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Jim Thorpe: Oral history project in 1960s becomes quest to right wrong
Case in point? At the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Mr. Adams said, organizers staged a “human zoo” sideshow in which various ethnic groups would “reenact their daily lives.”
“They would have the groups do track and field events without any training to supposedly test whether savages were ‘natural athletes’ or not,” Mr. Adams said. “Of course, their performances were abysmal. The underlying idea was the United States — which was fighting a war in the Philippines — was civilizing savage people, bringing them into the light.”
Though the 1912 Olympic team featured a number of standout American Indian athletes — including distance running silver medalist Lewis Tewanima and swimming gold medalist Duke Kahanamoku — it was Thorpe’s transcendent performance that did the most to erode racial prejudice.
“The Carlisle football team toured nationally, and contemporary reports tell us that the crowds usually rooted for them,” Mr. Adams said. “But Thorpe’s achievements in Stockholm were on behalf of the American team. His jersey had red, white and blue on it.”
In 1951, the Associated Press selected Thorpe as the Most Outstanding Male Athlete of the first half of the 20th century. Baseball slugger Babe Ruth — cultural icon with a semi-eponymous candy bar — finished a distant second. And why not?
Thorpe played pro basketball, barnstorming across New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. He was offered $50,000 to become a professional boxer. He signed with Major League Baseball’s New York Giants for $6,000 — the largest-ever rookie contract at the time &mdash and drew 20,000 fans, including King George V, to an exhibition baseball game held in London.
Thorpe made his biggest mark in football. In 1915, he signed with the Canton Bulldogs; immediately, the team went from attracting about 800 fans per game to as many as 12,000. The Bulldogs won three championships, and in 1920 they joined 13 other teams in the nascent American Professional Football Association, which two years later became the NFL.
Thorpe also was known for controversy: Following the 1912 games, the International Olympic Committee stripped him of his gold medals after discovering that he had received a few dollars a day for playing minor league summer baseball, a violation of Olympic amateurism rules.
In response, Thorpe proffered an apology letter that in part read, “I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know all about such things. In fact, I did not know that I was doing wrong, because I was doing what I knew several other college men had done, except that they did not use their own names.”
The American public, Mr. Adams said, mostly sided with Thorpe. The IOC was unmoved. The stalemate persisted well past Thorpe’s 1953 death, with IOC president Avery Brundage — a former Olympic teammate of Thorpe’s — once declaring that “ignorance is no excuse.”
Enter Mr. Wheeler. As he crisscrossed the country for nearly two years, reconstructing the life and times of his childhood hero, he noticed something: No one declined an interview request.
“People fed me,” Mr. Wheeler said. “They let me spend the night at their homes. Either they admired Jim Thorpe, or they felt he had suffered one of the great injustices in sports history, and maybe I could help clear that up.”
Mr. Wheeler resolved to do just that. He dug up documentation showing that Thorpe played summer baseball at Warner’s request, the better to stay in shape. He started a petition drive, collaborating with the Jaycees and Native American tribes to collect about 3.5 million signatures.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist who holds degrees from Georgetown and Northwestern. He also contributes to ESPN.com and The Atlantic Online, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter (@patrick_hruby) and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.
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