Sunday, April 19, 2009

Now batting for the Brewers... Jim Thorpe?

There have been many legends to don the flannel of Milwaukee. Although not remembered as such today, among them was the storied hero (and later goat) of the 1912 Olympic Games, Jim Thorpe.

Thorpe, a multi-sport athlete dubbed "the greatest athlete in the world" by King Gustav V of Sweden as he presented Thorpe with a gold medal, dominated football, baseball and track and field. He would be stripped of his Olympic records and medals when it was discovered that he had previously played some professional baseball, forever losing his amateur status. It was common for college athletes to play pro ball at that time, but unlike Thorpe, most competed under pseudonyms (as did Pro Football Hall of Famer John McNally when he took the field for the Green Bay Packers as "Johnny Blood").

After the Olympic controversy, Thorpe returned to baseball, sporadically playing for the New York Giants from 1913 through 1915. He spent the 1916 season in Milwaukee, the only good player on a terrible, terrible club. The Brewers lost 100 games that season (the first Milwaukee club in any league to do so), finishing dead last, 18½ games out of seventh place.

Although he only batted .274 (with 10 home runs and 85 RBI), Thorpe did his part to keep his team out of the cellar, leading the league with 48 stolen bases. His efforts were noticed, as recounted here in this highlight from Janesville Daily Gazette sports page of July 10, 1916:

The caption mentions that Thorpe's time in Milwaukee was already drawing interest from the majors:

After returning to the majors with the Giants in 1917, he would indeed be sold to Cincinnati early in the season (he would go back to New York later in the year). Thorpe played organized baseball until 1922, all the while playing professional football for the Canton Bulldogs in the off-season (the Green Bay Press-Gazette selected him to the first official All-NFL team in 1923).

Today, he is remembered mostly for the Olympic scandal and for his namesake town in Pennsylvania, which he had never visited. But Jim Thorpe deserves to also be remembered for his contribution, if only a brief one, to the legacy of the Milwaukee Brewers.

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