Jim Thorpe

Jim Thorpe is considered by many to be the greatest athlete of the early twentieth century. He was a multi-sport athlete who particularly shined in track and field, though he also had professional careers in both baseball and football.

The details surrounding the birth of Jim Thorpe aren’t entirely clear. It is generally accepted that James Francis Thorpe was born May 22 or 28, 1887, with no birth certificate found to confirm an exact date. He was born in Indian Territory near present-day Prague, Oklahoma to Hiram Thorpe, who was of Sac and Fox descent, and Charlotte Vieux, who was of Potawatomi descent. Jim Thorpe had a twin brother, Charlie, who died of pneumonia when the pair was nine years old.

Both of Thorpe’s parents were Roman Catholic, and in the Catholic Church, he was baptized Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe. Growing up, Thorpe was raised as a Sac and Fox, and his native name, Wa-Tho-Huk, translates as “Bright Path.” Six year after his brother Charlie’s death, Thorpe’s mother also passed away, and his father would follow when Jim was just sixteen years old.

Thorpe was sent to many boarding schools and academies throughout his youth, including Sac and Fox Indian Agency School near Tecumseh, Oklahoma, Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, and Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Jim Thorpe hated his experiences in these institutions, which were set up to teach racial integration, banning students from speaking their native languages and imposing the dress of the average white American. Thorpe’s academic performance was less than stellar, but he showed tremendous promise as an athlete.

Jim Thorpe with the Canton Bulldogs c 1915-1920 - Wikipedia

Jim Thorpe with the Canton Bulldogs, c. 1915-1920 (Wikipedia)

While attending Carlisle, Thorpe competed not only in track and field, but also in football, baseball, lacrosse, and even ballroom dancing. It was here that Thorpe’s athletic abilities started to garner nationwide attention, especially on the football field, where he earned All-American honors in both 1911 and 1912. However, it was in track and field that Thorpe would really leave his mark.

In 1912, Thorpe represented the United States in the Summer Olympics held in Stockholm, Sweden. He dominated in both the pentathlon and the decathlon, winning gold medals in both events. He remains the only athlete in history to accomplish this feat. What makes this accomplishment even more incredible is that Thorpe competed wearing mismatched shoes. Ahead of competition, Thorpe’s own shoes were stolen. The culprit behind the theft was never identified, but it goes to show how rampantly racism continued to persist against indigenous peoples. With no other options, Thorpe found two old, different shoes in a dumpster, one of which was larger than the other. He wore an extra sock on one foot to help the larger shoe fit better.

Jim_Thorpe,_1912_Summer_Olympics - Wikipedia

Jim Thorpe at the 1912 Summer Olympics (Wikipedia)

Unfortunately for Jim Thorpe, in 1912, strict rules regarding amateurism were in effect for athletes participating in the Olympics. Thorpe had played professional baseball in the Eastern Carolina League for Rocky Mount, North Carolina in 1909 and 1910, receiving meager pay. College players, in fact, regularly spent summers playing professionally in order to earn some money, but most used aliases, which Thorpe, unfortunately, did not do. When reports of Thorpe’s past activities were leaked by the press in early 1913, the Amateur Athletic Union decided to withdraw Thorpe’s amateur status retroactively. Later that year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) unanimously decided to strip Thorpe of his Olympic titles, medals, and awards, and declare him a professional.

In 1913, Thorpe signed to play professional baseball with the New York Giants. Thorpe played sporadically with the team for three seasons as an outfielder. After playing in the minor leagues with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1916, he returned to the Giants in 1917 and was sold to the Cincinnati Reds early in the season. Late in that same season, he was sold back to the Giants. Once again, Thorpe played sporadically for the Giants in 1918 before being traded to the Boston Braves in May 1919.

In his major league career, Thorpe amassed 91 runs scored and 82 RBIs. Thorpe struggled against the curveball, however, and batted just .252 over his six-year big league career. In his final season, however, Thorpe did manage to attain an impressive .327 average for the season. He would continue to play minor league baseball until 1922.

Jim_Thorpe_Giants

Thorpe as a member of the New York Giants (The Sporting News)

In 1915, Jim Thorpe signed a deal to play football with the Canton Bulldogs for $250 per game under general manager Jack Cusack.  Thorpe would play and coach the Canton Bulldogs during his time with the team and was considered one of the best players in the sport at the time. The Bulldogs would claim an unofficial three world championships in 1916, 1917, and 1919. When the National Football League (NFL) was officially formed in 1920, Thorpe was selected to be the league’s first president. Thorpe retired from professional football at age 41, having played 52 NFL games for six teams from 1920 to 1928.

Thorpe married three times throughout his life and had a total of eight children.  After his athletic career came to an end, Thorpe struggled to provide for his family. He found it difficult to work a non-sports-related job and never held a job for an extended period of time.  On March 28, 1953, Jim Thorpe died of heart failure.

