4-H initially than sports. Then those dads move into other positions of leadership and activity. Our agents have seen whole families move into other phases of the 4-H program - mothers and daughters included - through interest in 4-H sports. The fact is that the broader we make our 4-H program, the more chances we have to interest a youngster and his entire family.

Let me point out that although competitive sports greatly benefit those who take part, ALL 4-H'ers and other citizens need to do some exercise, even if it's just a regular program of calisthenics.

Should 4-H take a hand in the physical development of boys and girls? Or should this be left to the schools and other youth agencies? I feel that physical fitness is each person's own responsibility. 4-H is at its best when it supplements the good programs of school, home and church. But we never read where people are getting too much physical conditioning. More is needed, and 4-H can contribute.

Of course, the other benefits to young people taking part in 4-H sports, as I've listed them above, make athletics a valuable part of our program in addition to the physical conditioning.

[As a Missouri high school boy, Graham played varsity baseball and basketball. He turned down a chance to play professional baseball in order to attend college. At the University of Missouri, he was a pitcher on two conference championship teams. He almost signed a contract with the old St. Louis Browns after his second year of college, but decided to graduate instead. After a little Extension work, he went into service during World War II, teaching physical training to paratroopers and pitching baseball at Ft. Benning, Georgia. After the war, Graham again turned down an offer to play professional baseball and went back into Extension work as a life career. He did officiate in high school and college basketball until 1954.]

4-H Sports Transitions Into Recreation Programs

During the 1950s and 1960s, while sports was still an important element in some 4-H programs, they were slowly transitioning into the broader concepts of recreational activities.

In some states, clubs had a designated recreation leader as one of their primary officers. New York, as one example, offered regional recreation workshops for these designated officers - each workshop usually involving the recreation leaders from clubs in four or five counties... sometimes going over an entire weekend. Usually at the close of the workshops the 4-H agent or adult leaders present at the workshop would sit down with the recreation leaders from clubs in their county and develop an action plan for recreation activities for the following year. These included such things as:

  1. Recreation at own club meetings.
  2. Recreation at council meetings (On county reported great success with pre-business recreation programs.)
  3. Training club recreation laders for officers training schools.
  4. Club recreation leader workshops. Junior leaders conduct recreation training sessions at county level.
  5. Leading singing at leaders' association dinners, achievement nights, council meetings, dress revues, officers training schools, camp, etc.
  6. Conducting game sessions at camp.
  7. Conducting recreation sessions and parties for other organizations. (At the request of a PTA, one group of junior leaders entertained 400 elementary school children for several hours.)
  8. Community playground program. (One junior leader conducted a summer playground program for the children of the crossroads community where she lives.)
  9. Recreation leadership demonstrations at State Exposition (young people from several counties who had demonstrated considerable interest and skills at the workshops were invited to plan and conduct two-hour programs at State Exposition as a leadership and activity demonstration. Part of their training included the teaching of new group games.)

By the mid-1960's, National 4-H News was carrying a monthly department in their leader magazine called "Recreation." In 1967 the major feature in four consecutive issues - January, February, March and April - highlighted "Sources for Recreation," a valuable series authored by R. B. "Dick" Tomkinson, Extension Specialist in 4-H Club Work, Kansas State University. His series highlights hundreds of references for sources of information relating to every form of recreation... along with where to obtain a copy.

In his series' intro Tomkinson says, "perhaps the simplest definition of recreation is what the little boy said: `It's what you do when you don't have to.'

"Recreation is some activitity you enjoy doing for relaxation, for a change of pace, or for fun. Therfore almost any activity can be recreation or work, depending upon your attitude."

Tomkinson continues, "Here are five ways to include recreation in 4-H:

  1. Encourage recreation as part of the club meetings. Include games, songs, stunts, skits and folk dancing to make the meeting more enjoyable.
  2. Encourage special parties and events - skating party, special holiday party, outing at a lake or camp, cookout, banquet. These help members become better acquainted and build friendship among 4-H'ers and their families.
  3. Encourage 4-H members to take part in 4-H competition that involves recreation skills such as one-act plays, musical games, instrumental or vocal ensembles, and talent contests.
  4. Encourage 4-H'ers to enroll in projects that may lead to a lifetime hobby. Many of the 4-H projects that boys and girls carry can develop into a career such as photography, but the project may also become an interesting hobby. Woodworking, gardening, horse, reading and other projects will increase the 4-H'ers knowledge and skill and may lad to a lifetime recreational pursuit.
  5. Encourage special interest groups in 4-H. If members show an interest in some recreation activity such as archery, swimming or hunting, help them find the necessary leadership and encourage training or special sessions to develop this interest. In Kansas, one county has developed a leathercraft project. Another county has a tropical fish project and a third has a sportsman project. Some clubs have organized special training in gun handling safety and marksmanship, swimming and water safety, and square dancing."

