Sunday, August 12, 2012

Jim Thorpe, Almost in Fitchburg Colors

The 2012 London Olympics has captured the attention of most Americans for the past few weeks. Sure, some athletes and sports are more popular than others (Michael Phelps/Swimming, Misty May-Treanor/Women's Beach Volleyball) but the Olympics are also the penultimate stage for athletic achievements. Each Olympics features many World Records being set and broken and some even set and broken again. It is a natural obsession to be awed in the continual 'one-upping' of physical efforts.

One of my favorite topics has been the one hundred year anniversary of Jim Thorpe's gold medal victories in the pentathlon and decathlon. 

It was because of these two medals that King Gustav V of Sweden was rumored to have told Thorpe, "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world."
Fig. 1: Jim Thorpe at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden
A quick glance at the athletic resume of Thorpe reveals his natural prowess at nearly every popular sport: football, baseball and even basketball, in addition to his Olympic pursuits. It was his baseball years that had me naturally intrigued. 

Thorpe played professional baseball primarily with the New York Giants, but also played a year with the Cincinnati Reds and Boston Braves. His last year at the major league level was 1919, the same year as the infamous Black Sox Scandal.

According to Baseball-Reference, Thorpe played for three minor league teams in the 1922 season: the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League, as well as the Hartford Senators and the Fitchburg/Worcester Boosters of the Eastern League. The 1922 season would prove to be the final season for Thorpe's baseball career.

Fig. 2: Sports headline from June 23rd, 1922 issue of the Fitchburg Sentinel

Following a suspension from the Hartford Senators, there were strong efforts from Fitchburg club owner, John Kiernan, to entice Thorpe to come to the mill city. The efforts, unfortunately, were not enough for Hartford, who ended up releasing Thorpe to Worcester. The Greatest Athlete in the World hit .344 in his final year of minor league ball, at age 35.

Ten years removed from his Olympics performance, Thorpe was still a draw to the towns and cities he visited. It is still a spectacle to see some of yesterday's athletes in the flesh, or better yet, in a smaller setting. This past May, I went to the opening night of the Worcester Tornadoes primarily to see Jose Canseco. A few years ago, incidentally, at another Tornadoes game I attended, Eric Gagne, was the starting pitcher for the Quebec Capitales. Gagne scrubbed out of his MLB career with admissions to steroid abuse after a spectacular fall from grace. It may be the stuff of legends and hearsay, but it has often been claimed that "Shoeless" Joe Jackson played amateur baseball under a pseudonym after being banned from the major leagues. 

It's been said that Thorpe did not manage his money and fame very well and was constantly in need of extra cash. The same can probably be said of both Canseco and Gagne, playing in much smaller market venues. Whatever their motives or reasons for returning to the game, being able to see your heroes on your turf, is still magical. I'm sure the folks of Fitchburg were more than excited to see the greatest athlete in the world grace their field, even if the stakes were not so high.

Fig. 3: Jim Thorpe batting for the New York Giants

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