I Refuse to Eat Wheaties: The Sad Intrigue of Jim Thorpe
Have you ever been to Lomita, CA? I spent a little while there, kind of lost, on a rainy afternoon on a return trip from showing my gal the broken shell that was once wonderful Marineland. It is a small hamlet (total area 1.9 square miles) just east of Palos Verdes, once home to Louie Zamperini Field (the great Zamp the Champ immortalized in the book ” Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand) which has been recently annexed by the city of Torrance. An unremarkable little town (population of just over 20,000) with the exception that on March 28, 1953, arguably the greatest athlete in American history died there of heart failure in a dilapidated trailer park. The great Jim Thorpe spent his last years in Lomita battling alcoholism, poverty and health issues. He died at the age of 64.
Jim is not buried in Lomita or Prague, Oklahoma where he was born and wished to be buried. Jim Thorpe is buried in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania – a place he had never been to or seen, but more about that later.
In 1950, Jim Thorpe was overwhelmingly voted by America’s sports writers the greatest athlete of the first half century. The 300 writers gave Babe Ruth 86 first place votes, Jim received 252. Many years later, in a poll by ABC Sports, Thorpe was voted the Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century. In the 1912 Olympics Jim won both the pentathlon and the decathlon, the only athlete to ever do so. His record scores in both events would not be broken for decades. Prior to the 1500 meters Jimmy’s track shoes were stolen, he found some shoes in the trash, but they were mismatched. So on one foot he had to wear extra socks to compensate for the larger shoe. In that race his time was faster than anyone in the 1960 Olys, in fact, Jimmy’s time was 9 seconds faster than the great Rafer Johnson. Bryan Clay, the American gold medal winner of the decathlon at the 2008 Oly’s,was timed at his career best in the 1500 meters just one-second faster than Jim’s time in 1912. King Gustav
presented Thorpe with his medals and said “You are the greatest athlete in the world”. Jim responded “Thanks King.” Thorpe’s successes had not gone unnoticed in the US and he was honored with a ticker-tape parade on Broadway in New York City. He remembered later,”I heard people yelling my name, and I couldn’t realize how one fellow could have so many friends”. Later, Thorpe was stripped of his Oly medals when it came to light that he had participated in some semi-professional baseball games, thus no longer an amateur. The only good that came from this was that he soon received many offers from professional teams and went on to have success in professional basketball, baseball, and the early NFL. The days of professional athletes making the big lettuce were many, many years to come.
Jim played professional sports until he was 41 and the end of his sporting career coincided with the start of the Great Depression. Working odd jobs such as nightwatchman, gas station attendant and as a merchant marine, nothing stuck and the booze became his constant buddy. The people who knew him always said he carried himself as a gentleman – quiet and unassuming. Married 3 times and with 7 children scattered across the country, Jim ‘s heart called it a day in Lomita, California sitting across from his shrill of a wife Patsy. Then things got weird.
The Native American funeral had begun in Prague, Oklahoma with most of Jim’s children in attendance and when 3rd wife Patsy arrived with a hearse and a Oklahoma Highway Patrolman in tow everybody knew something bad was going to happen. Nobody who had ever met Patsy would accuse her of being kind nor pleasant, especially Jim’s kids from his previous marriages, but Patsy would find a way to raise the bar of her non-groove status. She barged into the service and announced that her dead husband was “too cold”. Then ordered the coffin loaded into the hearse and drove away handing Thorpe’s body to a mausoleum. Those attending the service were slack-jawed, dumbfounded, but did nothing.
Five months after Thorpe’s death Patsy showed up at the mausoleum and had the body shipped to Tulsa hoping the city would build a memorial. Tulsa turned her down. Patsy continued to shop old Jim around asking for a monument and some cash for Patsy. Even Carlisle, Pennsylvania where Jim went to college had to say no “Patsy was asking for too much money” said a Carlisle official.
After alienating almost everyone she wound up in the Poconos of Pennsylvania where two tiny boroughs straddling the Lehigh River, Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk’s, brilliant civic leaders decided they could combine the towns, build a monument of glory to Jimmy, pay off Patsy, and rename themselves Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Surely, doing this would put them on the path to grooveland. There was talk of the NFL Hall of Fame coming, a 500 bed hospital, a sports stadium, and a sporting goods factory. With a parade, honking horns, marching high school bands, and by a margin of 10 to 1 the Chunks signed the deal. A red marble mausoleum was built, some Oklahoma dirt was found, they threw Jimmy in there, officially changed the name of their towns to Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, and waited for the good times.
The good times did not follow. It flopped badly, nobody came, nobody cared. No Hall of Fame, no hospital, no factory, no nothin. As one of the townsfolk said “all we got was a dead indian”. But as the decades folded up, the fortunes of the town began to change, but not because of Jimmy. Mountain biking, clean air, and white water rafting have improved the financial world of Jim Thorpe, PA.
Some of Jim’s sons have made moves through the courts to get his body back to Oklahoma, but most of the relatives have now passed on. The motion is still in the courts with no closing in sight.
Jim Thorpe finally got on a Wheaties box, but it wasn’t until 2001 and only after a huge letter writing campaign. (Fake wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin gets the nod, but the greatest American athlete almost doesn’t ? I shall refuse to eat Wheaties ever again! Do not serve them to me or I shall fling the bowl like a frisbee at your youngest child.) I am not going to go with a Rodney Dangerfield line here, but it is pretty clear that in most of his life and in his death the respect factor has been pretty low for Jimmy.
So I say, go to a bar and have seven cocktails and raise a toast to America’s Greatest athlete and hope that your body doesn’t end up in some strange place you’ve never heard of or been to like in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. But maybe, just maybe, I like the sound of Groovemaster, Uzbekistan. Hmmm…. Groove.