With the recent passing of Arnold Palmer, yet another all-time great sports icon has left us in 2016. How ironic that three athletes, each of whom was the face of his sport in the 1960s—Arnold Palmer in golf, Muhammad Ali in boxing, and Gordie Howe in hockey—all have left us this year.
Perhaps that is fitting. They deserve to be remembered together for their combined impact on the world of sports.
Although I am a lifelong sports fan, I’ll confess to having only modest interest in golf. That interest, though, stems entirely from the winsome personality of Arnold Palmer. The combination of his sonorous drawl, charismatic smile, twinkling eyes, easy-going manner, modesty, genuineness, and gentlemanliness made it impossible not to be charmed by the man. Arnie was the hook that drew me to watch enough golf tournaments over the years to at least know who the outstanding players are in any given year.
For the baby boomer generation, Arnold Palmer, Muhammad Ali, and Gordie Howe were three of the brightest stars in the sports firmament. Every generation has its iconic sports figures, but what other decade has featured three superstars who reigned supreme as both the top athlete and dominant personality in their respective sports as Arnie, Ali, and Gordie were in the 1960s? Their stature is bespoken by their nicknames: In the world of golf, Arnie was “the King” and in boxing, Ali was “the Greatest” and in hockey, Gordie was “Mr. Hockey.” Perhaps the greatest testimony to their exalted status is that the respect of their peers and their popularity among fans never waned, but lasted for decades.
Arnold Palmer won 62 PGA tournaments and seven majors. That, combined with his off-the-charts likeability and photogenic good looks made him a natural for the television era. He was tailor-made to establish golf as one of the most popular sports in America and cemented his legacy as golf’s perennial ambassador.
Gordie Howe overcame a near-fatal fractured skull early in his career to eventually win six MVP awards, set a ton of career records, and eventually play his grueling sport for an unmatched and probably unmatchable 26 professional seasons. I saw him play when he was in his prime—what a privilege—and again at age 52 when he was still able to make younger professional hockey players look foolish with his skill, artistry, and smarts. Gordie was an “aw, shucks” modest hero whose dominance on the ice and exemplary behavior off of it made him hockey’s supreme exemplar.
Muhammad Ali was graceful, intelligent, creative, and resourceful. He starred in some of the most memorable boxing matches in history, defeating formidable opponents like Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman. He won the heavyweight championship of the world an unprecedented three separate times.
Out of the ring, like Arnie and Gordie, Ali was his sport’s dominant personality, although, unlike them, he was brash and immodest. I had a hard time accepting that behavior, but eventually I learned to respect Ali. His boisterous, unconventional behavior constituted a clever form of psychological manipulation designed to disrupt the concentration and confidence of his opponents. The only other sports hero who matched Ali in that department was the legendary Detroit Tiger baseball superstar, Ty Cobb. (Read Charles Leerhsen’s recent biography of Cobb to learn more.) Actually, Ali’s attention getting antics were ahead of his time. He realized that, for fans, the essence of sports is entertainment, and so he devised unorthodox, flamboyant ways to entertain people and increase public interest in boxing. As boxing’s ambassador to the world, Ali used his fame to help others and promote the brotherhood of the human family.
Arnie, Ali, and Gordie all led long, full lives. They weren’t short changed, and neither were we, their legions of fans. And now may “the King” rest in peace with “the Greatest” and “Mr. Hockey.”