Minor Leagues is Slate’s pop-up blog about kids’ sports.
At the end of every basketball game, my dismal seventh-grade team had to cheer our opponents: “Two, four, six, eight/ Who do we appreciate?/ Interlakes! Interlakes! Interlakes!” We were always pissed off, weary, and not at all appreciative, but the cheer and the limp follow-up “good game” high-fives were mandatory. Where did this rhyming ode to sportsmanship come from?
Turns out the history of our dutiful cheer is emblematic of the way children’s play went from unremarkable to obsessively observed and overly manipulated, in one short century and change. “Two, Four, Six, Eight” started as 19th-century children’s folklore and twisted into an expression of sportsmanship in the early 20th century, when adults set about trying to “fix” how kids played games. No wonder it felt so rote!
We know how kids used the “two, four” rhyme structure in the 19th century because, starting in the 1880s, researchers began to record and classify examples of children’s folklore. Folklorists saw kids’ rhymes as evidence of a fascinatingly separate culture, evolving in parallel to adult life. Iona Opie—one half of a British folklorist couple who made it their life’s work to collect kids’ rhymes and stories—wrote that the verbal lore of school children, unlike the nursery rhymes adults taught them, was wholly their own. “The rhymes pass with lightning speed from one child to another, and have a quite different character,” Opie wrote. “They have a different cadence, and a different purpose, which is often mockery.”
Children’s self-created rhymes often delineated in- and out-groups. Opie noted that antagonistic groups of children, like two schools or two football teams, generated cruel taunting rhymes that children would shout at each other. She pointed to an 1858 record of a children’s rhyme used against a particular village: “The Spittal wives are no’ very nice,/ They bake their bread wi’ bugs and lice.”
The “Two, Four, Six, Eight” chant seems to have been a counting-out rhyme first—one meant, like the more familiar “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe,” to be used as a tool to pick a child out of a group, either to eliminate players or to select someone to act as “it” in a subsequent game. In a 1969 book, the Opies recorded a variation of a “Two, Four, Six, Eight” counting-out rhyme—“Two, four, six, eight/ Mary’s at the cottage gate/ Eating cherries off a plate/ Two, four, six, eight”—that they dated back to the early 19th century. Later, folklorists found 20th-century uses of the “two, four” structure in jump-rope chants. Collected in Pennsylvania in 1959: “Two, four, six, eight/ Don’t make love at the garden gate/ ’Cause love is blind/ But the neighbors ain’t.” Collected in 1956: “Two, four, six, eight/ Papa caught a rattlesnake/ The snake it died/ And Papa cried/ Two, four, six, eight.”
In order to understand how “Two, Four” made the journey from children’s folk culture to official use, it’s important to realize that middle-class adults in the early 20th century—unlike their counterparts today, who mourn a lost “golden age” of kids’ outdoor play—were suspicious of what children did when left to their own devices. Play, thought reformers looking at the way city children spent their days, could be anarchic and destructive if not directed by adults.
“The street culture of boys particularly unnerved adults,” historian Howard Chudacoff writes of the early-20th-century play reform movement. A “play census” taken in Cleveland in 1913 found that a large proportion of children surveyed on a June day were doing something that the adults writing up the results found unacceptable—“fighting, teasing, pitching pennies, shooting craps, stealing apples, ‘roughing a peddler,’ chasing chickens, tying cans to a dog,” or just “nothing.”
Meanwhile, kids in the middle and upper classes, while less likely to be critiqued as disruptive for their way of playing, needed help, too. The ideal of “muscular Christianity,” which promoted sport and physical training, promised an answer to the weakness and “nervousness” people thought was epidemic among upper-class men and boys in the early 20th century. If immigrant and working-class boys spent too much time fighting and teasing and breaking factory windows, middle- and upper-class boys needed to be taught to connect their bodies to their minds—to have a new way to live what Teddy Roosevelt called “the strenuous life,” at a time when the frontier was “closed” and a life of “ignoble ease” had become a temptation. All of these kids, reformers argued, needed help optimizing their leisure time. Organized sports were an answer to these problems, serving both immigrant children living in urban areas and middle-class kids who could benefit from some structured exercise.
