Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 15 Number 3
May 1976

 

 

JIM THORPE:
LEGEND AND LEGACY

Michael D. Koehler

I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and I did not know all about such things." With the help of Pop Warner, his coach, and Moses Friedman, the Superintendent of the Carlisle Indian School, Jim Thorpe wrote the above in a letter to the Amateur Athletic Union, following accusations that he had violated his amateur standing. During the summer of 1909, he had played for and received the financial equivalent of room and board from a semi-professional baseball team in the East Carolina League, the Rocky Mount Railroaders. A humble and unfortunate precursor of his more notable physical accomplishments, Thorpe’s experience with Rocky Mount was at once to intensify his love of athletics and to initiate the first in a chain of events which would lead to personal and, perhaps, national tragedy.

Amid a myriad of physical and personal accomplishments which, when considered in historical perspective, spotlight Thorpe as a uniquely gifted athlete, two remain paragons of athletic achievement. During the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Jim Thorpe became the first and only athlete to win both the pentathlon and the decathlon, an accomplishment which evidenced the full range of his athletic abilities and earned him the title of "The Greatest Athlete in the World," an honor which was to be reaffirmed 38 years later when the nation’s sports writers voted him the greatest athlete of the half century. Following his experience in the Olympics, Thorpe returned to Carlisle to have, perhaps, his greatest year in football, scoring an unprecedented 25 touchdowns and accumulating a total of 198 points in a single season.

The loftiest peak in an amazing athletic career, Thorpe’s physical accomplishments in 1912 were to achieve international recognition and were to place him among the giants in the world of sport. The fall from such a peak is sometimes predictable and always tragic. No one, especially Thorpe, could have predicted the sudden and dramatic decline of his athletic fortunes. While Thorpe was practicing baseball at Worcester and enjoying the attention of children and reporters alike, he was spotted by Charley Glancy, a former coach at Rocky Mount. Mr. Glancy mentioned to Roy Johnson, a reporter with the Worcester Telegram, that he had coached Thorpe several years ago in the semi-pro league.

Although such forms of professionalism, especially during the summer months, were characteristic of vast numbers of college athletes, no single athlete of Thorpe’s stature had ever before been so dramatically victimized by circumstance. Because Thorpe played under his own name, a routine examination of Rocky Mount’s team roster substantiated Glancy’s claim and provided Johnson with a story that ultimately was to divest Thorpe of his Olympic trophies and records and was to shock sports fans the world over.

A closer examination of historical data reveals two interesting elements of Thorpe’s pre-Olympic athletic career. As was the case with all the Indians at schools like Carlisle and Haskell, Thorpe and the other athletes had to request from their agents back home increases in their normal allotments for clothing needs or special occasions. Because so many of the Indians, especially the athletes, were in their late teens or well into their twenties during their tenure at Carlisle, the ongoing financial dependency they experienced became more and more distasteful to them with each passing season. That explains why, when Thorpe left Carlisle to play at Rocky Mount, no one at the school expected him to return. It also may explain the reason why he used his real name for the team roster. He doubtlessly expected his experience at Rocky Mount to supplement his agency income, thereby allaying much of his financial dependency. Certainly he expected it to be a first step toward a career in the major leagues, which, ironically, it was to become.

The second element also relates to Thorpe’s financial situation. Receiving financial compensation for participating in football or track really was nothing new to Thorpe or, for that matter, to any of the Carlisle athletes. Pop Warner was not only one of football’s most capable coaches but also one of its shrewdest promoters. Recognizing the financial needs of virtually all of his athletes and acknowledging the need to sustain a high caliber athletic program for the small Indian school, Warner tried to do two things: win football games and make money. He was inordinately successful at doing both. He maintained a sophisticated publicity program and scheduled most of his games with larger, more financially secure universities. His yearly budget, therefore, even after the sizable profit afforded Carlisle, enabled him to maintain one of the best training tables in the nation plus subsidizing the athletes’ clothing and miscellaneous needs.

He had little alternative but to do so. Contrary to many of the popular legends surrounding the athletic domination of Carlisle during the early 1900s, the football team did not consist of a providential mix of straggle-haired Indian schoolboys. Because Warner was able to recruit from many of the Indian agencies across the country, he was able to select from among some of the most athletically talented Indians available. Given the additional benefit of a very generous budget, be was able to entice many of his athletes into "postgraduate" work. The end result was not little Carlisle taking on the football giants of the day; rather it was a group of highly-conditioned, physically-mature Indian athletes receiving some of the best coaching available in the United States at that time. Thorpe himself, at the end of the 1912 season, was 24 years old but not the oldest team player.

