Review of Legends Never Die

Kimball, Richard Ian. Legends Never Die: Athletes and Their Afterlives in Modern America. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2017. Pp. 211. Notes, bibliography, and index. $55.00 hardcover. $19.95 paperback and ebook.

Reviewed by Cat Ariail

In Legends Never Die, Richard Ian Kimball concisely and critically considers the invention of the afterlives of American athletic heroes. He exposes and examines the intentional choices, media technologies, historical circumstances, and ideological beliefs that influence popular memories of athletes who died before the end of their athletic careers. Using the famous A.E. Housman poem, “To An Athlete Dying Young” as his point of departure, Kimball recognizes that young athlete deaths endow them with protection “from the inevitable loss of skill, fame, and youth,” instead situating them “in an ever-present timelessness, circumscribed only by the limits of our imaginations,” (3-4). He then focuses on the “imaginations” of myth makers who, like Housman, used media to “manipulate the deaths of athletes to promote their own social, political, and religious purposes,” (5).

legends

Syracuse University Press, 2017.

Legends Never Die represents a valuable contribution to the growing field of sport memory studies, further positioning the creation and dissemination of sport memories as a productive site for exploring American culture. In particular, Kimball highlights the central role of media in constructing eternal athletic heroes. While not determinative, media strategies significantly effect the resonance and endurance of an athlete’s death, as well as its consequences. The four stories of athlete death Kimball analyzes demonstrate the different ways in which myth makers operate media in order to give meaning to an athlete death.  The memorializations of George Gipp, Bonnie McCarroll, Lane Frost, Benny Paret, and Dale Earnhardt also underscore the power of embedded ideologies in influencing the immortalization of an athlete. As Kimball writes, “Not all immoralities are created equal,” (142). Productively, his explorations also raise lingering questions about athlete memorialization, making Legends Never Die a potentially useful text for classroom use at the undergraduate and graduate levels since it should encourage students to think critically about how narratives of sport reflect, reinforce, and respond to American culture.

After a brief introduction, Kimball provides historical and philosophical background in Chapter One, “Why Lou Gehrig Was Lucky: A Meditation on the Mortality of American Athletes.” He introduces theories to explain and assert the symbolic cultural significance of athletes in organizing American understandings of life and death. Most interestingly, he probes the disjunctive relationship between athletes and death. Because “[s]ports help millions of Americans not to think about death and have become one of the primary systems that scaffold the modern psychological constructions of immortality,” the death of an athlete in their prime represents a rupture. The collective effort to make sense of the death of athlete, therefore, is also shared effort to make sense of ourselves as mortal Americans. Yet, instead of reckoning with death, American culture imposes immortality on an athlete, indulging in the ways in which death protects the athlete from the future mortal failings that would sully their stardom. Kimball situates Lou Gehrig’s death as the progenitor of this process, which he calls the “athletic art of dying,” (14).  Newspaper coverage of Gehrig’s deterioration and death established a portable model, where early death produced a deification. As Kimball asserts, “Lou Gehrig was right all along. When it came to leaving the spotlight of athletic stardom, he may well have been ‘the luckiest man on the face of the earth,’” (12).

The legacy of George Gipp also reveals the curious luckiness of an early death.  In Chapter Two, “The Gipper Wins One for the Gipper,” Kimball charts the invention of the Gipper, showing how the memory of gambling Irish running-back who died from pneumonia following his All-American performance during the 1920 season became fused with the identity of the fortieth president of the United States. Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne authored the Gipper mythology, spinning an apocryphal story of the running back on his death bed pleading to his coach to “win one for the Gipper” to spur his squad at the half-time of the 1928 Notre Dame-Navy game. When the Irish came back to defeat the Cadets, Rockne’s speech became legend and Gipp became a saint. The University, aided by an array of national sportswriters sympathetic to the Irish, readily propagated the myth of the Gipper.

In 1940, Hollywood joined the myth-making with Knute Rockne, All American. Most importantly, this production would guarantee further the endurance of the Gipper mythology since a young Ronald Reagan starred as the Notre Dame running back, providing the future president with a narrative he would manipulate to advance his political fortunes. “[B]y the end of the twentieth century, ‘the Gipper’ became Ronald Reagan,” asserts Kimball (40). The ways in which Reagan “cast himself as a strong, heroic American icon” by appropriating the Gipper identity illuminates Kimball’s central contention – that the priorities of the myth maker most influences understandings of the myth (40). While legends may be invented, their power is real, as the Reagan-as-Gipper constituted a core of modern conservatism’s political effectiveness and endurance.

In Chapter Two, “Only Cowgirls Get the Blues: Bonnie McCarroll and Lane Frost,” Kimball explores the role of gender in determining the afterlives of athletes’ deaths, comparing the consequences of the deaths of Bonnie McCarroll, a celebrated 1920s bronc rider, and Lane Frost, a strapping 1980s bull rider. Kimball writes, “The key difference between the two incidents was that a cowgirl was killed…and a cowboy died,” (50). Yet, while he situates McCarroll and Frost in their historical moments and identifies gendered-based differences in the reactions to their deaths, Kimball does not adequately analyze the ways in which their historical moments conditioned the gendered understandings and outcomes of the deaths. Gender clearly plays a determinative role; the questions that needs answering are why and how gender plays this role.

