Friday, October 14, 2011

93. Jim Thorpe: A Minor Oversight

Back in 1983 I was in my 8th grade English class when this kid named Brian sitting next to me dropped a copy of Sports Illustrated which he was secretly reading and was cleverly hidden in his textbook. The magazine hit the wooden floor, gathered air beneath its spread-out pages, accelerated and shot across the aisle, coming to a halt under my chair. The teacher was this tall, mustachioed thug who liked slapping us kids around for minor infractions, so I quickly snapped up the magazine so that Brian didn't get caught. I didn't particularly care for Brian, but that teacher was a full-blown dangerous psychotic and it was an unwritten rule that while in his class us kids all looked out for one another. I slipped the magazine in my desk and that sick teacher never noticed. Not only did I save Brian from a beating, but I discovered Jim Thorpe that day. The main article was on the International Olympic Committee giving the long-deceased Thorpe's 2 gold medals back to his children. Jim Thorpe, the greatest athlete of the 20th Century, I learned, forfeited his gold because he played two seasons of baseball in the minor leagues...

After excelling in every sport the Carlisle Indian Industrial School had to offer - football, track, baseball and even lacrosse, Jim Thorpe jumped at the chance to make a few bucks playing low-level minor league baseball in North Carolina. A few of his schoolmates had already accepted offers to play down south and in the spring of 1909 he joined his former Carlisle teammates Joe Libby and Jesse Longdeer on the Rocky Mount Railroaders of the Class-D Eastern Carolina League. Making about $15 a game, Thorpe played most positions in the infield and outfield but mostly was utilized as a pitcher. Rocky Mount was the worst team in the league that year and Thorpe registered a 9-10 record at the season's end, but upon a closer look he didn't have as mediocre a season as it appears. 6'-1" and powerful, Thorpe was raw and sometimes wild but had a few good games including 2 shutouts. In August before a home crowd "The Big Chief" as he was called, pitched both ends of a doubleheader against the Goldsboro Giants, dropping the first but winning the second game.

Rocky Mount was a town that had no love for people of color, even if they played on the towns own baseball team. "Coloreds" (which apparently included Native Americans) were expected to stay out of the downtown area and use a "colored road" outside of town to go from one part of town to the other. Thorpe and his two Carlisle teammates, Joe Libby and Jesse Longdeer, discovered this the hard way when they cut through town on their way to the ball field and were set upon by a local cop. When the officer shoved Thorpe he promptly knocked him out cold. The three ballplayers spent the night in jail and Libby and Longdeer left the team short there after.

Away from the discipline of the Carlisle Indian School, Thorpe seems to have cut loose during the season and he had a few additional scrapes with the law due to alcohol. One story has him wandering drunk downtown and smashing his head through a store window on a $5 bet. Another night he and teammate Marvin O’Gara went at each other in a drunken brawl and Thorpe had to be physically cuffed and dragged to the police station by a team of cops. O’Gara wound up being arrested as well after he was apprehended antagonizing Thorpe through the bars of his cell window.

Thorpe reported to Rocky Mount the next season and during spring training injured his arm. The Railroaders made another poor showing in 1910 but Thorpe's pitching kept the team competitors. Although he wound up with a 10-10 record, 5 of those loses were by a single run. The Rocky Mount team eventually traded Thorpe to the Fayetteville Highlanders near the end of the season. In his only game on the mound for the Highlanders Thorpe was unimpressive and got the loss. Manager Charlie Clancy decided to move the big fellow over to first base and his batting started to get a little better by the time the season ended. Unfortunately Thorpe didn't get along with Charlie Clancy, probably because of his thirst for the nightlife. His propensity towards alcohol fueled mischief followed him to Fayetteville and one time an inebriated Thorpe fought off 5 police officers before smashing his head through another window. Still refusing to submit to the law, the police called in the president of the Fayetteville team to try to calm him down, all to no avail. Finally an officer lassoed Thorpe, tied up the big man and subdued him with chloroform him until he was docile enough to be taken to a hospital.

By all reports he showed promise as a pitcher but needed a lot of coaching, both on the field and off. At the plate he hovered around .250 and had trouble with curve balls, something that would haunt him throughout his baseball career. On the base paths he was pretty fast and stole 11 bases in 1910. For unknown reasons Thorpe didn't return to Fayetteville the following season but concentrated on amateur track and field events. Technically, Thorpe forfeited his eligibility to compete because he accepted money to play baseball.

In 1912 as a member of the United States Olympic Team, Thorpe won 2 gold medals and was declared by the King of Sweden to be the world's greatest athlete. A hero upon his arrival back in the states, Thorpe's new-found fame quickly turned dark fast. Almost at once rumors started to swirl about him playing professional baseball somewhere down south - a no-no if you want to be eligible for the Olympics. While many college athletes played sports for money and kept their eligibility, Thorpe neglected to do what they all had done: use a false name. It wasn't hard to find records pertaining to Thorpe's 2 years in the Eastern Carolina League and there was one guy in particular who helped make sure the story had legs.

Fayetteville manager Charlie Clancy seems to have gone out of his way to make the story of Thorpe's baseball career known. Not only did he volunteer the story to a local reporter, he sweetened the pot with a few seamy stories about the Olympian's taste for the nightlife and even called him "yellow" on the mound because he claimed he would develop a sore arm after 7 innings and would magically be fine the next day. The story was picked up in a few newspapers and that, coupled with an anonymous teammate ratting him out to another newspaper effectively sealed Thorpe's fate. He came clean about playing in North Carolina but claimed he did not know it was against the Olympic rules. Charlie Clancy, for what it's worth, backtracked and tried to redact his story but the dam had burst. His 2 gold medals were swiftly taken away from him.

Jim Thorpe went on to become a household name during the teens and twenties as he played professional baseball with the Giants, Reds and Braves from 1913 to 1919 as well as what passed for pro-football with the Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, New York Football Giants and Chicago Cardinals. After his athletic career ebbed he struggled to hold a job, the boozing he started in his minor league days finally developing into alcoholism. He died almost penniless in 1953 at the age of 64.

In January of 1983 the International Olympic Committee officially gave Jim Thorpe's 2 children his gold medals back.

I had been wanting to do a Jim Thorpe card for quite a while but it took me a while to gather enough info on that part of his life. 2 books that were really helpful were Kate Buford's "Native American Son" and William Cook's "Jim Thorpe: A Biography." For a much more in depth look at the pre-Olympic baseball career of Jim Thorpe, please go to Brian McKenna's classy and well-researched Baseball History Blog. Don't just stop at the Thorpe article, there are a whole lot of other nice pieces by Brian on there that are very interesting.

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