Over the years, supporters of Thorpe attempted to have his Olympic titles reinstated. On January 18, 1983, almost 30 years after his death, the International Olympic Committee officially reinstated Thorpe’s medals from the 1912 Games at a ceremony attended by two of his children.

In addition, Jim Thorpe was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951. He was a Charter Enshrinee in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. In 1950, he was named AP’s Most Outstanding Athlete of the First Half of the 20th Century, America’s Greatest Football Player of the half-century, and the national press selected him the most outstanding athlete of the first half of the 20th Century. Thorpe was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1975, and from 1996-2001, he was continuously awarded ABC’s Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Century award.


Cobb: A Biography, by Al Stump

I recently finished making my way through Al Stump’s biography on Ty Cobb, simply titled Cobb: A Biography. I am aware of the criticism this book has received — Stump, it seems, went out of his way to cast Cobb in a less-than-flattering light, even embellishing or making up stories as he did so. Nevertheless, I found this biography intriguing.

Cobb book cover

Al Stump had actually ghostwritten Ty Cobb’s autobiography, My Life in Baseball: The True Record. According to Stump, Cobb was far from being an easy individual to get along with, and there seems to be a consensus that Cobb’s autobiography had been sanitized considerably in order to paint Cobb in a better light. Stump claimed that his motivation for writing this biography after Cobb’s death was to share his own perception of the Georgia Peach. That being said, while it is widely-accepted that Cobb had many faults, this book reads like a revenge. In fact, the original title of this book, when it was first published in 1994, was Cobb: The Life and Times of the Meanest Man in Baseball. The current title actually belongs to a reworked and expanded edition of the book, published in 1996 after Stump’s death.

As a man, Stump paints Cobb as extremely combative, impossible to please, and unreasonably demanding. Clearly, Cobb’s life was a tortured one, what with the strange circumstances surrounding his father’s death when Cobb was still a young man, and his displeasure with the hand dealt him came out in his racism and in how he treated his own wife and children. On the other hand, Cobb the baseball player had an unmatched work ethic, demanding the best of himself as well as of those who played around him. Stump put a lot of focus also on the rivalry between Cobb and Babe Ruth, but in spite of the animosity between the two men, I also sensed a grudging respect between the two. In addition, Stump spent a lot of time exploring Cobb’s business ventures, investments, and his talent for making money.

As a reader, I confess to enjoying the journey through this book. The character of Cobb, as depicted in these pages, is a fascinating one. And while many of the stories in said pages have been discredited, no doubt their presence in the book is part of what makes it so fascinating. I have yet to read Cobb’s original autobiography, and while I’m at it, Charles Leerhsen’s 2016 biography, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, is also on the to-read list. It seems to me that one simply cannot read one without also delving into the other two — at least, not if one wants a truly well-rounded picture of the great Ty Cobb.


NLBM Tribute to Ernie Banks

Yesterday, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum hosted this talk with author Ron Rapoport about Ernie Banks. Rapoport is the author of the biography on Banks appropriately titled Let’s Play Two. This book is currently on my to-read list, but I look forward to getting to it, especially in the wake of this talk with the author. I love how Rapoport makes a point to stress how good of a ballplayer Banks was, a fact that sometimes gets overlooked as so much focus revolves around his sunny personality.

Today would have been Ernie Banks’s 90th birthday. Happy Birthday, Mr. Cub!


The Big Fella, by Jane Leavy

I recently finished making my way through Jane Leavy’s biography on the Great Bambino himself, entitled The Big Fella.  Like anyone else, I have heard most of the stories, I’m aware of the ballplayer’s legendary status, and as a kid, I memorized the list of nicknames spouted off by the kids of The Sandlot.  However, this is the first actual Babe Ruth biography I have ever read.

Fair warning: this biography is quite the tome.  It’s not quite War and Peace, but sitting at over 600 pages, it’s not exactly Animal Farm, either.  In my opinion, though, the journey through this volume is worth the time.  Using the barnstorming tour Babe Ruth took with Lou Gehrig after the 1927 World Series as the framework for the book, Leavy injects details about Ruth’s life and analysis about his personality and character to paint a broad and detailed portrait of the man and the ballplayer.

My favorite feature of this book lies in how human it portrays the Babe.  Ruth often gets depicted as this happy-go-lucky, larger-than-life figure who transcends not only baseball, but American culture itself.  Not that Leavy ignores this facet of Ruth’s character.  In fact, she goes into great detail about how this perception of the Babe pervaded American thought even during his lifetime.  Ruth certainly lived large, and the public loved him so much, the press even willingly kept many of his indiscretions quite.  When some of those indiscretions did leak out, fans were more than willing to overlook them, finding these to be a part of the ballplayer’s charm.

