2012 Bison Books paperback edition

Friday, January 27, 2012

That Famous Letter to the AAU

On January 27, 1913, 101 years ago today, Glenn S. "Pop" Warner delivered a letter from Jim Thorpe to James E. Sullivan, the secretary-treasurer of the American Amateur Union (AAU) at his office in New York. In the letter Thorpe admitted to having played professional baseball in the minor leagues during the summers of 1909 and 1910. "Professional" meant that he had been paid to play.
     This was explosive information. Six months before, at the Fifth Olympiad in Stockholm, Thorpe had won gold medals by huge margins in both the pentathlon and decathlon, astonishing the world as the first super-athlete as the modern Olympic movement was struggling to survive. In order to qualify to compete, he had had to sign a form that stated he was an "amateur" -- meaning that he had never accepted money for any kind of athletic endeavor. 
     So, when a newspaper headline on January 22, 1913, six months later, revealed that Thorpe was no amateur, the result was what is still considered the biggest sports scandal ever. After congratulating itself for the American team's generally spectacular performance in Stockholm, the American sports establishment, humiliated, rushed to find its scapegoat.
     Actually, Warner wrote the letter to Sullivan and persuaded his star athlete at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania to sign it. Warner also insisted he had no idea that Thorpe had played baseball those two summers. In fact, he knew exactly where Thorpe had been and what he'd been doing. But Warner, ambitious, often unscrupulous, was not going to take the fall for his athlete in the scandal that had quickly assumed international proportions. 
    Here is the full text of what soon became a famous letter, scrutinized and debated about for the rest of the century -- and beyond:

Carlisle, Pa. Jan. 26, 1913
James E. Sullivan
Dear Sir:
    When the interview with Mr. Clancy stating that I had played baseball on the Winston-Salem team was shown to me I told Mr. Warner that it was not true and in fact I did not play on that team. But so much as been said in the papers since then that I went to the school authorities this morning and told them just what there was in the stories.
     I played baseball at Rocky Mount and at Fayetteville, N.C. in the summer ofd 1909 and 1910 under my own name. On the same teams I played with were several college men from the north who were earning money by ball playing during their vacations and who were regarded as amateurs at home. IO did not play for the money there was in it because my property brings me in enough money to live on, but because I liked to play ball. I was not wise inthe ways of theworls and did not realize this was wrong, and that it would make me a professional in track sports, although I learned from the other payers that it would be better for me not to let anyone know that I was playing and for that reason I never told anyone at the school about it until today.
     In the fall of 1911 I applied for readmission to this school and came back to continue muy studies and take par tin the school sports and of course I wanted to get on the Olympic team and take that trip to Stockholm. I had Mr. Warner send in my application for registering in the A.A>U., after I had answered the questions and signed it and I received my card allowing me to compete on the winter meets and other track sports. I never realized until now what a big mistake I made by keeping it a secret about my ball playing and I am sorry I did so. I hope I would be partly excused because of the fact that I was simply as Indian school boy [Thorpe would turn 26 in 1913] and did not know all about such things. In fact, I did not know that I was doing wrong because I was doing what I knew several other college men  had one, except that they did not use their own names.
     I have always liked sports and only played or run races for the fun of the things and never to earn money. I have received offers amounting to thousands of dollars since my victories last summer, but I have turned them all down because I did not care to makes money from my athletic skill. I am very sorry, Mr. Sullivan, to have it all spoiled in this way and I hop the Amateur Athletic Union and the people will not be too hard in judging me.
Yours truly,
James Thorpe

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Same Old., Same Old ...

Joe Nocera wrote a terrific piece in today's Sunday New York Times Magazine on college athletes:
They should be paid, he says, and thereby end "the hypocrisy that permeates big-money college sports."

He is totally right and the only thing missing from the piece, at least to me, was a paragraph that traced the current mess right back to the beginnings of college football about a century ago. For some of that backstory, read my biography of Jim Thorpe, NATIVE AMERICAN SON: THE LIFE AND SPORTING LEGEND OF JIM THORPE (Knopf, 2010). 

Thorpe stepped onto the gridiron just as the rules of football finally settled into the form we would recognize as the modern game. His coach, Glenn S. "Pop" Warner, was a master manipulator of those rules. He also set up a football machine at Thorpe's Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania that is a precursor of today's collegiate football enterprise.

Not that he was the only one. The coaches at Yale, Harvard and other top-level football schools turned a blind eye to alumni payments "under the table," not to mention to other perks that made the financial situation of top collegiate athletes very comfortable indeed. 

Fascinating stuff. Let's see if Nocera's tough thinking produces concrete results in the NCAA...