Book Review: Sports, Legend, and Immortality

Legends Never Die: Athletes and Their Afterlives in Modern America. By Richard Ian Kimball. Syracuse University Press, 2017.

 

On July 4, 1939, New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig bade farewell in a speech that has found its way into the pantheon of American history’s most famous orations. When Gehrig told a Yankee Stadium crowd of 61,808 that he considered himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” there was nary a dry eye to be seen. All knew that Gehrig was stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which robbed him of his strength and life before he reached his 38th birthday.

In a sense, argues Brigham Young University history professor Richard Ian Kimball, Gehrig was indeed lucky; he became a forever-young immortal. Kimball’s is a study of how American culture canonizes athletes who die in the bloom of life. In a deft introduction, Kimball places sports stars that flamed out early within a grander sweep of Western luminaries, including Achilles, Pheidippides, battlefield soldiers, John F. Kennedy, and Princess Diana. He invokes A. E. Housman’s 1896 poem “To an Athlete Dying Young” to affirm journalist Simon Barnes’ observation that “only the unfinished is perfect” (3). In Kimball’s words, “The black hole of unfulfilled potential magnifies the energy in the universe of memory” (4). Young athletes who perish tap into collective mourning rites as few others do.

Kimball is perhaps hyperbolic to claim that sports deaths help Americans cope with their own mortality, but he is correct to assert that such passings are imbued with public significance. He illuminates this through selected case studies, beginning with the only athlete whose early death rivals Gehrig’s in the public imaginary: Notre Dame football star George Gipp. If you have any doubt that sports matter, consider how Gipp’s 1920 parting subsequently advanced the careers of his coach, Knute Rockne, and the man who played “The Gipper” in a 1940 Hollywood film: Ronald Reagan.

Kimball packs a lot into just 144 pages of text, with each figure standing as synecdoches for American society. The deaths of rodeo stars Bonnie McCarroll (1929) and Lane Frost (1989) hardened gender roles, with McCarroll’s tragic bronco ride leading to enduring limitations on events open to women, and Lane’s demise reinforcing perceptions of male toughness. Call it the difference between tragic victimhood and brave martyrdom. The sexual spin-off of this is the 1962 death of boxer Benny Paret at the hands of welterweight Emile Griffith. Many date the decline of boxing’s popularity from this public death, but a greater irony lies with the savagery of Griffith’s blows after Paret uttered a homophobic slur. Griffith was a known bisexual. That such an individual was compelled to preserve his manhood with such bloodlust speaks volumes. NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt represents the other end of public morality scale. Kimball whimsically references him as “Princess Diana with a push broom moustache” (100), but his death at the 2001 Daytona 500 took on redemptive meanings for numerous evangelical Christians, complete with perceived miracles. Earnhardt’s death also provided a template for the phenomenon of “cybermourning” (10) in the emerging electronics age. Kimball connects each athlete to popular culture; after all, mourning remains mostly private unless print, film, television, music, or cyberspace universalizes and memorializes loss.

Kimball concludes with a look at three baseball legends that were not “lucky” enough to die young: Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams. Each lived long enough for revisionists to tarnish their images. DiMaggio’s persona as a suave sophisticate gave way to stories of his jealousy, money obsession, and egoism. Mantle’s once hidden vices such as his alcoholism and womanizing became public knowledge. It’s hard to imagine a sadder exit than that of Williams, who was already viewed as a misanthrope. But that is inconsequential in comparison to the family squabble that led to Williams being cryogenically frozen after death, his body in one tube, his severed and battered head in another. One might argue that Mantle is out of place in this chapter, as before his death he did public penance for his misdeeds and is now invoked as a cautionary tale—a new life for an old legend. But such a quibble hardly diminishes Kimball’s larger point that athletes who outlive their fame are heroes for a season, whereas those taken prematurely are immortals.

Legends Never Die is a natural for undergraduate classes given its brevity and its easy-to-digest prose. It would work quite well in a sports history course, but also in classes focusing on aspects of American culture such as celebrity and fandom studies, identity politics, folklore, civic religion, and explorations of death and dying.

Robert E. Weir

University of Massachusetts Amherst

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