A study of mythmaking and its classical and contemporary manifestations

Matt Teutsch[1]
Auburn University

Richard Ian Kimball
Legends Never Die: Athletes and Their Afterlives in Modern America
216 pages, paperback.
Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press 2017 (Sports and Entertainment)
ISBN 978-0-8156-1086-1

The eulogies, memorials, and remembrances of the dead do not exist for those who have passed; rather, they exist for those who remain. The act of remembrance, and specifically the epideictic rhetoric surrounding death, takes place, as Chain Perelman argues, “not to just gain a passive adherence from [the] audience but to provoke the action wished for or, at least, to awaken a disposition so to act.” In Legends Never Die: Athletes and Their Afterlives in Modern America, Richard Ian Kimball examines the mythologies we erect around athletes in the public spotlight who unexpectedly die during their careers or soon afterwards.

On July 4, 1939, a day already filled with symbolic and mythological meaning, Lou Gehrig, surrounded by microphones and teammates, delivered his famous retirement speech to the fans gathered at Yankee Stadium and to the world. Gehrig exclaimed, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Thirty years after Gehrig’s speech, Mickey Mantle stood on the same field to bid farewell to the fans. Addressing the crowd, Mantle pondered how Gehrig, in the face of death, could make a pronouncement claiming to be the “luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Standing there, Mantle informed the crowd that he thought he knew the answer. Kimball addresses Mantle’s recognition of Gehrig’s sentiments by stating that “Mantle understood . . . that Gehrig was the lucky one—the athlete who died in his prime, whose legacy was secured in the sepulcher of death, safe from the ravages of age and poison-penned journalists” (14). Gehrig left on top, joining the “cult of heroes” like Achilles in Homer’s Iliad.

Through a series of case studies, which he admits is not exhaustive, Kimball explores the ways that sports and the ways we immortalize athletes who die unexpectedly serve as an escape that helps fans ponder their own mortality. “The deification of sporting heroes,” as Kimball argues, “bestows immortality on the athlete and gives fans eternity by association” (16). The athlete who dies in his or her prime never gets older. As fans, we remain behind and can only speculate on what could have been. We construct narratives in our minds that ultimately help us cope with the aftermath of an athlete’s unexpected demise. Kimball notes, as Perelman does when writing about epideictic rhetoric, that we do not mourn for the person who passed away; rather, “we mourn for ourselves” (24).

Kimball addresses the ways we mourn by discussing the mythologizing of a diverse range of athletes including Notre Dame football star George Gipp, rodeo stars Bonnie McCarroll and Lane Frost, boxer Benny Paret, NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, and baseball players such as Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle. All the while, Kimball shows the ways that the fan and media construction of idealizations around these fallen heroes has far reaching impacts on our cultural landscape in everything from politics, gender relations, and religion. Within each case study, Kimball extrapolates on these aspects and highlights the ways our structuring of our memorials for athletes expresses more about ourselves than the athlete we memorialize.

Beginning with George Gipp, Kimball explores how the formulation of the “Gipper” served as a departure from the true aspects of Gipp’s life and ended up becoming “a new character whose story provided a creation myth for Notre Dame and college football” and also propelled Ronald Reagan’s film and political careers (26). The real George Gipp gambled on games he played in and was essentially a “rakehell”; however, Knute Rockne and others turned him into the “holiest name” in Notre Dame football history and the “moral-hero” college athlete. This mythological view of the roustabout Gipp took on a life of its own when “George Gipp became Rockne’s Gipper and Rockne’s Gipper became Ronald Reagan” the progression “shaped the history of college football” and assisted Reagan in his path towards the White House (49). Hence, the conflation of Gipp, Rockne, and Reagan (who viewed himself as Gipp) shows the ways that myth, while grounded in truth, become much more as we seek to shape them to our own positions.

“The earth belongs to the living, not to the dead.”

This reshaping of athlete’s memories carries over into Kimball’s discussion of rodeo stars Bonnie McCarroll and Lane Frost. The deaths of McCarroll and Frost, Kimball argues, altered the course of profession rodeo in two very distinct and divergent ways. In the early 1900s, cowboys and cowgirls competed side-by-side on the rodeo circuit. McCarroll’s death at the 1929 Pendleton Rodeo Round-Up led to the removal of women from bronc riding and rough stock competitions. Along with this shift, McCarroll’s passing sparked broader discussions of women’s equality with the writings of journalists like Nora Wells. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Lane Frost’s death at the 1989 Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo paved the way for Professional Bull Riders association to split with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and to carve out their own niche. As well, Frost’s death turned him into a type of Christian saint.

Like Frost, Dale Earnhardt’s tragic crash at Daytona Motor Speedway in 2001 began his transformation from the Intimidator to something more akin to the biblical Good Shepherd. This movement, as Kimball notes, “brought attention to the growing relationship between big-time sports and evangelical Christianity” (106). Along with the biblical correlation, Earnhardt’s death brought NASCAR into the national spotlight in a way that had not occurred before, bringing it to mainstream popularity. While this aspect of the mythological narrative of Earnhardt presented him like Moses, able to see the Promised Land but not enter it, another aspect of the narrative “wrapped Earnhardt in the Confederate flag and lamented the passage of a unique southern way of life, a twenty-first-century echo of the Lost Cause” (111). In this narrative. Earnhardt arises as a bygone “masculine pillar of the Old South” (111).

Politics of race, gender, and sexuality do not exist apart from sports; rather, they are inextricably intertwined, as the previous case studies show. These interconnected aspects become even clearer in Kimball’s study of Benny Paret’s death in 1962 during a boxing bout with Emile Griffith. During the pre-fight weigh in, Paret whispered a homophobic slur in Griffith’s ear, and this action precipitated his death in the squared circle; Griffith’s homosexuality, while coded in journalism and the media, was not a secret. In the twelfth round of their bout, Griffith waylaid Paret to the mat, where he stayed, unconscious. Paret died in a hospital ten days later. The Paret-Griffith fight had various threads working together that makes it a fitting study for Kimball. First, Kimball teases out the thread of sexuality in regard to masculinity and boxing specifically. Next, he tackles what the fight meant for the future of boxing. Paret’s death led to discussions about whether boxing should become outlawed. Finally, he explores the ways that media, specifically live television with the introduction of slow motion replay, affected the way the audience received the fight.

Kimball concludes by looking at hall of fame baseball players Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle who both lived way past their athletic prime. Both Mantle and Williams fell from Mount Olympus; however, upon their deaths, they became reinstated through the memories and nostalgia of those who eulogized them. Ultimately, Kimball’s study is not just a study of sports and athletes. It is a study of mythmaking and its classical and contemporary manifestations. If we are to take anything away from Legends Never Die, perhaps it should be, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1813, “The earth belongs to the living, not to the dead.”

Copyright © Matt Teutsch 2018
Originally published in Aethlon

[1] Matthew Teutsch attended the University of Louisiana Monroe and graduated with a B.S. in secondary education in 2001 before returning to obtain an M.A. in English in 2004. Upon completion of his degree, he taught at ULM through 2008. As a PhD candidate he worked at the ULM Gaines Center. His dissertation from 2014 is entitled “‘We wish to plead our own cause,’: rhetorical links between Native Americans and African Americans during the 1820s and 1830s”. Matthew Teutsch blogs at Interminable Rambling


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