Drawing on the work of historians of women’s rodeo, Kimball convincingly describes the novel cultural associations that made women’s rodeo less-maligned than other women’s sports. For instance, he contrasts the over-reaction to collapse of competitors in the women’s 800-meter race at the 1928 Olympic Games to that of Tillie Baldwin who, after collapsing at the 1913 Winnipeg Stampede, “was commended for rising out of her hospital bed and returning to action against her doctor’s wishes,” (61). Kimball then argues that McCarroll’s tragic and traumatic death, when, in her final competition before her retirement, she was bucked to death after flying off her bronc, fundamentally altered the sport’s cultural standing, ushering in an era of “more traditionally feminine rodeo queens” who were judged for attractiveness not riding ability (63). Yet, McCarroll’s death occurred in the same historical moment as the infamous 1928 800-meter race, suggesting that her death and the resulting changes to the sport of women’s rodeo should not be considered separate from larger social trends that had begun to render women’s sport less acceptable. In short, it is worth asking if McCarroll’s death merely precipitated and accelerated changes that social circumstances would have produced otherwise.

The fact that McCarroll is the only female athlete Kimball considers prevents larger conclusions about the role of gender in mediating responses to athlete deaths. It therefore is productive to place his contentions about McCarroll in conversation with Rita Liberti’s and Maureen Smith’s study of the memories of Wilma Rudolph. Although she died at the relatively young age of 49, Rudolph did not pass until well after the end of her athletic career. Yet, as Liberti and Smith show, popular memories of her were “frozen in a 1960 moment” even before her death (225). Liberti’s and Smith’s research suggests that death was not a prerequisite for the immortalization of Rudolph. Rather, the cruel combination of racism and sexism rendered her post-sport life largely invisible, thereby freezing her in the golden glow of 1960.

Unlike the long-lived baseball icons Kimball discusses in Chapter Six – Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams – Rudolph’s post-athletic life did not expose her personal failings but the structural failings of American society, ones that made life difficult for a black woman regardless of how successful an athlete she had been. For myth makers in the press and pop culture, the imagined, idealistic immortality accessible through the image of a 1960 Rudolph was preferable to the racist and sexist American reality the post-1960 Rudolph reveals. Thus, the memories of arguably the most mythologized of American female athletes indicates the need to consider further female athletic deaths across time, space, and race. The the lives and memories of two of the more famous female athletes who died during their careers – Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Florence Griffith-Joyner – appear to offer texts ready for rich analysis.

At the close of Chapter Two, Kimball asserts, “Gender and time separated McCarroll and Frost. One was a cowgirl, the other a cowboy. And that made all the difference.” As evident in the above criticisms, this construction proves too simplistic. Furthermore, it is short-sighted not to recognize and reckon with the role of racialized gender identities and ideologies in thinking about the death and deification of an athlete who dies young. Here, it proves useful to consider Kimball’s analysis of Lane Frost with that of Dale Earnhardt, the subject of Chapter Five, “‘Princess Diana with a Pushbroom Mustache’: Dale Earnhardt and Narrative of a NASCAR Death.” Of Frost, Kimball writes, “[W}hen a male athlete dies in the arena, the cultural significance of the athlete’s memory grows in the fertile soil of an early grave,” (65). His analyses of Frost and Earnhardt suggest the need to append this statement to read, “When a white male athlete dies in the arena, the cultural significance of the athlete’s memory grows…”

Frost died in 1989 at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo when, after successfully riding the bull Taking Care of Business for the requisite eight seconds, the bull drove his horn through the dismounted Frost, causing him to collapse and die in the arena. Earnhardt died in turn four of the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, just after he maneuvered his black Chevy to open space for Michael Waltrip, a driver for Dale Earnhardt Industries, and his son, Dale Jr., to capture the checkered flag and first runner-up.  Although he does not explicitly address it, Kimball’s analysis makes clear that the deaths of Frost and Earnhardt provided opportunities to celebrate stoic, traditional white manhood.

Kimball details the myth making enterprises that soon developed following their respective deaths, but the combination of their racial and gender identities, more than media and memorialization technologies, seems to explain the resonance of their deaths. Their white masculinity also allowed myth makers easily and uncontroversially to claim Christian piety for them, making them into masculine Christian martyrs. The establishment of Professional Bull Riding (PBR) after the death of Frost and the rising popularity of NASCAR following the death of Earnhardt appeared only to confirm their martyrdoms. The historical moments of their deaths, with Frost’s in 1989 at the outset of the culture wars and Earnhardt’s at the beginning of the George W. Bush administration, encouraged the invention and popularization of myths that celebrated assured, moral white manhood. Frost and Earnhardt served as figures through which to express and assert a traditional raced and gendered social order.

