- Historic Sites
The Athlete Of The Century
The numbers are pretty clear on who it is—but the numbers don’t begin to suggest the dimensions of this story
October 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 6
1. Versatility. Superlative athletes often perform well in several sports. No one but Thorpe has ever been the best of all in so many. He was America’s number one football player and general track-and-field man at the same time. He also played major league baseball for several seasons and excelled in lacrosse and swimming (while dabbling with success in boxing, basketball, and hockey). He won both of the most diverse and grueling Olympic competitions in 1912— the pentathlon (running broad jump, javelin throw, two-hundred-meter dash, discus throw, and fifteen-hundred-meter race) and the ten-event decathlon (these multiple events had been introduced into the 1912 Olympics at the behest of European athletes, who complained that American styles of training, based on intense specialization, failed to showcase European strength in general fitness). John McGraw, the feisty New York Giants manager, did not like Thorpe and branded him with an unfair epithet that stuck: the old charge that he couldn’t hit a curve ball. In fact, Thorpe performed competently (though not brilliantly) in professional baseball, compiling a lifetime batting average of .252 in six seasons as an outfielder. (By contrast, Michael Jordan really couldn’t hit a curve. I greatly admire Jordan’s perseverance during his full-season baseball “sabbatical,” but he barely cracked .200 in minor-league ball.)
2. Extent of excelling. In the same sense that Maris’s home-run record is vulnerable (and will probably fall this season), while DiMaggio’s hitting streak may stand for generations, Thorpe not only won all these events but usually relegated the opposition to embarrassing relative incompetence, putting more distance between himself and the second-place finisher than the full range from the penultimate score to the very bottom. (Maris hit 61, but Ruth hit 60, Ruth again at 59, Greenberg, Foxx, and McGwire at 58, Griffey and Wilson at 56, et cetera, while Rose and Keeler, at 44, can’t even reach DiMaggio’s shadow at 56.)
The narratives of Thorpe’s collegiate football career frequently descend to near comedy (for the relative ineptitude of others), as Thorpe wins game after game, virtually all by himself (often scoring all the points by kicking field goals every time his team penetrates the opponent’s territory). Thorpe won the pentathlon with 7 points (on the basis of a scoring system of 1 for a first-place finish, 2 for second place, and so on). The next six competitors scored 21, 29, 29, 30, 31, and 32. He then won the decathlon with 8,413 out of 10,000 possible points. The runner-up scored 7,724, with five others above 7,000.
A heroic tale in a decent nation would end here, but if you know anything about Jim Thorpe, you recognize that I must now add the sad and final chapter. Like so many athletes, Thorpe knew no other life and could never adjust to other professions and realities once his bodily strengths faded. He tried the usual range of activities, from inspirational speeches before civic groups to bit parts in movies. But nothing worked for him, and Thorpe died in poverty, wrecked by alcohol and scarred by two failed marriages and the early deaths of close family members.
To this sad generality, we must add Thorpe’s additional burden of an Indian heritage in a largely racist nation, a burden that destroyed him in both a general and a specific way. I cannot begin to measure, or even understand, the generality, but a man of Thorpe’s intense pride must have railed inwardly—with a galling bitterness that may have propelled him to self-destruction—against the stereotype of his people (gross enough as an abstraction) constantly applied to his own being. I read several biographies of Thorpe to prepare this piece, and nothing struck me more profoundly than the constant drumbeat of this deprecation, from the paternalism of Pop Warner, speaking of his good-hearted but naive braves (led by a great chief who would always need his white handler) to the caricatures of even the best-intentioned reporters, as in this characteristic newspaper account of a Carlisle victory over Georgetown in 1911: “Not since Custer made his last stand against Sitting Bull at the Little Big Horn had a battle between redskins and palefaces been so ferociously fought as that which was waged on Georgetown field yesterday afternoon, when the husky tribe of chiefs from Carlisle savagely forced Georgetown’s weak, though gallant, cohorts to bite the dust 28 to 5.”
The specific story must rank among the saddest incidents in American history—for all its implications about ideals versus actualities and for all the personal pain thus inflicted upon the greatest athlete this country has ever produced. As an impoverished Indian college student, Thorpe received a few dollars for playing semiprofessional baseball in the summers of 1909 and 1910. He was following a common practice among athletes—just a more pleasant way than farm work to make some necessary and minimal cash during the summer break—but he didn’t know the accepted ruse of not using one’s real name and therefore not jeopardizing one’s amateur status. His “handlers,” including Pop Warner, must have known (for Thorpe hadn’t hidden his activities and didn’t recognize their consequences for amateur athletes), but these coaches couldn’t forgo such a grand opportunity as the Olympics, and they let Thorpe compete.