Jim Thorpe visits Vanderbilt

March 31, 2010

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In April 1914, Vanderbilt University was preparing to greet the great Jim Thorpe. At this time of Thorpe's athletic career, he was an outfielder for the New York Giants of the National League.

The Giants were in Nashville to play an exhibition baseball game with the hometown Nashville Vols of the Southern Association. The Vols played their home games at the Sulphur Dell ballpark in the shadow of the State Capitol Building.

John McGraw was the manager of New York and the previous year he led the Giants to the National League pennant. Philadelphia, of the American League, beat the Giants in the 1913 World Series, three games to one.

When the field at Sulphur Dell was in poor condition due to the weather, Vanderbilt's Dudley Field was used as an alternative. Wet conditions did force the exhibition game to be moved to the Vanderbilt campus. The original Dudley Field on the Vanderbilt campus hosted football and baseball games. Today, the Vanderbilt Law School sits on the original site of old Dudley Field.

When the major league baseball teams broke their southern spring training camps, they played exhibition games along their way home. Nashville was a regular stop for major league teams since before 1900.

The Nashville Tennessean wrote about the anticipated arrival of Thorpe and the Giants at Vanderbilt:

    Those of us who have longed for the opportunity to administer the "once over" to James Thorpe, probably the best known athlete in the entire world, as a result of his wonderful record in the Olympic games at Stockholm, following his career with the Carlisle Indians, will have that desire gratified this afternoon.

    Mr. Thorpe will play right field for the second team of the New York Nationals in their game with the Volunteers on Dudley Field.
Thorpe was born in Oklahoma in 1887 in a one-room cabin. He was born of the Sac and Fox Indian heritage. Thorpe's Indian name was Wa-Tho-Huk when translated means "Bright Path."

Thorpe was first known as an All-American football player from the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. He became internationally known when he won both the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics. Later that same year Thorpe led Carlisle to the national football championship. The athlete also played baseball at Carlisle.

Later it was determined that Thorpe played some professional baseball during a summer while attending Carlisle and his Olympic medals were stripped. Thorpe was in his second year with the Giants when he came to Nashville. As a rookie in 1913, in limited play, he only batted .143 (5-for-35) in 19 games. Thorpe recorded one home run and two runs batted in.

The Tennessean reported more on Thorpe's arrival:
    Judging from the reports from Marlin Springs, Texas, where the Giants did their training this spring, Thorpe is just about ripe for a big league berth and it is rumored that he will be placed in the outfield regularly by McGraw when the season opens. When he joined the Giants last year he possessed a big rep as a twirler, but Chief Meyers took him to one side for a workout and came back shaking his head dubiously.

    After a conference with the little Napoleon it was decided that Thorpe wasn't cut out for pitcher and that his speed could be utilized to better advantage in the outfield. Since going to the outfield he was developed into a clever fielder and, whereas he couldn't hit a curveball with a slap-stick when he first broke in, he is now rapping all kinds of benders out for safe hits.
Meyers was an all-star catcher for New York and was also of Indian ancestry.

Unfortunately for Nashvillians and the Vanderbilt faculty and students, when Thorpe showed up for the game, the field was too wet for play. The game was cancelled.

Earlier that morning, Thorpe took a spin around Centennial Park in a Buick 6. In his party was teammate Mike Donlin and Nashville Vols manager Bill Schwartz.

Thorpe also walked the dampened Dudley Field to recall in 1906 the Carlisle Indians losing to Vanderbilt in a 4-0, football loss. That game was played before Thorpe arrived at the Indian school.

The Tennessean also reported on Thorpe visiting with the Vanderbilt track team:
    One of the features of the class track meet on Dudley Field yesterday was the appearance of Jim Thorpe, whose work at the Olympic games stamped him as the greatest all-around athlete in the world. Jim appeared on the field in an unostentatious manner, and when asked by some of the authorities to hold a stopwatch on the sprints, politely declined, stating that such was not in his line.

    However, when he saw some of the students practicing in throwing the discus, the Indian began to get interested and moved over to where he could watch the sport.

    "Say, Mr. Thorpe," said "Whitey" Lowe, who thought he could toss the disc pretty well.

    "All right," said Jim, who seemed to be anxious for the chance. He stepped into the ring and without seeming to exert himself gave the discus a toss which sent it almost out of sight, according to Lowe's statement later on. It was by far the longest throw ever made on Dudley Field, which is not surprising, considering the fact that this was of the departments in which Thorpe starred in the Olympic games.
New York left Nashville that evening by railroad for Knoxville. The Giants finished in second place that year behind the Boston Braves. That season, Thorpe appeared in 30 games for a .193 average (6-for-31).

In 1915, Thorpe only appeared in 17 games for the Giants. He opened the 1917 season with Cincinnati and finished again with New York. In 1919, he played sparingly with the Giants. The next year, his final in baseball, Thorpe played with the Giants and the Boston Braves.

In Thorpe's major league career, he played in 289 games for a .252 average (176-of-698). He collected seven home runs and 82 runs batted in. Thorpe also played in one World Series game for New York in 1917, but failed to record an at-bat.

Thorpe also played professional football for the Canton Bulldogs winning championships in 1916, 1917, and 1919. He concluded his football playing days in 1928 with the Chicago Cardinals. Thorpe became a member of the National Football League's Hall of Fame and was named the most outstanding athlete of the first half of the 20th century.

Thorpe died on March 28, 1953.

If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com.



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