The long demises of DiMaggio, Mantle, and Williams that Kimball recounts in his final chapter further suggest the particular power of the early deaths of Frost and Earnhardt. In Chapter Six, “To an Athlete Dying Old” Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams,” Kimball describes the “de-godding” of athletic heroes executed by the New Journalists of the 1970s, with the Gay Talese and others “exposing peccadilloes and personal quirks to contemplate the space between ordinary and extraordinary and the limits of fame,” (123). This media introduced DiMaggio as selfish enigma, Mantle as a desperate drunk, and Williams as crotchety and cold (in more ways than one). The long lives exposed not only their faults, but the failings of white manhood more broadly. The early deaths of Frost and Earnhardt, however, allow for the emotional indulgence in idealized white manhood. The dichotomy between the lives of  the DiMaggio, Mantle, and Williams and the memories of the Frost and Earnhardt best captures why the white male athletes who die in their prime have such cultural power.

The rich mythologies of Frost and Earnhardt, as well as the Gipper, suggest the immortal American athlete has a certain identity; immortal icons must most embody a romanticized vision of America. The memory cult that developed around Oregon runner Steve Prefontaine, where the danger of his drunken death was downplayed in favor of an image of him as an authentic, white, and masculine countercultural icon, also aligns with this paradigm. Kimball, unfortunately, only includes the death of one athlete of color in his account, preventing a more thorough exploration of the role of racial identity in conferring athletic immortality.

In Chapter Four, “Who Killed Benny Paret?,” Kimball considers the death of the Afro-Cuban boxer. Paret was killed in the ring at the 1962 welterweight world championship by the gloves of the black, bisexual Virgin Islander Emile Griffith, who unleashed the emotional anger and pain that Paret stirred within him when Paret, performing machismo, muttered a sexual slur to Griffith at their weigh-in. Throughout the chapter, Kimball repeatedly asks, “Who killed Benny Paret?,” considering the role of the referee, media (the fight was televised nationally on ABC), and boxing’s culture of hyper-masculinity. His analysis, therefore, most concerns how American sport culture reacted to the realities that Paret’s death made evident. As demonstrated by the work of Christina Abreu, Paret did ascend to a mythic status for Cubans and Cuban-Americans, but Kimball instead includes cultural tributes to Paret that used him as a vessel through which to reflect on the simultaneously appealing and abject violence of boxing.  Kimball quotes Norman Mailer, who, witnessing Paret absorb the final, fatal punch, sensed that “some part of his death reach out to us. One felt it hover in the air,” (96).

While astute, Kimball’s analysis does not reckon with the role of ethnicity and race in explaining the responses to Paret’s death. How did Paret’s Afro-Cubanness, as well as Griffith’s blackness and bisexuality, mediate the reactions of the largely white and male cultural commentariat? Like the death of Bonnie McCarroll, the death of the Paret activated insecurities, whereas the death of white male athletes became sources of assurance. This pattern demands a closer examination of the role race, gender, ethnicity, and nationality in determining athlete immortality. Choosing to include examples of additional athletes of color who died young would aid this exploration. Kimball justifies his selections in his introduction, writing, “The subjects who appear in the book were chosen according to loose set of criteria. If a particular story had already been well told, I decided not to reflow existing furrows. I tried to include athletes and historical events that have received less attention or were ripe for reinterpretation. The subjects in each chapter illuminate a specific theme or deepen our knowledge of how myths get created and perpetuated,” (9).

He succeeds in demonstrating “how myths get created and perpetuated,” particularly in illuminating the ways in which myth makers accessed and applied entrepreneurial media strategies. Yet, intentionally or not, his selections reveal and reinforce the privileged position of white male athletes in American sport culture. This reality requires interrogation rather than acceptance. The choices of myth makers and, importantly, the resonance of their myths, rely on and reproduce embedded ideologies of race, gender, ethnicity, and nationality. The death of Len Bias, in particular, would seem to present productive text through which to think about the role of racial ideologies in informing athletic immortality. Occurring in the same historical moment as that of Lane Frost, Bias existed on the opposite end of the male athletic icon spectrum, playing the sport most associated with blackness. The fact that Bias died from a cocaine overdose, a highly-racialized drug, and that his death then was used to justify harsher drug policies that disproportionately punished black Americans, further positions his death as a powerful entry through which to interrogate constructions of black American athletic death.

As these criticisms indicate, Kimball’s book inspires additional questions, considerations, and possibilities; the mark of a successful research project. He has identified athlete deaths, particularly early athlete deaths, as productive sites of analysis for not only thinking about American sport culture, but American culture more broadly. Athlete deaths, because they have emotional effects that extend well-beyond the most passionate fans, demonstrate a way in which the study of sport provides important, integral insights to the study of America. Legends Never Die also strengthens and solidifies the field of cultural sport history, specifically affirming memory studies as a powerful and productive methodological approach.

Cat Ariail is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of the University of Miami.  She researches gender, race, and nationalism in mid-twentieth track and field.  You can contact her at cat.m.ariail@gmail.com.

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