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Modeled on a Myth
Brad Herzog
December 29, 1997
Eddie Eagan outdid his hero, Frank Merriwell, with gold in boxing and bobsledding
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December 29, 1997

Modeled On A Myth

Eddie Eagan outdid his hero, Frank Merriwell, with gold in boxing and bobsledding

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For nearly two decades, first at boarding school and then at Yale, Frank Merriwell was an athlete of unmatched versatility, courageous in the clutch, always a good sportsman. Off the field he was even better. He exemplified, according to Robert H. Boyle, author of Sport: Mirror of American Life, "truth, faith, justice, the triumph of right, mother, home, friendship, loyalty, patriotism, the love of alma mater, duty, sacrifice, retribution, and strength of soul as well as body."

In fact, Merriwell was too good to be true. He was a fiction dreamed up by a writer named Gilbert Patten in the late 19th century. Using the pseudonym Burt L. Standish, Patten spun tales of Merriwell's achievements in the pages of Tip Top Weekly, the nation's most widely read dime-novel series of the day.

At their peak the Merriwell stories were reaching several hundred thousand youngsters each week. One of the readers was a boy named Eddie Eagan. And while nobody has quite lived up to the standard created by Patten, Eagan may have come closest. That, in fact, was his goal.

Eagan is often cited, erroneously, as the only athlete to win gold medals at both the Summer and Winter Olympics. He wasn't. Swedish figure skater Gillis Grafstrom won the gold medal when skating was a summer event in 1920 and then, after the sport was moved to the Winter Games, won twice more, in 1924 and 1928. But Eagan remains the only person to have been golden in two sports in different seasons. Along the way, he epitomized the Merriwellian model and the Olympic ideal.

Eagan was born in Denver on April 26, 1898, two years after the first Merriwell story appeared. His father, John, was killed in a railroad accident in 1899. His mother, Clara, supported her five sons by teaching German and French.

By the time Eddie was in high school, he had developed into a talented amateur boxer. His coach, Abe Tobin, advised him to continue his education rather than turn professional. Tobin needn't have bothered. Eagan had vowed to live his life the way his fictional hero, the ultimate amateur, did, chasing perfection in and out of sports. In 1932 Eagan wrote, "To this day I have never used tobacco, because Frank didn't. My first glass of wine, which I do not care for, was taken under social compulsion in Europe. Frank never drank."

After spending a year at the University of Denver, where he won the western amateur middleweight title, Eagan enlisted in the army at age 20, serving as an artillery lieutenant in France during World War I. He then enrolled at Yale, following in Merriwell's footsteps.

As captain of Yale's boxing team, he competed in the 1919 AAU championships, losing a close decision in the light heavyweight class but returning later that evening to win the heavyweight title. Later that year Eagan competed in the Inter-Allied Games in Paris and won the middleweight championship. In 1920, as the light heavyweight representative on the U.S. boxing team at the Summer Olympics in Antwerp, he defeated fighters from South Africa, Great Britain and Norway en route to the gold medal.

After graduating from Yale in 1921, Eagan went to Harvard Law School but left after a year when he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship. From 1922 to '25 he studied at Oxford, continuing his law education, and also boxed. He was the first American to be crowned amateur champion of Great Britain. He made the U.S. Olympic boxing team again in 1924, a rarity even then, but was eliminated in the first round in the heavyweight division.

Much of the Frank Merriwell saga deals with the hero's travels. Naturally, after Oxford, Eagan took a two-year world tour. "He was really a world champion," his wife of 39 years, Peggy, once explained. "He and a friend took a trip around the world, and in every country Eddie challenged the amateur champion. He finished the tour undefeated. So when you talk about undefeated champions, my husband was one of them."

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