The man who most people consider the greatest all-around athlete of the 20th century didn’t have much near the end of his life. There were no big endorsement deals after the Olympics. There was no big league pension after he drifted out of big league baseball. Pro football at the time he was active was a pass the hat sort of community endeavor. By the late 1940s, Jim Thorpe was close to broke and continuing a battle with alcoholism. He was also tired of not at least being able to show off what he’d accomplished.
He hadn’t always been wise with his money. Sometimes he’d been the victim of exploitation. He didn’t even have his Olympic medals, won fair and square in 1912 when he won both the decathlon and pentathlon. They’d been taken away when it was later discovered he’d been paid to play minor league baseball during the two years prior to the Games. The Olympics was strictly for amateurs.
Next month, a compelling artifact from Thorpe’s unsuccessful efforts to have his medals returned to him will come to auction. Consigned to SCP Auctions and entering the hobby for the first time, the letter to Amateur Athletic Union President Jeremiah T.Mahoney is a plaintive plea for mercy and restored dignity that’s expected to fetch at least $15,000.
“May I please have your influence and help in this and you will have the knowledge that you have made an old American Indian a happy man and when I go to the happy hunting ground my blessings will be upon you,” Thorpe asks of Mahoney in the letter, dated in September of 1949 on letterhead from the Hollywood girls softball team he was promoting at the time.
“I sincerely believe that I should be forgiven my mistakes and my ignorance as a simple Indian boy unversed as I was in the ways of the white man and the A.A.U.,” Thorpe writes in the second paragraph.
For nearly 50 years, the former New York State Supreme Court Judge Mahoney and Avery Brundage had jointly presided over amateur athletics in the United States. Brundage would later gain fame as president of the International Olympic Committee from 1952-72. The letter addressed to Mahoney was, by definition, also a plea to Brundage, who at the time headed the United States Olympic Committee.
Thorpe’s real mistake may have been simply playing baseball under his own name. At the time, other athletes skirted the rules by using pseudonyms. In an era long before the average person had a camera and instant communications, they usually got away with it.
“Don’t you honestly think I should have my trophies and my name returned to the honor rolls of the A.A.U.?” Thorpe continued in the letter (see more below). “When my trophies were taken from me it broke my heart and I truly did not know what it was all about.”
Thorpe, his supporters and family tried several times to have his medals and trophies returned but Brundage wouldn’t budge when it came to his former rival. “Ignorance is no excuse,” he once said.
Finally, in 1982, the Jim Thorpe Foundation, with the support of the U.S. Congress, appealed to the IOC to reverse itself based on the evidence that the Thorpe disqualification had violated the Committee’s own rules stating that such decisions would have to come within 30 days following the Games. And finally, the cruel miscarriage of justice was redressed a mere 70 years after it had taken place. It was too late for Thorpe, of course, who had passed away three decades earlier, his body eventually buried in a Pennsylvania town that sought fame by striking a deal with his widow and naming itself after him even though he’d never been there.
The letter is unique, too, in that Thorpe signed it using his full name,“James Francis Jim Thorpe.”
It carries a letter of authentication from PSA/DNA and will open for bidding April 10. The auction closes April 27.