Earlier, in 1966, three consecutive issues had major features on "Leisure and Human Values," balancing a combination of work and play for individual fulfillment. While sports and other activities were all a part of this, the emphasis seemed to center more on the individual... selecting leisure activities that personally brought you fun and happiness, be it painting, traveling, gardening, arts and crafts, reading... whatever YOU enjoy doing. We feel better about ourselves AND others when we are most happy and having an A appropriate balance between work and leisure is a positive road to happiness. This really seemed to be a strong, integral part of the whole 4-H program tying in the four H's - head, heart, hands and health.

During the decade of the 1960s, National 4-H News carried dozens of features on various types of recreational activities going on at the club level. What did these include... Bird walks, building nature trails, archery, ice skating and roller skating parties, square dancing, fishing derbies, playing horseshoes, rifle safety and accuracy, hobbies, even 4-H ski trips.

The January 1968 issue of National 4-H News carries a feature on three 4-H ski clubs in Somrset County, New Jersey. Found as a way to attract and hold the interest of older 4-H teenagers, the clubs (still less than three years old) boasts a combined membership of about 200 active and enthusiastic 4-H skiers.

Starting in the early 1960's, Morrow County, Oregon had several 4-H archery clubs - the Frontier Archers and the Desert Archers of Irrigon being two of them. Elmer Zehmer, one of the adult leaders, explained that "safety with bow and arrow is just as important as gun safety," hence the club activities combined recreation and safety as their prime objectives.

In Litchfield County, Conncticut the 4-H Aqua Queens did audience performances of water ballet and the Aqua Nuts presented water comedy shows.

Most people use those long limber canes for fishing. 4-H'ers in Franklin County, Tennessee have their own idea for using the canes; they do a series of intricate steps as the canes are bumped on the floor and against each other to a rhythmic beat. Cane jumping is thought to have originated in the Philippines. The Cane Jumpers are divided into two groups - the beaters and the jumpers. Not only is cane jumping recreational but it provides excellent bonding between the participants over the course of practicing and performing. The Cane Jumpers have also become local celebrities, performing at the National Folk Festival twice, at National 4-H Congress in Chicago and a number of other events.

The Jefferson 4-H Club in Frederick County, Maryland hosted their first annual 4-H Fishing Derby in 1963. The 4-H anglers fished 75 minutes from the word "Go" and prizes were provided to both the boys and the girls who caught the first fish, the largest fish, and the most fish.

Bicycle rodeos were also becoming popular in many counties as part of the 4-H bicycle program.

4-H'ers in Polk County, Iowa combined recreation with fund raising, promoting and hosting 4-H roller skating parties at the West Grand Rollercade in Des Moines. In a February 1960 National 4-H News article on their activity, they reported over 500 people attending their last skating party the previous month, on a Monday night! The rink manager offers 4-H a greatly reduced admission price and allows 4-H to set a higher price to raise funds for trips and other needs.

4-H roller skating parties and bowling parties were popular all over the country during the 1950s and 1960s.

The 4-H Art Club in Gardnerville, Nevada is a good example of a specialized recreation club started in the 1960's with 20 members. The club leaders help the members individually to do the types of drawing they like most. As Geraldine Lawrence, county art leader for 4-H clubs explains in a 1968 feature, "drawing skills can and should be taught. There are times when a 4-H'er needs to know them, but wait until he knows h doesn't know them. Don't teach him a skill he doesn't want. From there on help him to see for himself."

As 4-H international exchange programs became popular and were expanding during the 1960s, favorite games from other lands was a concept that fit nicely into the club's recreation program - Rope Throw from Korea, Putung, Putung from China, Luta De Galho (The Chicken Fight) from Brazil, and Lalamlali from India. Other clubs - like the Winnemucca 4-H Club in Humboldt County, Nevada, learned how to perform dances from the Old Country.

4-H and Fitness

The decade of the 1980's ushered in the concept of "fitness" which basically replaced the term "recreation."

