Jim Thorpe’s Springfield Day

NOTE: we will be posting a selected column from Garry Brown’s Greatest Hits weekly.

It was 1912, the year Jim Thorpe astounded the sports world by winning gold medals in the both the pentathlon and decathlon at the Summer Olympics in Stockholm.

It was four months after King Gustav of Sweden had said to him, ‘You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world’’ to which he responded with a classic: “Thanks, King.’’

Yes, it was 100 years ago this week – Nov. 23, 1912 – that Jim Thorpe came to Springfield with the football team representing the Carlisle Indian Industrial School of Pennsylvania. At that point of Thorpe’s sensational athletic career, Coach Glenn “Pop’’ Warner’s Carlisle Indians could play with anybody in the country.

On that particular day in 1912, the schedule called for them to play in Springfield against the School for Christian Workers, also known in the press of the day as “YMCA College’’ and later to be known world-wide as Springfield College.

This unusual matchup came about because of a close friendship between Warner and Springfield coach James McCurdy. Warner accepted the challenge of playing in Springfield because it fit well into his itinerary, which called for a season-ending game at Brown University in Providence on Thanksgiving Day.

Springfield College football archives show that Warner planned to play Thorpe only in the first quarter, in order to keep him fresh for the game at Brown.

Instead, the home team battled so hard that Carlisle needed Thorpe to play the full game – and be at his best. He delivered, scoring four touchdowns, and kicking three extra points and a field goal. It took all of that for Carlisle to prevail, 30-24.

“No Springfield team ever fought harder from whistle to whistle than coach McCurdy’s moleskin-wearers did this day. Capt. Dan Kelly and his teammates gave a sterling performance,’’ The Springfield Republican reported.

In the weeks prior to their Springfield trip, Thorpe and his teammates had rolled up a 10-1-1 record. Carlisle did have two bad weeks – a scoreless tie with Washington & Jefferson and a 36-24 loss to Penn – but when they stormed onto Pratt Field to face McCurdy’s team, a serious mismatch seemed in store.

The Carlisle Indians had outscored their opponents 443-96. That included a 65-0 pounding of Villanova, then one of intercollegiate football’s elite teams, and a huge 27-6 victory over a proud Army team that featured one Dwight D. Eisenhower as its star running back/linebacker.

As for YMCA College, it came into the game with a 5-3 record that included losses to Williams and Amherst, and a victory over the Mass. Agricultural College (the forerunner of UMass).

Thorpe’s visit to Springfield so captivated the local sporting populace that a crowd of 7,000 packed Pratt Field (where Amos Alonzo Stagg Field now stands on the SC campus).

That throng of football fans cheered for an innovative Springfield offense directed by quarterback Les Mann, one of the college’s all-time great athletes. He completed 10 of 12 passes, setting up his team’s three touchdowns. He also kicked three extra points and a field goal.

Coach McCurdy’s attack featured line shifts, speed and the aerial game – the very attributes that made Carlisle teams so successful.

“It would be no exaggeration to say that no team this season has given a finer exhibition of working the forward pass than the local eleven, keeping Springfield right in the running,’’ The Republican reported. “The game produced thrill following thrill, with the rapidity of a motion picture film.’’

Thorpe scored early, but Mann passed Springfield into a 14-7 lead. Thorpe kept coming, though, and ran for the tieing touchdown just before halftime.

In the second half, as hard as Springfield fought, it could not contain Thorpe.

“The athletic marvel of the age certainly was the chief stumbling block in Springfield’s path to winning the laurels,’’ The Republican said. “The Olympic champion was a Hercules on offense, and more than once he was the one defender to stand between a Springfield runner and a touchdown. As a ball carrier, he gave a wonderful exhibition of straight-arm work.’’

After getting out of Springfield with that hard-earned victory, coach Warner’s team went on to trounce Brown 32-0.

In what was his last season of intercollegiate football, Thorpe scored 29 touchdowns, kicked 38 extra points and added four field goals (all done with the old “dropkick’’ style) for a total of 224 points. As a running back, he averaged 9.8 yards per carry.

For the 1911 and ’12 seasons, Carlisle had a combined record of 23-2-1.

The 1912 season marked the first for college football under a series of rules changes which made the game what it basically still is – four downs to make 10 yards; touchdowns worth six points instead of the previous five; and the field changed from 110 yards to 100.

Under that format, Harvard was declared the first national champion in 1912, finishing with a 9-0-0 record. Penn State ranked second at 8-0-0, followed by Carlisle.

Thorpe went on to play professional football and baseball at the major league level, and basketball as leader of a barnstorming team. He retired from athletic competition at the age of 41.

Because it was found that Thorpe had played two summers of minor league baseball while in school, he was stripped of his medals as the International Olympic Committee enforced its then-strict rules regarding amateurism. Thorpe died, poverty-stricken, in 1953 at the age of 64. Through the laborious efforts of friends and family members, Thorpe’s Olympic medals eventually were restored in 1982. A town in Pennsylvania now bears his name.

Pop Warner had a coaching career which started at the University of Georgia, then took him to Cornell, Carlisle, Pitt, Stanford and Temple. His lifetime record of 319-106-32, led to his election to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951. He’s also remembered for starting the Pop Warner League, a national program for kid football teams.

Les Mann, the Springfield star against Carlisle, went right from college to the Boston Braves in 1913 for the start of what would be a 16-year career as a major league baseball outfielder. He became part of the “Miracle Braves’’ as they went from last place on July 4 to a sweep of the Philadelphia A’s in the World Series. Mann also played in the 1918 World Series for the Chicago Cubs against the Boston Red Sox.

McCurdy, the friend who gave Pop Warner all he could handle on the football field, coached at the School for Christian Workers from 1896 through 1916.

Jim Thorpe, Les Mann, Pop Warner, James McCurdy . . . they all came together 100 years ago, giving Springfield the greatest football show this city has ever seen.