A Hearing for Jim Thorpe,
an Exercise in Frustration
by Michael L. Sheaffer Haynes Bridge Publishing

"We're supposed to be objective, but inside, we're just men who can't help rooting for one or the other."

Jim Thorpe may well be one of the best known athletes of the 20th Century. Although he competed in the pentathlon and decathlon events in the Fifth Olympiad in 1912 and won only two medals, his name was mentioned during the opening ceremonies of the Thirtieth Olympiad in 2012. King Gustav V of Sweden remarked "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world," and Thorpe replied, "Thanks, King." However, it was the major controversy of Thorpe's life that overshadowed his athletic abilities, which Sheaffer brings this to life in his excellent reexamination and re-imagination of those events.

One year after winning the gold, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) followed the AAU (American Athlete Union) in stripping Thorpe of his awards and medals. Reports had appeared in the Worcester Telegram, detailing the story of Charles Clancy, the current Winston-Salem baseball manager. Clancy claimed he had employed Thorpe on two of his semi-professional teams in the summer of 1909 and 1910. This changed Thorpe's status from amateur to professional. The article also painted Thorpe as guilty of public drunkenness and of "being cowardly" as a baseball player. Thorpe admitted to receiving about $2.00 ($50.00 today) per game. College players at that time regularly played in minor league games, but used aliases. Jim Thorpe had not, however. AAU director James Sullivan pressed hard for Thorpe to surrender his Olympic medals. A letter appeared, supposedly penned by Thorpe to Sullivan, admitting his guilt but pleading that he was "simply an Indian school boy and did not know about such things." Sullivan remained adamant.

The author grew up in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which is the setting for the story. He assumes the viewpoint of Bud Murphy, sports reporter, who arrives in Carlisle to cover a hearing being held in the Cumberland County Courthouse at some unspecified time after the events in 1913. The hearing is to decide whether Jim Thorpe deserves to have his medals and record reinstated. Bud checks into the Molly Pitcher Hotel and in no time sits down to have dinner with Glenn "Pops" Warner, the head coach at the Indian Industrial School, where he coached Thorpe. Also present is Moses Friedman, the current school superintendent. Bud learns of how Jim came to the Indian School in 1904 and was soon noticed for his athlete ability. Warner's team of football players, with Thorpe among them, drew huge crowds and became the highest scoring team in 1912. Thorpe led them to defeat the Army team, 27-6.

The hearing begins the next day and continues for several more—a long parade of the relevant personages making appearances on the witness stand for or against Jim Thorpe. James Sullivan, Charles Clancy, and Ray Thomas, the reporter who first broke the story, give the negative side. Avery Brundage, Thorpe's teammate on the Olympic team who lost to him in both events, also testifies against him. King Gustav V of Sweden pleads to return the medals, as does Gus Hall, an Indian teammate of Thorpe's. The people of Carlisle provide support for Jim by erupting into spontaneous cheers which Judge Parker immediately quells by banging his gavel.

When a final decision is reached, Judge Parker announces that he has come down on the side of the IOC's strict demarcations between what is professional and what is amateur. Thorpe will not have his honors reinstated, and public opinion, at least in Carlisle, is one of disappointment. However, Bud manages to have dinner with Judge Parker, who explains that, personal feelings aside, he had to follow the explicit rules the IOC set down on the matter, but the judge does suggest that if the AAU knew that Thorpe had played semi-professionally and only reversed their position on Thorpe's amateur status when they could no longer hide his activities, then a reversal would be in order. Determined to find a loophole, Bud discovers that the IOC broke its own rules by registering protests against Thorpe well after thirty days following the closing ceremonies. The time line is clear. The original newspaper article, which touched off the wave of protest against Thorpe, had appeared almost six months after the closing ceremonies in Stockholm.

Sheaffer's historical fiction is an excellent introduction to a great American athlete and his times. Portraying the town of Carlisle and the people with great affection, the author evokes nostalgia for the simpler times of the early 20th Century, even as he brings Thorpe's adversaries to life. Bud is a likable character, and the scenario of the hearing provides a convenient rallying point for the issues being examined. In real life, the IOC did nothing for Thorpe. In fact, the IOC has a history of reacting slowly when adapting its regulations to the needs and circumstances of competing athletes. On October 1981, the IOC named Thorpe "co-champion" along with the two runners-up in the decathlon and pentathlon, although those two athletes had refused to accept Thorpe's forfeited gold medals in 1912.

In a day and age of conspiracy theories and cover-ups, Jim Thorpe's fate, as portrayed in this compelling story, carries its own set of mysteries. Did Warner, Friedman, and Sullivan know of Thorpe's (and others) semi-professional status and then tried to protect themselves from damage by penning the famous "letter" to Sullivan? Pops Warner had regularly recommended his players to semi-pro baseball teams during the summer months, long before the Thorpe issue arose, and he had even dropped baseball as a sport at the Carlisle school in 1910 because of "summer professionalism." It was Sullivan who insisted that Thorpe surrender his medals, not the IOC, although it bowed to pressure. Perhaps the men against Thorpe did not fully understand their own motivations. The shrinking world of newspapers and telegrams was just beginning. Perhaps they did not think that the old-boy network of semi-pro baseball during the summer would ever be exposed. In any case, their reputations were maintained, and Warner went on to lasting recognition in football. Sullivan died in 1914, but received laudatory columns in the New York Times and fanfare as a champion of sports. Only Thorpe failed to flourish. His athletic career afterward was lackluster and he succumbed to alcoholism in later life, and long before his honors were restored, Jim Thorpe died in 1953 at the age of 64 in relative poverty.

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