October 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 6
The numbers are pretty clear on who it is—but the numbers don’t begin to suggest the dimensions of this story
The fin-de-siÈcle, an arbitrary phenomenon created by calendars of our own construction, elicits some mighty peculiar behavior in that biological oddball known as Homo sapiens —from mass suicides designed to free souls for union with spaceships behind cometary tails to trips to Fiji for a first view of the new millennium. Among the more benign manifestations, we might list our own propensity for making lists of the best and the worst where calendrical cycles end by our own fiat.
Among the various impediments to fair and honorable listing, no factor could be more distorting—or of more immediate concern to devotees of this magazine—than the virtual erasure of historical knowledge among so many people who grew up with a television in each room, not a book in the house, and a conviction that last year’s models must be antiquated, and last decade’s versions both extinct and erased from memory. In this context the greatest American athlete of the century must stand directly before us, either in the full flower of current performance or in constantly reiterated images of various media. Therefore the title could go only to Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali, and why should anyone want to look elsewhere when directly confronted with such magnificence? (I make this last statement in full belief and without a trace of sarcasm, for these two men continue to awe and thrill me.)
Any great cycle also deserves recognition at the halfway point. In 1950 the Associated Press conducted an extensive poll of American sportswriters and broadcasters to determine the best football player of the half-century. Jim Thorpe beat Red Grange by 170 votes to 138, with Bronko Nagurski a distant third at 38. Three weeks later the same professional group voted for the greatest male athlete of the preceding fifty years, with the same winner, but by a larger margin: Jim Thorpe received 252 of 393 first-place votes, with Babe Ruth second at 86, Jack Dempsey third at 19, Ty Cobb fourth at 11, and at a distance surely recording the realities of racism, Joe Louis sixth at 5.
I was then, at age eight, a nascent sports nut and statistics maven. I well remember both these polls and the consensus among sports fans of all generations that Jim Thorpe was the world’s greatest living athlete—an impression heightened in 1951, when the popular film Jim Thorpe—All American , starring Burt Lancaster, told his story in the conventional hagiographic mode for youngsters like me who had never seen Thorpe in action.
This consensus has since evaporated. In fact I wonder if most younger fans have even heard of Jim Thorpe, a situation that can only be chalked up to the status of history (defined as anything unexperienced) as a tabula rasa for the “now” generation. Yet as I contemplated this assignment to write about the greatest American athlete of the twentieth century and thought about my own heroes, from Louis and DiMaggio in childhood to Jordan and Ali today, I could only conclude that the old consensus cannot be seriously challenged (except, just perhaps, by Man o’ War—and he couldn’t hit a curve, among other disqualifying factors of a more directly zoological nature).
For the bare bones, Jim Thorpe (1888-1953), of predominantly Sank and Fox descent, grew up in a region now called Oklahoma but formerly designated as Indian Territory. He attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where he starred on football teams drawn from small numbers of impoverished students playing with poor equipment under terrible conditions—but coached by the legendary “Pop” Warner. The Carlisle team regularly defeated the best Ivy League, Big Ten, and military squads. Thorpe, who excelled in almost every sport he ever attempted, won both the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. He played professional baseball, mostly with the New York Giants, for several years (1913-19), and then became the greatest star in the early days of American professional football (1915-29).
Despite my affection for statistics, I do not think that such assessments can be made “by the numbers.” Thorpe’s incomparable greatness must be viewed as a singular tapestry, woven from several disparate threads into a unity for one distinct time and one unrepeatable set of circumstances: the off-the-scale numbers, the intense dedication and unbounded enthusiasm, the crushing obstacles posed by racism and a sanctimonious sports establishment.
In a run for the title of greatest athlete—not best boxer (Ali, Louis, Dempsey, Robinson, or Marciano), basketball player (Jordan hands down, as much as I loved Bird), or home-run hitter (Ruth, Maris, Aaron, McGwire, now don’t get me started on this one!)—Thorpe wins by several laps for two key reasons.
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.
When the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) discovered this “transgression” of their sacred rules, Thorpe lost his medals, and the distant second-place finishers received both the titles and the objects. (To complete the humiliation, Thorpe not only lost his records but was also browbeaten into returning the medals themselves, even after humbling himself and begging forgiveness for his supposed sins, and despite support from most major sportsmen and the American public.)
The resulting humiliation marked and destroyed this wonderfully proud man. Thorpe’s name became inextricably linked with the incubus of this supposed misdeed. (I purposely left this topic for the end, and I’ll wager that most readers have been wondering throughout the piece, “Well, when is he going to discuss those Olympic medals?”) Chief Meyers, Thorpe’s roommate and a great catcher for the New York Giants, recalled (note also the paternalism reflected in the almost automatic decision to pair Indian players as roommates, and in the epithet “Chief” applied to nearly all Indian ballplayers at the time): “Jim was very proud of the great things he’d done. A very proud man. . . . Very late one night Jim came in and woke me up. . . . He was crying, and tears were rolling down his cheeks. ‘You know, Chief,’ he said, ‘the King of Sweden gave me those trophies, he gave them to me. But they took them away from me. They’re mine, Chief, I won them fair and square.’ It broke his heart and he never really recovered.”
Far too late to appease Thorpe’s wounds, and despite arguments and pleas that never abated, the U.S. Olympic Committee finally restored Thorpe’s amateur status in 1973, twenty years after his death. The Olympic medals were returned to his family in 1982. (Avery Brundage, a “gentleman” of wealth and breeding, had competed against Thorpe, and lost, in both the pentathlon and decathlon in 1912. He later became the aristocratic and sanctimonious head of the International Olympic Committee and never wavered on this issue, while hypocritically proclaiming his personal sympathy with Thorpe.)
Any further moralizing could only be tendentious. As Ethel Barrymore famously said, “That’s all there is, there isn’t any more.” I would only close with this footnote: According to legend, the King of Sweden, in presenting the Olympic medals to Jim Thorpe, said, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.” To this basic factual judgment, Thorpe replied, in his own elegantly simple way, “Thanks, King.” And what can we say but “Thanks, Jim.”