- Legends Never Die: Athletes and Their Afterlives in Modern America by Richard Ian Kimball
"Temporally unshackled, dead athletes live in an ever-present timelessness, circumscribed only by the limits of our imaginations" (4). Finely written sentences such as this one fill the [End Page 114] pages of Richard Ian Kimball's Legends Never Die: Athletes and Their Afterlives in Modern America. The author deftly combines approaches from history, sport studies, and American studies to reflect on a subject that we often choose to deflect. The highly engaging book questions what happens when death's gaze cannot so easily be averted, as in the untimely demise of an athletic hero.
Kimball argues that an early death protects an athlete from public disparagement of their "inevitable loss of skill, fame, and youth" (3). The story, however, does not end in poignant celebration and suffering of what was and could have been. An athlete's unanticipated fall from peak physical condition to lifelessness forces a reconciliation with our own mortality. A host of interested parties and modern mythmakers, ranging from family members to Hollywood producers, from fans to American presidents, have used an array of technologies to frame sudden death in positive, transcendent terms and transform "athletes into immortals" (5).
Mythmakers use various forms of media to construct narratives and legacies, or the "athletes' afterlives" of the book's subtitle. Myths and stories provide a degree of solace, but Kimball rightly notes how power struggles over meaning "do not end at the grave's edge. Survivors persistently manipulate the deaths of sport's stars to promote their own social, political, and religious purposes" (5). An athlete's legacy may be materially enshrined, but Kimball privileges memorialization through the intangible processes of communication shared between memory makers and consumers.
The book is organized around a set of six case studies covering twentieth-century America. While Kimball admits the cases "were chosen according to a loose set of criteria," he intentionally favored events that "have received less attention or were ripe for reinterpretation" (9). The chapters are balanced in length and quality. Readers benefit from the consideration of meanings that emerge out of tragic death in varying time periods and sports, such as professional baseball, college football, rodeo, and NASCAR. Five of the six chapters, however, include a partial or total focus on white, heterosexual males who competed in typically masculine-dominated sports. This disproportion limits the potential scope of analysis from myriad perspectives.
Kimball consulted a wide range of daily newspapers, archival records, online material, and secondary sources that will satisfy most academic readers. In the first full chapter, Lou Gehrig's "luckiest man" speech illuminates how sports can force us to look at death, but more often diverts our attention through the creation of immortal legends. Kimball explicates the story of Notre Dame running back George Gipp in the second chapter, insightfully demonstrating how manipulation of media technologies and the "win one for the Gipper" myth cemented Knute Rockne's place in the history of American coaches and cast Ronald Reagan as a heroic American icon. The third chapter explores death in the rodeo through the terrible losses of Bonnie McCarroll and Lane Frost in 1929 and 1989, respectively, and interrogates contrasting reactions to the fatalities based primarily on gender.
The final three chapters contemplate the abrupt casualties of Cuban welterweight boxer Benny Paret, NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, and, in a twist, a trio of treasured American ballplayers from the game's golden era who died well past their prime. Chapters four and five contain especially strong writing and depth in problematizing the intersection of violence, masculinity, sport, and media spectacle. Kimball synthesizes recollections of Paret's [End Page 115] and Earnhardt's harrowing last moments, balancing the views of disparate stakeholders in ways that produce both pause and insight.
Despite generally robust cultural analysis, at times the text struggles to interweave intersectional accounts of how identity categories were inconsistently emphasized or subordinated. For example, gender...