Note: I presented this paper at the 2012 Rhetoric Society of America conference in Philadelphia.

“The country lost a great American today.” This statement from the USA Today‘s obituary of Ted Williams, who died on July 5, 2002, almost one year after September 11 and the beginning of the “War on Terror,” serves as a reminder that sports plays an integral role rhetorically in our national lives. One need to only recall he cancellation of sporting events and the debates about when and how sports, specifically baseball, should resume after the events of September 11, 2001. When baseball did return, on September 17, in presented an arena for national identity during a time of crisis. Baseball has always had a strong connection to democracy and national identity. Connie Mack called it “democracy in action,” and Tom Brokaw sad, “Baseball has an enduring connection to the idea of America because it really is an extension of democracy.” George W. Bush, when welcoming the 2004 Boston Red Sox to the White House after their first World Series win in 86 years, pointed out the democracy apparent in baseball when he said, “This is a heck of a team. This is a team that came together from South Korea and the Dominican Republic, from Anchorage, Alaska, Fort Riley, Kansas, and incredibly enough, Midland, Texas.”

Bush’s relationship to baseball runs deep. He co-owned the Texas Rangers, and this association played into the rhetoric Bush displayed after September 11. As Michael L. Butterworh shows in Baseball and Rhetorics of Purity: The National Pastime and American Identity During the War on Terror, when Bush threw out the first pitch before game three of the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium in New York, the event became a major part of Bush’s nomination video during the 2004 Republican National Convention. Butterworth points out that close to one third of the seven minute video focused on baseball. During the video, Fred Thompson, the narrator, asks, “What do a bullhorn and a baseball have in common?” preparing the audience for what will follow on screen. Later, he presents the story of Bush’s first pitch while mellow, patriotic music plays beneath, and the images switch from static photographs to a slow motion film of the first pitch,

It’s hard for a picture to capture the presidency. But maybe a story can tell us something about its meaning. It was October 2001. American had just been hit, and America was uneasy. And some were afraid. He knew. There was a baseball game, the World Series. And it was held in New York. New York was trying to come back. And he knew. And, suddenly, the White House was calling the mayor’s office, which was calling Yankee Stadium. It was the first night of the big series in New York. And look who arrived at Yankee Stadium. Derek Jeter bumped into him before he walked out to the mound, and he said, “Hey, Mr. President, where are you going to throw from?” The president said, “Hadn’t thought about it. Guess the base of the mound.” And Derek Jeter said, “This is New York. And in New York, you throw from the mound.” And the president laughed. He was wearing a heavy Secret Service bulletproof vest and he could hardly move his arms. But he knew. So George Bush took the mound. What he did that night, that man in the arena, he helped us come back. That’s the story of this presidency.

Butterworth concluded his discussion of the video saying that it did not use baseball solely as a persuasive strategy; “instead, the video tells us that the very act of throwing from the Yankee Stadium mound that evening transformed the man himself” and defined his administration. How does this link between sports, specifically baseball, and epideictic rhetoric work when the praise centers on a singular individual? In this case, the Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams.

As Aristotle points out in On Rhetoric, “The ceremonial [epideictic] orator is, properly speaking, concerned with the present, since all men praise or blame in view of the state of things existing at the time, though they often find it useful also to recall the past and to make guesses at the future.” Later, when discussing the ceremonial orator further, Aristotle points out that the speaker “must also take into account the nature of our particular audience when making a speech of praise.” If an audience holds a certain quality in high esteem, then the orator must imbue that quality within the person being praised. Williams imbues the quality of patriotism.

In Pericles’ funeral oration from the Peloponnesian War, Pericles instills the subjects of his speech with heroism of military service. This, of course, comes after a discussion of Athens and its democratic ideals. Pericles says,

But what was the road by which we reached our position, what the form of governmet under which our greatness grew, what the national habit out of which in sprang; these are questions which I may try to solve before I proceed to my panegyric upon these men; since I think this to be a subject upon which on the present occasion a speaker may properly dwell, and to which the whole assemblage, whether citizens or foreigners, may listen with advantage.

Within the funeral oration, Pericles places the majority of the focus on the present state of Athens and its democratic ideals. The praise of the fallen men does not occur until near the end of the oration. Why does this happen? Condit proposes that epideictic rhetoric contains three pairs that function rhetorically: definition/understanding, shaping/sharing community, and display/entertainment. In Pericles’ speech, he begins with a discussion of democracy in Athens, then he provides a definition of democracy and the nation state for his audience. Next, he moves on to shape Athens, showing how Athenians differ from other countries.

Finally, he discusses the men who died. Here, Pericles points out that he has dwelt on the “character of our country” to show what the men fought for. During his praise of the soldiers, Pericles also tells the audience to take the men “as your model and, judging happiness to the fruit of freedom and freedom of valor, never decline the dangers of war.”

Chaim Perelman in The New Rhetoric: A Theory continues Aristotle’s ideas and says, “The orator’s aim in the epideictic genre is not just to gain a passive adherence from his audience but to provoke the action wished for or, at least, to awaken a disposition so to act.” The epideictic rhetoric surrounding the death of Ted Williams can be viewed through this lens because it works, as Condit argues, to provide a definition and shape for the community, and it also provokes, or at least awakens, action within the audience as Perelman and Aristotle point out.

In the next post, I will finish by showing how the rhetoric used after the passing of Ted Williams and Pat Tillman worked within the epideictic tradition and served to instill within the audience a sense of patriotism. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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