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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 145

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This is the grave of Grantland Rice.

Born in 1880 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee to an elite New South family whose father was a big-time cotton dealer and whose grandfather was a general while committing treason in defense of slavery, Rice played football and baseball at Vanderbilt, graduating in 1901. He coached baseball at Vanderbilt in 1908 but was a full-time sportswriter by 1910. He worked at various newspapers before starting a weekly column in 1914 for the New York Tribune. For a industrializing society where professional sports were becoming a major pastime, Rice was catnip. Today, in a more cynical age perhaps defined by Deadspin on one end and lickspittles to owners such as Peter King, the mythologizing that Rice engaged in may well seem antiquated and outright bizarre. But for Rice, people such as Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Bobby Jones, and Jack Dempsey were genuinely heroes. And he did more than perhaps anyone to make them more than just respected as the greatest athletes of their day. He made them heroes to generations of Americans. His influence is still felt today in the way people talk about Babe Ruth. The Sultan of Swat is indeed one of the great athletes of all time, but his placement on a sort of mental Mt. Rushmore that makes him seem a demigod is a project which Rice did more than anyone else to create. By the 1920s, he was the nation’s most known sportswriter. In 1925, Rice took over the selection of the NCAA football All-Americans from Walter Camp. By 1930, Rice’s columns were syndicated nationally and he was nearly as famous as the athletes he covered. He also wrote a lot of poetry that is pretty bad. Rice died in 1954 at the age of 73.

Rice’s fame remains strong in the sportswriting community to the present. While I don’t find Rice’s hero-creation very useful today, that Bill Simmons, a man for whom intellectual engagement consists of telling sexist jokes, recalling frat parties, and engaging in overt Boston homerism in that annoying way which only Boston fans can perfect, named his ESPN site “Grantland” in honor of the man is more than a bit over the top. Of course Grantland did have great talent, such as Jonah Keri and Bill Barnwell, among others. But Simmons was the least of them all, not to mention a giant douche in general. Still, it is too bad that ESPN shut down after it finally canned Simmons, as there are plenty of great sportswriters working who could have remained flourishing under better leadership. Alas, ESPN has become more LaVar Ball than Grantland Rice.

Grantland Rice is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

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