The next summer, Thorpe became the first modern sports hero when he overwhelmed his competition in the 1912 Olympics, winning both the pentathlon and the decathlon. In the decathlon, he won 7 out of 10 events, placing second in 2, and third in 1.
Thorpe returned to Carlisle for the 1912 season amid huge media attention. That fall, four days after the election of Woodrow Wilson as President of the United States, Carlisle established itself as the best team in college football against an Army squad led by future Supreme Allied Commander and President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower.
Thorpe’s success at the Olympics and on the football field had touched a cultural nerve. When the “best ye breed” competed with honor on fields of antiquity, it confirmed to them their superior virtues and abilities. The entire fable was thrown off when a “half devil” entered the competition, and walked off with the medals.
After the 1912 football season, a New England newspaper reported that Jim Thorpe played some professional baseball games in the Eastern Carolina League. The practice was common among poorer athletes, and there is no doubt that Thorpe was singled out for this transgression. The International Olympic Committee, ignoring its own rules that required protests to be made within 30 days of the medal ceremony, stripped the World’s Greatest Athlete of his medals. The false virtue of amateurism was restored.
The world was changing, though, and in America at least, smothering aristocratic pretensions could not completely extinguish ability. Jim Thorpe had somewhere to go. The labor movement had gained a measure of notoriety, if not infamy, in 1892 when Pinkerton guards opened fire on striking workers in Homestead, Pennsylvania. In the ensuing years, a mix of moral reflection, political agitation, and – most importantly – huge manufacturing profits that subsidized higher wages, resulted in something previously unknown to the working class: spending money and free time.
With access to leisure and disposable income, laborers gravitated to sport, where the hard physical virtues of the mills could be tested and lionized. Factory teams competed against one another for money, primarily in the sport of baseball. This led to leagues and eventually to professional competition.
Major League Baseball featured the best players, recruited and paid according to ability, a premise itself shaded with its own elitism and self-deception, as black players were excluded. The first World Series was played 11 years and seven miles from the Homestead strike, in 1903, between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Boston Red Sox. Trading upon burgeoning American presumptions of transcendence, this season ending championship series called itself “World.”
Banished from the company of kings, Jim Thorpe found his place among cigarette smoking, beer drinking, handle bar mustached dandies of the big leagues. In 1913, baseball was a game of speed and guile, embodied by the game’s best player, Ty Cobb. Jim Thorpe possessed both, in abundance.
The New York Giants won a bidding war for Thorpe’s services. In his first season, Thorpe injured top prospect Jeff Tesreau in a friendly locker room wrestling match. New York’s legendary manager John McGraw never forgave Thorpe, who mostly rode the bench during his time with the Giants. He played for a few years, was traded twice, and batted 252. He was a middling but effective player.
In 1916, Jack Cusack, the manager of the Canton Bulldogs, a professional football team playing in a small league centered in Ohio, paid the stunning sum of $250 per game to recruit Jim Thorpe to captain his team during baseball’s offseason. Cusack’s business advisors predicted bankruptcy. The opposite happened. Huge crowds came to see the World’s Greatest Athlete play the sport he was most suited to play. The Canton Bulldogs won championships and proved that professional football, like baseball, could be a profitable enterprise.
Thorpe was named President of the league. It was an insignificant league, though. It was not yet the National Football League. Nor would it ever have been, arguably, if not for what happened next.
“War is the unfolding of miscalculations,” wrote Barbara Tuchman about The Great War. Historians do not call it The Great War anymore, unfortunately, because never was a war more aptly named. It is now called, in the nondescript manner of a power point slide, World War I. Although it is trite to say, in this case it is true. The Great War changed everything.
At the behest of kings and princes, the nations of Europe had entered a series of pacts and alignments meant to prevent war. These diplomatic innovations were thought to be a modern, pragmatic, scientific solution that would make war impossible. They had the opposite effect. When a relatively minor royal heir was assassinated in Serbia, the large diplomatic machine worked to pit the world against itself in war. The pacts were followed, not because there was an immediate reason to do so, but because Victorian honor compelled their enforcement.