4-H... Center Court at the White House

From the National 4-H Council publication The Fifth Leaf, Summer 1991
Maryland 4-H'er John DiBenio plays tennis at the White House with Pam Shriver, with President H.W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger serving as their tennis partners.

Bike-A-Thons and Bike Rodeos were popular fitness activities during the 1980s and became a part of many local 4-H bicycle programs. Hazard surveys were another fun activity with kids checking out their neighborhood streets for sewer grates (that could trap bike wheels), potholes, shrubbery by the edge of the road, glass and debris in the roadway, unsafe guardrails... any hazards that could be a potential problem for bikers.

Debra Gregory, 4-H Coordinator in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, was reporting in the mid-1980s that the County 4-H Volleyball Tournament was still going strong with 10 clubs participating. Good sportsmanship, self-confidence and motivation were all traits that the tournament tried to encourage.

The June/July issue of the 4-H Leader carried a feature on exploring careers in physical fitness. Being a summer issue, it also emphasized for leaders to help their 4-H'ers explore the fun of a more active lifestyle.

During the '80s, '90s and beyond, the sports-recreation-fitness activities at the club level may have become less structured or planner, but there indeed was an emphasis on fitness for young people, along with a sense of purpose... spending you personal leisure time actively involved in wholesome projects that were beneficial to nature. Individually, and as club activities, kids became busy with environmental clean-up, recycling, building nesting boxes r Blue Bird trails, raising guide dogs, after school tutoring, working with the elderly, and the handicapped... everything from wheelchair rodeos to horse riding programs, per walking, petting animal zoos, clowning, probably hundreds of projects where kids saw a need and pitched in to help. While perhaps not recognized as fitness, per se, these projects often kept their bodies active and their minds alert. And, yes, it can be called "fitness" in the most positive of ways.

Sports Stars... Role Models to 4-H

Sports stars also show up prominently as some of the VIP's involved in 4-H as role models.

A lengthy list of these athletes show those who appeared as speakers at National 4-H Congress in Chicago - Olympic gold medalists Jesse Owens and Rafer Johnson; 1968 Olympic gold medalist and captain of the U.S. equestrian team, William Steinkraus and 1960 3-gold medal Olympian Wilma Rudolph; Ted Williams and Bob Feller from baseball, and Bab Didrikson Zaharias - a star in both golf and track and field. Also, Formula One race car driver Mario Andretti, Helen Hicks, of golf fame; Frank Thomas, Charles Trippi, Gene Sarazen, Charlie Bachman and Jay Berwanger.

Sports stars also played a prominent role in helping to promote 4-H by voicing radio and television public service announcements. A few of these include: Johnny Unitas, quarterback of the Baltimore Colts; Bart Starr, Green Bay Packers quarterback; Don Meredith, Dallas Cowboys Quarterback; Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs; the Chicago Bears' running back Gale Sayers; race car drivers Parnelli Jones, Richard Petty and Jeff Gordon; and, boxer Sugar Ray Leonard.

Over the years 4-H programs at the state and local levels have utilized many sports stars to assist with training, as speakers at banquets and achievement nights and in a variety of other ways.

Principal author: Larry L. Krug


(Most are from National 4-H News

1921NovSports in Winter12
1922JanWrestling l5-6
1922AprBasketball Relay8
1922JulBaseball Clubs5
1934Jun/JulIowa Basketball Team1
1947Oct4-H Softball Cover &22-23
1947Mar4-H Winter Sports Festival15
1948JanTed Williams of Boston Red Sox at Congress24
1949Mar4-H Sports47
1954NovShuffleboard in 4-H21
1961Mar4-H Robin Hoods in Oregon36
1963Jul4-H Jumpers Fine the Beat25(recreation)
1963AugA Fishing derby17
1963Nov4-H Dance from tlhe Old Country24(recreation)
1966JunThe Place of Sports in 4-H Work by F Graham36-37
1967FebSources for Recreation40-41
1967MarSources for Recreation44-45
1967AprSources for Recreation40-41
1967DecHave You Tried Tinikling?60-61(recreation)
1968JanTeenagers Ski With 4-H22-23
1969AugGolfer Gary Player helps Start 4-H Golfing Program7
1971SepTed Williams17
1976NovBowling Tournament Promotes 4-H29
1978May4-H Basketball Tournament7

Compiled by National 4-H History Preservation Team.

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