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). …

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