Leavy’s biography doesn’t focus just on this, however.  Ruth’s life, especially as a youth, was not an easy one.  The author includes stories about his birth, early youth, his life at St. Mary’s, and his introduction to professional baseball.  She also talks about Ruth’s drinking and womanizing, and while she doesn’t forgive the Babe for these, Leavy does juxtapose that side of Ruth with his affinity for playing with and helping kids.

The book also delves deeply into Ruth’s relationship with his manager, Christy Walsh.  We get an overview of Ruth’s personal finances, and Leavy demonstrates how much the Babe profited from Christy Walsh’s management.  She conveys the impact Ruth and Walsh had on popular culture, foreshadowing the celebrity-obsessed society that followed them and continues to pervade our world today.

Leavy also does a good job giving us a glimpse into the Babe’s shortcomings as a family man and the impact this had on his daughters.  There is also a great exploration of Ruth’s life after baseball, including the disappointments he faced as he continuously got turned down for management roles.  Leavy goes into detail about his final days, as well, discussing his illness and, ultimately, his death.

Overall, I was impressed.  I did, at times, wish that the structure of the book followed a more linear path, rather than bouncing around Ruth’s life the way that it does, but given the amount of research and detail included in these pages, it’s a shortcoming I’m willing to overlook.


Nolan Ryan documentary

This has to be the cheesiest documentary I have ever watched, but that characteristic actually made it pretty fun.  As you’ll see, the cheese just oozes right from the intro, which I imagine is due in part to the era in which the film was made, while Ryan was still playing ball.  (Seeing a young George W. Bush with dark hair was a little trippy, but not in an intentional way by the filmmakers.)  Nevertheless, this video provides a great look at Ryan’s impressive career.


I Had A Hammer, by Hank Aaron

Hank Aaron’s autobiography, I Had A Hammer, was the final book of the Literature of Baseball course I sat in on this fall semester.  I did not finish reading the book by the end of the semester, but I’ve made a point to get through it since then.  I’m glad to have done so, because I had once started the book many years ago, but never finished it, and now I can say that I have.

I Had a Hammer

Hank Aaron begins by recounting his childhood in Mobile, Alabama, growing up as a poor southern boy sneaking off to play baseball whenever time would allow him to do so.  As a ballplayer, especially as a hitter, Aaron expresses an unwavering confidence in his abilities.  He attributes his successes throughout his career to his ability to concentrate at the plate, no matter what else might be going on in his life.  This allows him to stay consistent as a hitter and to collect hits and home runs even against the best pitchers in professional baseball.  This confidence propels him from the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League to the South Atlantic League, then to the Milwaukee Braves.  With the Braves, Aaron led the team to a World Series victory in 1957 and earned the Most Valuable Player award of the National League.

On April 8, 1974, Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s lifetime home run record of 714. Through this book, the reader gets to glimpse the home run chase from Aaron’s perspective, which was not the same as the perspective of the general public during this period.  In the autobiography are published a handful of the thousands of pieces of hate mail that Hank Aaron received as he pursued the Babe’s record, and many of them are heartbreaking.  Much of the time, I try to keep my faith in humanity, in spite of the hatred and violence and destruction that seems to perpetually permeate our society.  Sometimes, however, I have moments that makes me believe that such faith is useless and that we, as a race, will never change.  Reading these pieces of hate mail sent to Aaron was one of those moments.  I considered sharing one or two of them here, but they are all so repugnant that I honestly don’t have it in me to even retype them.

Aaron describes it best early in the book when he writes, “The Ruth chase should have been the greatest period of my life, and it was the worst.  I couldn’t believe there was so much hatred in people.  It’s something I’m still trying to get over, and maybe I never will.”

On the other hand, when word of all the hate mail reached the media, fans responded with letters of support.

Dear Hank,

I understand you get a lot of crank letters concerning breaking Ruth’s record.  Enclosed is something [matches taped to the page] that will take care of those letters.

Letter like these, I think, are what keep me from giving up completely.  I don’t want to speak for Hank Aaron, though I’d like to think that he feels the same way about them.

Aaron also set all-time records for total bases and RBIs. He ended his playing days by spending two seasons back in Milwaukee with the expansion team Brewers, then began a new career as an executive with the Atlanta Braves.

Off the field, as time went by, Hank Aaron spoke out more and more against the blatant bigotry that he observed taking place around him.  For a long time, Aaron was the highest-ranking black in baseball. In this position, Aaron became an unofficial spokesman in racial matters as they pertain to the game.

What I love about this autobiography is that it is so much more than just a baseball book.  Hank Aaron, along with Lonnie Wheeler, opens our eyes up to the world of bigotry and discrimination that some of us never experience in our day-to-day lives.  And while baseball and the country has come a long way since Aaron’s first days in baseball, he points out that we still have a long way to go.