The Athlete of the Century

By Gould, Stephen Jay | American Heritage, October 1998 | Go to article overview

The Athlete of the Century


Gould, Stephen Jay, American Heritage


The numbers are pretty clear on who it is--but the numbers don't begin to suggest the dimensions of this story

The fin-de-siecle, an arbitrary phenomenon created by calendars of our own construction, elicits some mighty peculiar behavior in that biological oddball known as Homo sapiens--from mass suicides designed to free souls for union with spaceships behind cometary tails to trips to Fiji for a first view of the new millennium. Among the more benign manifestations, we might list our own propensity for making lists of the best and the worst where calendrical cycles end by our own fiat.

Among the various impediments to fair and honorable listing, no factor could be more distorting--or of more immediate concern to devotees of this magazine--than the virtual erasure of historical knowledge among so many people who grew up with a television in each room, not a book in the house, and a conviction that last year's models must be antiquated, and last decade's versions both extinct and erased from memory. In this context the greatest American athlete of the century must stand directly before us, either in the full flower of current performance or in constantly reiterated images of various media. Therefore the title could go only to Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali, and why should anyone want to look elsewhere when directly confronted with such magnificence? (I make this last statement in full belief and without a trace of sarcasm, for these two men continue to awe and thrill me.)

Any great cycle also deserves recognition at the halfway point. In 1950 the Associated Press conducted an extensive poll of American sportswriters and broadcasters to determine the best football player of the half-century. Jim Thorpe beat Red Grange by 170 votes to 138, with Bronko Nagurski a distant third at 38. Three weeks later the same professional group voted for the greatest male athlete of the preceding fifty years, with the same winner, but by a larger margin: Jim Thorpe received 252 of 393 first-place votes, with Babe Ruth second at 86, Jack Dempsey third at 19, Ty Cobb fourth at 11, and at a distance surely recording the realities of racism, Joe Louis sixth at 5.

I was then, at age eight, a nascent sports nut and statistics maven. I well remember both these polls and the consensus among sports fans of all generations that Jim Thorpe was the world's greatest living athlete--an impression heightened in 1951, when the popular film Jim Thorpe--All American, starring Burt Lancaster, told his story in the conventional hagiographic mode for youngsters like me who had never seen Thorpe in action.

This consensus has since evaporated. In fact I wonder if most younger fans have even heard of Jim Thorpe, a situation that can only be chalked up to the status of history (defined as anything unexperienced) as a tabula rasa for the "now" generation. Yet as I contemplated this assignment to write about the greatest American athlete of the twentieth century and thought about my own heroes, from Louis and DiMaggio in childhood to Jordan and Ali today, I could only conclude that the old consensus cannot be seriously challenged (except, just perhaps, by Man o' War--and he couldn't hit a curve, among other disqualifying factors of a more directly zoological nature).

For the bare bones, Jim Thorpe (1888-1953), of predominantly Sauk and Fox descent, grew up in a region now called Oklahoma but formerly designated as Indian Territory. He attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where he starred on football teams drawn from small numbers of impoverished students playing with poor equipment under terrible conditions--but coached by the legendary "Pop" Warner. The Carlisle team regularly defeated the best Ivy League, Big Ten, and military squads. Thorpe, who excelled in almost every sport he ever attempted, won both the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. He played professional baseball, mostly with the New York Giants, for several years (1913-19), and then became the greatest star in the early days of American professional football (1915-29).

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Athlete of the Century
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.