Slowly, sports—both the games that younger kids used to play in the street or field, and the football and baseball that older kids played behind their high schools after classes let out—came under adult scrutiny. Historian Robert Pruter writes about the transition, between 1880 and 1930, between a loose arrangement of student-run high school teams and our present regime of more formal, adult-supervised interscholastic sports. This change, Pruter argues, was all about adult control. Adults wanted to sand the rough edges off student-run sports and make them into something constructive, “useful for redirecting high school youth away from the common social vices of drinking, smoking, gambling, and sexual exploration.”
For younger kids, experts advised adults to notice the conditions of their children’s play, regulate them to make sure they weren’t overexerting themselves, perhaps sign them up for an organized league. Famed coach Glenn “Pop” Warner wrote in Woman’s Home Companion in 1934 that parents should pay attention to the way their boys were playing, make sure that they weren’t getting tackled in vacant lots with “rocks and bricks or bottles scattered about,” or playing at a mismatch against much bigger kids. In the new enterprise of directing children’s play, adults working as coaches and supervisors figured out ways to do what they called “building character,” evolving a variety of systems to divert children’s competitiveness into positivity. V.K. Brown, the superintendent of playgrounds and sports of the South Park system of Chicago, wrote in 1921 that the organization’s 15-year-old program of organized competition came about when the commissioners realized they needed to “put the desire to win into the collar, and harness it to serve the purposes which we have always intended our programs to serve.”
It’s in the interwar years, as recreation directors, coaches, supervisors, and teachers struggled to harness kids’ restless physical energy for educational purposes, that the string of words two, four, six, eight begins to appear in databases of newspapers and books alongside the phrase who do we appreciate? In 1921, a New York Times reporter writing a cute color piece about the meeting of the Junior Christian Endeavor Convention in New York City wrote that the “junior delegates” made the room ring by cheering their adult leaders: “Two, four, six, eight! Who do we appreciate? Dr. Clark! Dr. Clark! Dr. Clark!” A 1927 profile of Jack Dempsey in the Washington Evening Star noted that boys set up a cheering section at one of his fights: “Two, four, six, eight! Who do we appreciate? Dempsey! Dempsey! Dempsey!”
The cheer shows up in the school sports context around the same time, and was first used by fans praising athletes on their own team. Bee Thompson, a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American, heard it used by same-side supporters at a 1924 high school girls’ basketball game between the Orioles and the Celeritas. A column for kids in the Racine Journal-News in 1925 suggested the cheer as a “school yell” that readers might take up at their own sporting events. In the Biloxi Daily Herald in 1926, an author also mentioned the use of the chant by a school’s own same-side fans.
But by the 1950s or 1960s, “appreciate” seems to have made the transition to the postgame cheer for opponents that we use today. Three members of a group of sports historians I queried about the cheer’s history remembered hearing the chant used in the modern sense—to praise a team’s opponents—at their schools in Toronto and Los Angeles in the ’50s. Another record of the cheer’s use comes from social scientists studying intergroup conflict, who observed teams of 11- and 12-year-old boys in 1966. These researchers set up a tournament of games between the “Eagles” and the “Rattlers,” and watched their behavior evolve. The researchers noted that the boys began the tournament practicing “good sportsmanship” and offered the “appreciate” chant of their own accord after games. As the tournament went on, the cheer morphed into “two, four, six, eight, who do we appreci-HATE.” This showed the researchers that “opposition of interest” increases solidarity and cohesion, while also upping the “likelihood of overt conflict”; it shows me that in the ’60s, these boys knew what kind of sportsmanship was expected of them, and also knew how to subvert those expectations.
As a relic of the early-20th-century push for sportsmanship, the “appreciate” chant has staying power. But that power isn’t always used for good. As Elizabeth Eckford, one of the “Little Rock Nine,” entered Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, the crowd of angry segregationists chanted: “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate.” In 1961 students at the University of Georgia deployed “two, four” to protest campus desegregation; in 1962, racists at the University of Mississippi used it on James Meredith. Like many children, this playground jingle doesn’t always do what it’s told.
Thanks to Noah Cohan, Andrew McGregor, Jaime Schultz, Cindy Slater, Jan Todd, Samantha White, and the members of the North American Society for Sport History listserv for their help.