The war was waged with the tactics of a more genteel age, lining soldiers up and marching them into one another. Unlike the battles of yore, though, the soldiers were met by machine gun fire, fixed defenses, barbed wire, and artillery. The war featured the most advanced scientific methods of killing, including chemical weapons. The result was carnage on a scale never before seen in history.
Fifteen million died contesting a few square miles of Europe. In the battle of Verdun alone, nearly forty million artillery shells were fired at men entrenched against one another in six square mile area, resulting in 700,000 casualties. The bodies of countless soldiers were never recovered from that battlefield, their skin, bone and sinew having been made a permanent part of the earth by the artillery’s constant pulverization.
Reason and science had failed in the hands of kings and generals. Self-satisfied sanctimony never made appropriate adjustments to the new weapons, misinterpreting the pretensions of empire as sound military policy. The gods of Olympus met their fate in The Great War. The upper classes behaved so stupidly that the lower classes rebelled against them. The era of Kipling was over. Much of Europe’s royalty was assassinated, exiled, or abdicated during uprisings during and after the war. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson outlined an armistice, as he once outlined the rules of football, and the war ended on those terms.
The NFL was born upon this death of kings. The National Football Association was formed in 1920. In 1921, the league’s name was changed to the National Football League. That was the year, the inaugural year of the NFL, that Walter Lingo purchased a franchise, locating it in the small town of LaRue, Ohio.
Professional football was devoid at least at its inception of the worst aristocratic presumptions. Unlike major league baseball, rules were not written to keep out the qualified players. Paul Robeson, the brilliant Columbia educated lawyer who pioneered the early civil rights movement, played for the Milwaukee Badgers. He is known for portraying a slave in the 1936 movie, Showboat, and for singing the iconic paean to freedom, “Old Man River.” But he is also the NFL’s original rush end, a fleet footed quarterback sacker. As an African American, he would not have been permitted to play baseball.
Football mirrored America’s highest ideal. It was a meritocracy. In professional football, the Indians would be permitted to defeat the cowboys, if they were better, something that never happened in Buffalo Bill’s shows. The game combined strategy, planning, determination, and physical prowess in a contest over ground, in a perfect allegory for post-aristocratic America. Immigrants were pouring into New York and dispersing in the mills and factories of the heartland to profit by the sweat of their brow. They and theirs, especially, embraced this game.
Thorpe was on the downside of his career and he chose to join Lingo to coach and captain the Indians and, as aging athletes sometimes do, to get into the business side of the operation. Because the town did not have a football field, games would be played ten miles away at Lincoln Field in Marion, Ohio. Marion also happened to be the hometown of Warren G. Harding, who had just succeeded Woodrow Wilson as president. He was a big fan of the team, and invited players to the White House on a swing through Washington, the first such team visit in NFL history.
The story of the Oorang Indians becomes uninteresting from there. They barnstormed the country selling dogs, performing feats of hunting skill at halftime. They were disbanded by 1924. The fact of the Oorang Indians, though, is as relevant as football itself, a game about aristocratic conquest that consumed its own allegory.
The Oorang Indians remind us that history moves slowly, by autonomous actors, and not by the pretensions of those who wish to visit their perfections upon the rest of us. Football is crass. And it is commercial. And it is loved because it is both. There are no aristocrats. Field generals are second guessed, as they should have been in the Great War. The NFL is a constant reminder of the failure of aristocracy. Because it is a meritocracy.
The Washington Redskins were founded as the Boston Braves in 1932, a bit of branding that would have been recognized at the time as a nod to this history. The name was changed to the Redskins the next year when the team moved from Braves Field to Fenway Park, a reaffirmation of this connection.
To continue to maintain an NFL team branded for the Native American goes back to the very founding of the sport. When the gods die, and the faiths in men are broken, there remains a field where battle occurs, and conquest belongs to the better dog. Football had proven to not be a game about Anglo Saxon superiority, as Emerson’s grandson had predicted. Quite the opposite. The best player beat and bloodied the purebred, creating its own parable. More than any other, it is a game for sons of slaves, natives and the huddled masses. It is a game for the underdog.
Thomas J. Farnan is a partner in the Pittsburgh law firm Robb Leonard Mulvihill LLP and a former law clerk for the Honorable Daniel A. Manion of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. He can be reached at [email protected].