With his May 28th birthday upon us, I can’t imagine a better time to acknowledge the greatest all-around athlete of the 20th Century. His Native American parents gave him the additional traditional name Wa-Tho-Huck which translates to mean “Bright Path” and sports legend Jim Thorpe’s path to athletic greatness and dominance was a bright one indeed. Riding horses and swimming by age 3, Thorpe demonstrated natural athletic abilities and talent at an early age. Recruited to attend The Carlisle Indian School in PA at age 16, he became a track and football star under the tutelage of legendary coach Glenn S. “Pop” Warner. While there, Thorpe not only won renown in football, baseball, track, and lacrosse but also competed in hockey, handball, tennis, boxing, and ballroom dancing. So dominant in track and field was Thorpe that alone he defeated the Lafayette track team in a dual meet by winning the high hurdles, low hurdles, high jump, long jump, shot put and discus events. He was encouraged to try out for the U.S. Olympic track and field team for the 1912 Games held in Stockholm, Sweden. Thorpe qualified for both the ten event decathlon and the five event pentathlon. To qualify for either of the grueling events was a major accomplishment. But for one man to qualify and compete in both, against the best athletes in the world, was unheard of. Not only did Thorpe compete in both but he dominated both competitions. In the pentathlon, he took 1st place in 4 of the 5 events to win the gold medal easily. In the decathlon, where 2 of the events, the pole vault and javelin, he’d never attempted until the Olympic Trials, he bested the silver medalist by 700 points. His record points total in the event held up for over 2 decades and his time in the event finishing 1,500 meters run lasted even longer. So impressed with his performance, when King Gustav V of Sweden presented Thorpe with his medals and other gifts, he shook Thorpe’s hand and declared him the world’s greatest athlete. Upon his return home, he was honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York City. They took his medals away when it was discovered he’d been paid $15 a week for 2 summers of playing minor baseball in North Carolina. (This was done well after the time limit for doing so, per the rules governing such issues, had passed.) But this can in no way erase the athletic dominance he displayed while competing against the world’s best athletes. After the Olympics, Thorpe returned to the gridiron where his football skills allowed him to dominate the competition just as he had done in track. Most star players in those days went two-ways meaning they played on both the offense and the defensive teams. Thorpe could have been labeled a four-way player in that he not only starred on the offense and defense, but he was his team’s field goal kicker and punter as well. His small Carlisle Industrial Indian School had no more than 1,000 students. But on the collegiate playing fields they were the equal of the Ivy League powers of the day mostly thanks to Thorpe’s athletic superiority.In Thorpe’s final two seasons at school the football team went 23-2-1. The 6’1″ and 190 lb. Thorpe’s team lost to only Penn State and Syracuse during that time. In an 18-15 upset of Harvard, in addition to playing both ways, he kicked 4 field goals. He led the way in beating Army 27-6. And in a 32-0 routing of Brown, Thorpe scored 3 touchdowns and kicked 2 field goals. In that final collegiate season in 1912, he also rushed for a total of 1,869 yards on 191 carries. Thorpe was named 3rd team all-american his 1st year and 1st team all-american in his final 2 seasons. Upon leaving school he signed on to play major league baseball. In 6 seasons in the big leagues, from 1913 to 1919, with the Giants, Reds, and Braves Thorpe compiled a respectable .252 batting avg. (It was said he had trouble hitting the curve.) But in his final big league season with the Braves he hit .327. During his stint in the big leagues, Thorpe also signed on in 1915 to play pro football with the Canton Bulldogs for an unheard of at the time $250.00 a game. Thorpe became the chief attraction in pro football for over a decade until the legendary “Galloping Ghost” Red Grange entered the league in 1925. In addition to Canton, he played for the NY Giants, Chicago Cardinals, Cleveland Indians, and Rock Island Independents. He also created, played for, and coached an all Native American team, the Oorang Indians. In 1920, he was appointed President of the American Professional Football Association which eventually became the NFL. He played his final game for the Chicago Cardinals in 1928 at the age of 41. After his playing days, Thorpe went to Hollywood where he got work as a stunt man and bit role player in the movies. At the age of 58, he joined and served several years in the Merchant Marines. In 1950, Jim Thorpe was named the greatest American football player and the greatest overall male athlete of the 1st half of the 20th century