2012 Bison Books paperback edition

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Oh, to be in Long Beach now that SABR's there...

Lawrence Ritter, standing, looks on as Lee Lowenfish, left, interviews Red Barber, circa 1985

This Thursday, July 7, my biography of Jim Thorpe --Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe (Knopf) -- was officially awarded the 2011 Larry Ritter Award for the best book about the Deadball Era by the Deadball Era Committee at the annual convention of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) in Long Beach, California. 

I was unable to cross the continent to attend, but I sure wish I could have. This is a great honor, given by total experts in the history and statistics of our great American pastime. And, though I never met him, I understand that Larry Ritter was not only deeply respected for his knowledge of the game, but loved for his generous nature.

So, here are the remarks I prepared to be read out at the Deadball Era Committee meeting this week:

It is an honor to be the recipient of this year’s Larry Ritter Award from the SABR Deadball Era Committee. When I called my editor at Knopf, Jonathan Segal, to tell him about the award he was delighted. Jon knew Larry, thought the world of him and was thrilled at this wonderful connection. I wish I could be there to accept the award and to thank the Committee in person.

Of course I also immediately thought of THE GLORY OF THEIR TIMES: THE STORY OF BASEBALL TOLD BY THE MEN WHO PLAYED IT. Fred Snodgrass, Sam Crawford, Hans Lobert, Chief Meyers, Rube Marquard – each of those names figures in Jim Thorpe’s story when he was with the New York Giants and in the major – and high minor – leagues.

Part of the pleasure in researching and writing NATIVE AMERICAN SON was going back in time to those days when organized sports were new and fresh. Though baseball was the most organized of the team sports – football had a very long way to go, as Thorpe knew well – the sport was still in its comparative childhood, if not infancy.

One of the most satisfying discoveries about Thorpe – and there were many – was coming across 1919 newspaper coverage that demolished the old John McGraw taunt that Thorpe couldn’t hit a curve ball. As you can read in the book, Thorpe’s relationship with the redoubtable Muggsy was complicated. The root of the problem in my opinion? Thorpe was already a star when he started with the Giants in 1913. The greatest athlete in the world. He didn’t need McGraw to make him one.

However, he did need the manager to make him into a great baseball player. Thorpe had played mediocre, at best, baseball with the Eastern Carolina League in 1909 and 1910. An operation for trachoma, a debilitating eye condition rampant in Indian boarding schools such as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, may have left him with impaired eyesight. As Frank Deford told me, no matter how good an athlete is in basketball, football, track and field – baseball is just different. It requires different skills, a different mindset. Thorpe’s strategic appetite was best satisfied on the football field.

What is important for Thorpe’s Deadball Era baseball career is that he had to learn how to hit that curve ball. Baseball did not, as other sports did, come easily to him. It took him six years, but he did it. By 1919, sold to the Boston Braves by McGraw, he retaliated by leading the National League throughout most of the summer in batting. On July 16 the Los Angeles Times reported that Thorpe was hitting .411 in 22 games. Before a leg injury took him out of the running in early August, he was hitting .375 to the American League’s Ty Cobb’s .350. He ended the season at .327 and would always point to that statistic and say, with typical dry humor, “I must have hit a few curves.”

To this group of SABR experts I feel duty bound to point out that, contrary to what is printed on page 180 of NATIVE AMERICAN SON, Jim Thorpe did NOT play in the 1913 World Series. McGraw barely let him leave the bench that rookie season. When asked which position he was playing that year, Thorpe replied, “Sitting hen.” I pointed out that editing error to SABR when I was told the book was under consideration for the Ritter award and I thank them for their understanding.

Sports statistics are otherwise unforgiving and rigorous. That is both the creative control and the challenge of writing about sports. One of the big ironies of Jim Thorpe’s stellar athletic career is that, except for baseball, there are no official statistics for his performances in football or track and field. He was just too early.

Painstaking research by an NCAA archivist that can be appreciated by everybody listening to these remarks established that, even with no record at all of some of his 1912 football yardage for Carlisle, Thorpe was probably the game’s first 2,000-yard rusher. His remarkable records in the 1912 Olympic decathlon and pentathlon were annulled in 1913 and have never been re-instated, in spite of the popular perception. Too bad, because his Olympic decathlon time in the 1500-meter race stood until 1972.

And that’s one of the statistics I bring up when people ask: Was Jim Thorpe really that great? The other one is the 1919 batting record.

Thank you all very much. And I hope you’re all having a great time out there in Long Beach!