Jim Thorpe Athletic Legend

Friday, April 01, 2005

Jim Thorpe was a baseball, football and track and field star. He also led a barnstorming basketball team of American Indians in the 1920’s.

March 29, 2005 Jim Thorpe and a Ticket to Serendipity


When Anthony Barone Jr. went to a local book auction with his sister Lee early this month, they came across a book from the 1920’s, "Jesse James and His Greatest Hauls," a Wild West adventure of daring holdups.

Unimpressed by the condition of the book’s cover, Anthony was not interested in purchasing it. But when the bidding crested at $6, Lee looked at her brother. "What’s six bucks?" she said.

Anthony and Lee took the book home and ignored it for a week. They contemplated putting it back up for auction the next week, when Anthony decided he would at least flip through it.

"I started leafing through the pages, and out dropped this big red ticket," said Barone, a 44-year-old purchasing manager from Jamestown, N.Y. "It literally fell into my lap."

The ticket, six inches long, in good condition and with its stub still attached, was for an exhibition basketball game featuring Jim Thorpe and "His World Famous Indians" on March 1, 1927. It did not indicate where the game was being played, other than at a Y.M.C.A. gym. Other teams listed on the ticket – "Clothes Shop," "New Process" and "Bankers" – were mysteries.

What has followed is a story of discovery and rediscovery. Barone’s red ticket, according to several historians who have chronicled the life of Thorpe, who was a star athlete in football, baseball and track and field in the early 20th century, is like an archeological find.

Artifacts of Thorpe’s athletic career, generally conceded to have ended in 1928, are rare and valuable. Nearly every authority on Thorpe’s life and times, including his son, did not know he had played basketball at a high level as an adult. The ticket has helped uncover a 45-game barnstorming tour centered in Pennsylvania in which Thorpe, then 39, led a team of American Indian all-star basketball players.

"I didn’t know what any of it meant," Barone said of the ticket. "But I kept thinking that some 14-year-old kid thought enough of that game that he didn’t even let the usher rip the stub off. He had gone to see an American hero, and then he stuffed the ticket in his favorite book about the old West, and that’s where it’s been for 80 years.

"I felt it must mean something."

Experts on Thorpe, widely regarded as one of the world’s best athletes of the 20th century, said that it did. "The ticket’s historical value is significant," Lynne Draper, executive director of the Jim Thorpe Association and Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, said in a telephone interview. "It’s a segment that’s been left out of the record of an important man’s life."

Bill Crawford, who wrote a biography of Thorpe, "All American, the Rise and Fall of Jim Thorpe," said: "This is fantastic. Here’s another whole area of sport that Thorpe excelled at. It shows another side of his athleticism."

Thorpe’s 67-year-old son, Jack, said he had known his father had played basketball at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pa., near the turn of the century, but he said he had never heard about a touring basketball team. Neither had Barbara Landis, a historian of the Carlisle Indian school, where Thorpe first made his name as an athlete.

Bob Reising, the author of two books about Thorpe, was just as surprised. "I’d like to have my hands on that ticket," he said.

Bob Wheeler, who wrote a biography of Thorpe in 1975, said Thorpe’s private papers mentioned barnstorming all-Indian teams.

"But a ticket is a fabulous, beautiful find," Wheeler said. "We have very few things from that era that open the window to this part of his life. It’s a rare, small thing that can tell us about bigger things."

Thorpe is a pivotal figure in American sports and American Indian history. Reared on the Sac and Fox Indian reservation in Oklahoma, Thorpe became an all-American football player at Carlisle, then won gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.

In 1913, Thorpe was stripped of his Olympic medals, and his amateur status for collegiate athletics was revoked when it was revealed that he had been paid nominal sums, principally for room and board, to play summer baseball games in the North Carolina minor leagues in 1909. Dozens of college players at the time did the same thing, but played under pseudonyms. Thorpe had used his real name. And although Carlisle officials had arranged his trip to North Carolina, none of Thorpe’s coaches came to his defense.

Thorpe went on to play major league baseball, became a pioneer of the fledgling N.F.L., then held a series of jobs: Hollywood actor, merchant seaman, bar owner, Chicago parks employee. Burt Lancaster portrayed his life in a film two years before Thorpe’s death, at 64, in 1953.

Half a century later, his fall from grace has remained a lightning-rod example of the treatment of American Indians, especially at the beginning of the 20th century. The discovery of the ticket by Barone has given Thorpe historians the chance to revisit his state of mind in 1927, as his athletic prowess was fading.

"He is trying to find his way," said Reising, who is a professor of American Indian studies at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke. "He has lived all these years in the white man’s world, but he has no marketable skills. Consumed by competition, he tries to keep going."

Wheeler disagreed, saying that Thorpe enjoyed the road and performing, but Wheeler’s opinion was a minority view. "To my mind, it just reinforces the idea of Indian as spectacle," Landis said. "Come see Jim Thorpe and His World Famous Indians, all buckskins and feathers."

Dave Thomas, the curator of anthropology at the American Museum of National History, has been working on a book about Thorpe.

"To understand Thorpe, you have to understand what was going on in Indian country at the time," Thomas said. "They were the vanishing Americans who didn’t vanish. A lot of what Thorpe was trying to do back then was to give Indians jobs. A tour like this one would have done that."

Barone was largely responsible for uncovering the details of that March game in 1927. Although the ticket did not give a location for the game, Barone’s 84-year-old father, Anthony, told him that one of the team names on the ticket, New Process, had once been a company in Warren, Pa., a town about 20 miles from the Barone home.

Barone went to the Warren Public Library and found accounts in the newspaper archives of Thorpe’s arrival in Warren on March 1, 1927. It included details of an extended tour by Thorpe’s team. In the paper of March 2, 1927, there was an article about patrons in the sold-out Warren Y.M.C.A. gym witnessing an easy, entertaining victory by Thorpe’s team. Or, as the paper described it, the fans saw "a friendly scalping."

Thomas, the anthropologist at the American Museum of National History, had also come across a newspaper clipping about Thorpe’s 1927 basketball team, before the discovery of the Barone ticket. It was an account of a game in Carlisle, Pa., where Thorpe had played an exhibition on March 16, 1927.

"It has to be part of the same tour," Thomas said. "But to have a ticket from it, something real and tangible, is especially important. To be able to put your hands on a piece of history, to hold the real thing, brings the past alive in a way that nothing else can."

Anthony and Lee Barone are not sure what they will do with the ticket. He has informally talked to sports memorabilia experts, and some have indicated the ticket may fetch thousands of dollars. The highest offer he has received so far is $800.

"My primary concern is to be sure the information about the ticket gets to the right people," Barone said. "I want it to help tell the story. It’s history. I knew it when I saw it."

Barone and his sister have become regulars at the local book auction.

"We go every week now," he said, laughing. "We’re buying lots of books."

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