by the Associated Press. He was elected to the college football Hall of Fame in 1951, and selected as a charter member of the pro football Hall of Fame in 1963. He was also elected a member of the track and field Hall of Fame. In 1982, the injustice of taking away his Olympic gold medals was finally overturned and copies of the medals were returned to his family. In the year 2000, Jim Thorpe was voted the previous century’s Greatest Athlete by ABC Sports. Additionally, starting in 1986, college football has given the Jim Thorpe Award, in memory of the multi-sport legend, to the top defensive back in college football each year. Thorpe passed away in March of 1953. He was buried in a PA town where he was given the lasting honor of having the town re-named Jim Thorpe, PA. They hold celebration festivities on his birthday each year in honor of this greatest all-around athlete of all-time. Although he was gone before I was born, I read about and admired the great Jim Thorpe’s life and career in sports. His biography was one of the first books I checked out and read from the school library. His example encouraged me to learn to play and compete in a wide variety of sports. His overall individual athletic achievements are still unequaled and unsurpassed to this very day. For all of the above and more, Jim Thorpe was and is still my choice as the greatest all-around athlete of all-time.
The Odd Couple made a return to television this season. The original movie odd couple was played by Walter Mathau and Jack Lemmon, followed with a television run by Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. They were all fine actors. But they had nothing on the real life odd couple, at least the sports world version, of Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell. On the surface, other than an equal fondness for the spoken word, specifically their own, they had nothing in common. One was a model handsome, world class athlete with a Greek god-like physique. The other was a frumpy, balding, out of shape, cigar smoking, lawyer turned sportscaster who wore a bad toupee. Individually they were both stars in their own right in their respective fields. Ali took the sports world from orchestrated slow dance to unpredictable rock and roll extravaganza while Cosell changed sports t.v. broadcasts from reverential productions into a never can be sure what might happen next circus. But together, from pre and post fight interviews to their respective roles at fight time, they became the dynamic duo of must see t.v. throughout the seventies. Ali performed his physical magic in the ring as only he could, while Cosell adeptly described the action in his nasally, often dramatic, at times irritating, staccato. Their odd couple shtick was equal to that of Martin and Lewis except theirs was completely genuine and totally unrehearsed. Ali often teasingly pantomimed the threat of snatching the toupee off Cosell’s head. And Cosell would in turn admonish him as a frustrated teacher would an unruly pupil, one time telling Ali, “You’re being extremely truculent.” To which Ali replied, “Whatever “truculent” means. If that’s good, I’m that.” But their pairing worked because deep down most people could feel the admiration and respect the two had for each other. Cosell was the only national sportswriter of note to defend Ali’s right to refuse military induction based on his religious beliefs. And he did so despite being continuously threatened with bodily harm and even death. He also faced serious risk of losing his sportscaster job. The high profile television field at that time was extremely sensitive to and easily swayed to take decisive action based on public opinion. He was also the only sportscaster during that time to call Ali by his new name. Perhaps, this was somewhat due to his own experience of having to change his last name from Cohen to Cosell due to the marginalizing of Jews by society in those days. Ali never forgot the stance his friend Howard Cosell took on his behalf. And Cosell admired and respected Ali’s conviction for standing up for what he believed in despite the long hardship and suffering he incurred while defending his beliefs. But the two stayed the course, never swaying in their conviction on the issue until the tide turned on public opinion in this country. As a result, both not only achieved career super-stardom but maintained an enduring friendship until Cosell’s passing in 1995. From late 1970 through late 1978, Ali fought an almost unbelievable 30 times, and Howard Cosell and ABC television were there to broadcast most of them. The three were like peanut butter, jelly, and Wonder bread. Each was an individually valued commodity. But together, they were an unbeatable combination that became a staple of the sports television viewers diet throughout the decade. For more on the Ali and Cosell story you can check out sportswriter David Kindred’s book “SOUND AND FURY: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship.”