When considering Jim Thorpe’s "mistake," therefore, those interested in it should be careful to maintain proper perspective. Jim Thorpe was made of the stuff of which legends are built His twin brother had died at an early age, some say of malnutrition; his early home life had been characterized by poverty and general insecurity; and yet he had achieved international recognition as one of the world’s supremely gifted athletes. Inevitably, the terrible circumstances of his fall only magnified the singularity of his talents.

Since legends are a staple of the world of sports, they cannot be treated casually or irreverently. Neither must they be allowed to obscure the fundamental humanity of those they uplift. Thorpe was a talented and dedicated athlete. His physical gifts, when properly supervised under the capable training of someone like Pop Warner, were to mature and gain him the world recognition of an Olympic gold medalist and an All-American football player. He was later to continue his athletic career in both pro baseball and pro football, still maintaining his reputation as one of America’s most talented athletes. So much for the legends.

When all is said and done and if we take the time to reassess his mistake through the more illuminating light of historical perspective, we realize that Jim Thorpe had been a subsidized athlete and had seen many of his friends supplement their meager allowances by playing professional baseball. Regardless of his alleged naivete and considering the conditions within which he found himself, his mistake becomes an error more in life’s circumstance than in personal judgment. And perhaps the time is ripe for the world who immortalized him to now forgive him.

As witnessed in the last (1976) Winter Olympics, the internationally recognized subsidization of hockey players from Russia and of alpine skiers from other countries underscores the ever-broadening definition of "amateurism." Consider also the fact that the "silent majority" in America, until recently perhaps, has been heard more often than the "voiceless minorities," especially the Indian minority. Thorpe’s problems with subsidization and cultural insularity seem a microcosm of the more general Indian situation. It is not so ironic, then, that Jim Thorpe, who might otherwise have been to all Indians a model of achievement, left behind him instead a legend of athletic superiority and a legacy of personal and, perhaps, cultural futility.

Fortunately, some people are doing something about it. Jim Thorpe’s three daughters, Grace, Charlotte and Gail, actively have been promoting the Indian cause for the past several years. When her daughter left for college, Grace sold her home in Pearl River, New York, withdrew her life’s savings and invested both her money and herself in providing Indians and Indian agencies with necessary consultative assistance regarding their relationships with the federal government and their use of federal funds. She has been involved in innumerable speaking engagements and, living in Oklahoma, is now totally involved in the Indian cause. Charlotte and Gail, living in Phoenix and Chicago respectively, although employed on a full-time basis in other fields, are also traveling extensively and actively seeking out opportunities to benefit Indians across the country.

Due to their efforts primarily and to the generous assistance of United States Senators, such as Burdick from South Dakota and Percy from Illinois, Jim Thorpe’s amateur status during the years 1909 through 1912 is being re-evaluated. Again, the nation and the world is being given the opportunity to forgive Thorpe and to acknowledge officially his reputation as one of the world’s greatest athletes.

The United States Olympic Committee and the Amateur Athletic Union are among the more prestigious organizations seeking the reinstatement of Thorpe’s amateur status. The ultimate decision, however, must be made by Lord Michael Killanin and the International Olympic Committee. Among the many private citizens who have sent letters to the IOC in Lausanne, Switzerland, clearly the most significant has been from President Gerald Ford, who said, "I hope the Committee will consider this request and act with a sense of equity in the light of history and of the contribution that Jim Thorpe has made to the world of sport."

No time seems more appropriate to reinstate Thorpe’s amateur standing than during America’s bicentennial year and the year of the twenty-first Olympiad. He has been punished long enough.

Michael D. Koehler holds a Ph.D. degree in Educational Administration and is presently administrative assistant to the Superintendent, Township High School District 113 in Mundelein, Illinois. In a cover letter, he wrote that the article was written ". . . primarily in response to the efforts of my family to help reinstate Jim Thorpe’s amateur status. We are anxious to accomplish the task before the summer Olympics, if possible. . . . I am hopeful that it will elicit more support for the cause . . . first of all and most importantly, I am Jim Thorpe’s grandson. I was a high school All-America in football at Chicago’s Mt. Carmel High School and played college football, with scholarships, at Marquette University and the University of Nebraska. I recently have completed my Ph.D., am a member of Phi Kappa Phi, and am a counselor at Deerfield High School in Deerfield, Illinois."

 
 
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