Upon winning the heavyweight championship in his shocking upset over Sonny Liston, the then Cassius Clay told the press and the world to call him Cassius X. He had become a Black Muslim and would no longer answer to the former slave master’s name given him at birth. That he felt his name should reflect the origin from where his ancestors came just like everyone else. His initial name change was a nod to his good friend and fellow Black Muslim, Malcolm X. However, shortly after the announcement was made the leader of the Black Muslims, the honorable Elijah Muhammad,re-named him Muhammad Ali. It was the name he would carry from that day forward. It is a name he has made famous in every corner the world over. For years there was resistance from the public, particularly Christian whites and blacks, to use his new name. The historic reality of how most blacks in this country acquired their names was indeed from their slave masters. Ironically, the name give to Ali at birth, Cassius Marcellus Clay, was that of a 19th century anti-slavery crusader and abolitionist who emancipated the 40 slaves he inherited from his father defying Southern conventions of the time. He faced death threats and was beaten, stabbed and shot by political opponents for his position. He was the second cousin of the Kentucky senator, Speaker of the House, and Secretary of State Henry Clay, who Lincoln quoted in many of his speeches including his first inaugural address. No one can deny that Muhammad Ali had the right and was fully justified in changing his name to one that he felt appropriately and proudly reflected his ancestry. But given the legacy of the name given him initially, no one should have been surprised by his role as an outspoken leader against inequality and injustice in this country and around the world. Some things just seem inevitable, maybe even predestined.
With the Masters recently behind us and the U.S. Open coming soon, it seems an ideal time to acknowledge the greatest of all time in the game of golf. A few years back I was certain that Tiger Woods would be the name inserted here. But with his father’s passing, his marital woes, and the multiple injuries he has suffered, the Tiger Express has been, at least for now, derailed. That’s not to say it can’t ever get back on track. If anyone could recover and return to greatness, my money would be on him. But until such time, the greatest golfer of all time was and still is Jack Nicklaus. Tiger himself has repeatedly proclaimed over the years that winning majors was what mattered most. Nobody has won more, or performed better in the, majors than Jack Nicklaus. Not only are his 18 major wins the most ever, but Jack also achieved an unprecedented 19 second place finishes as well. In addition, he achieved 46 top 3’s, 56 top 5’s, 73 top 10’s, and 95 top 25’s. He also achieved 2 major wins in the same year 5 times, at least 1 major in 4 consecutive years, and top 5 in all 4 majors in the same year twice. From the 1957 U.S. Open to the 1998 U.S. Open, the “Golden Bear” played in 154 consecutive majors for which he was eligible. As far as his performances in each individual major, Jack has the most Masters wins 6, and is tied for the most U.S Open wins, 4, as well as the most PGA Championship wins, 5. And while “only” winning 3 British Opens, he finished in second place in the oldest major 7 times. Before turning pro, he was the low amateur in the 1960 Masters and in the ’60 and ’61 U.S. Opens. Nicklaus also won 8 Senior Tour majors over a 7 year period. As they say, the numbers don’t lie. This is why Jack Nicklaus is the greatest golfer of all time.
ODES ON ALI: A Tribute to the Greatest just received another great 4 star review. This review was by a “mum” from England who wrote:
“Reading the poems I got the sense of the atmosphere and drama as David takes the reader right into the middle of the action. I think it also gives the reader insight of how it felt to be there…”
Many thanks to savvymum for her wonderful words.
You can read the entire review on the Goodreads site or on Amazon.