Thorpe’s first medal (cont’d)

Our astute friend and fellow hobbyist Tom Daley made a great catch last week when it comes to the issue of the medal Jim Thorpe is wearing in our Real Photo Postcard.

After much enlargement and enhancement, we felt fairly confident that on Thorpe’s chest, we saw this:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is a pedal from the Penn Relays, the longest-running amateur track and field competition in the United States (established in 1896).  Jim Thorpe won a gold medal for the high jump (actually, he tied, and won the medal on a coin flip), his first significant athletic award.  Since the postcards in question were both mailed less than two months after Thorpe’s victory, we speculated that perhaps the future great athlete was proudly wearing his Penn Relays medal, and the photographic evidence seemed to back that up.

Except it doesn’t.

A small excerpt from the Penn Relays’ “about the relays” page (which you can read in full here; it’s very interesting), is as follows:

“The design for the Penn Relays plaque and medal was executed by Dr. R. Tait MacKenzie in time for the 1925 meet.  It shows Benjamin Franklin, founder of the University, seated in a chair modeled from his library chair, holding a laurel sprig in his left hand.  He greets four runners, shaking the hand of the first, while the last holds a baton.  Posing for the medal were former Penn athletes Larry Brown, Louis Madeira, George Orton and Ted Meredith.  At the bottom of the relief is a lightning bolt, symbolic of Franklin’s explorations in the nature of electricity.”

While we initially thought “Well, the date could be an error,” it isn’t.  Enlarged images of the medal show, underneath the chair in which Franklin is sitting, is the date 1925.  Given the date is actually part of the sculpture, it’s reasonable to assume that this design is not what we’re seeing on Thorpe’s chest, and that our eyes are merely playing tricks on us.

It really does look like it, though.

This is not to say that the medal on Thorpe’s chest is definitively not his Penn Relays medal – we’re still researching what the earlier medals looked like.  We’ve found one blue ribbon, ostensibly from 1908, but we’re not convinced that there weren’t different awards for different competitions.  We’ve contacted the Penn Relays and are hoping that they can provide us with something definitive, but if any of our readers here happen to have information that can help us solve this mystery, we’re all ears!

Could this be Jim Thorpe’s first medal?

Thrope RPPC FrontA few days ago we posted about a pair of real photo postcards featuring Jim Thorpe and his friends at the Carlisle Indian School, circa 1908.  In researching the postcard we had identified the sender of the postcards as Joe Charley, who wrote notes to his sisters on each of the two postcards – one to his sister Fannie, and one to Bessie, each of whom had been former students of the school.  The postcards were mailed on June 4, 1908.  Charley, as we noted, eventually became Chief Joe Charley of the Yakama tribe.

We were very excited to identify Charley in the photo, and to trace Charley and his sisters from their time at the Carlisle school til their later lives.

What we also noticed, however, was that Jim Thorpe was wearing some sort of medal pinned to his tie.

In our research, we learned that Thorpe won a gold medal in the Penn Relays for the high jump, and speculated that since the Penn Relays were in the Spring and the postcards were mailed on June 4, maybe that medal was Thorpe’s gold medal.

Now, just a couple of weeks later, we’re reasonably convinced that it is.

According to Jim Thorpe: A Biography by William A. Cook, Thorpe went out for the track team at the Carlisle Indian School in 1908.  The coach was “Pop” Warner (who also coached the football team).  That Spring, Warner challenged Thorpe, telling him that if he could clear 5 feet, 10 1/2 inches in the high jump, that he would bring Thorpe with him to the Penn Relays.  Thorpe jumped 5 feet, 11 inches.

Sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania, the Penn Relays are the oldest amateur track and field competition in the country, dating back to 1895.  On April 25, 1908, Thorpe competed in the high jump, and to our knowledge it was his first significant amateur match.  His 6 foot, 1 inch jump was good enough to tie him for first, and a coin flip awarded him the gold – to our knowledge, his first track and field award.

Thorpe would continue to dominate during the rest of the track season, trying for (but not qualifying) the Olympic games. That summer, Thorpe joined the Carlisle baseball team.  The timing of these postcards’ mailing – June 4, 1908 – coincides with Thorpe’s rise to national prominence, just six weeks or so after his Penn Relays victory.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom what we can gather, the Penn Relays have always awarded a similar medal.  Here’s one from the late 1920s that we found online.

The image of the medal in the photo is very small.   The ribbon on Thorpe’s medal appears identical to that which we’ve seen on virtually every vintage Penn Relays medal we’ve found online.  The dimensions of the medal itself relative to the ribbon also seem very similar.  But what about the medal itself?  In the postcards, it’s awfully small to see any of the detail.

We scanned the postcards at 1200 DPI and enlarged them, and in each image the medal appeared quite blurry.  But we then cropped the best of the two images of the medal itself and enhanced the detail of the image, and the result was quite interesting.  While it’s impossible to see detail, the shadows and raised areas on the medal are consistent with the design of the Penn Relays medal.

By changing the perspective of an actual Penn Relays medal and overlaying it on top of the Thorpe medal, then animating the two, you can see what we mean.

Thorpe

While we cannot enhance the image further, prohibiting us from being 100% positive, we are reasonably convinced that Thorpe is wearing his Penn Relays medal in both photographs.  We have been unsuccessful in finding other images of Thorpe wearing this medal, the first significant athletic award of his legendary career.  All that being said, it is entirely possible that these two postcards are among the only images  depicting one of the greatest of American athletes, wearing the first of his many athletic awards.

We have a winner!

It took us a couple of weeks to begin to entertain the idea that perhaps the “guy in the middle” of this postcard was, perhaps, not a pro ballplayer.

First, we thought he might be a minor leaguer, or someone given a tryout with the Pirates or something of that nature.  He seemed a little old for that, but we’d found photos of every person who played a game for the Pirates between 1906 and 1910, and this gentleman was simply not among them.  We had a host of great guesses, from Butts Wagner to Lew Ritter with many others, but none seemed plausible.

Trying to identify a random person in a photo is difficult.  There are lots of people out there, and many have one or two facial characteristics in common.  Sometimes you’ll see two guys with the same nose, or the same cleft chin, or the same hairstyle, and you’ll be convinced that they must be the same guy.  Once you’ve done all the homework, and chased down every lead, you want it to be your guy.

That being said, it was Net54 member Todd, who wrote this on the board:

let me throw out the wildest theory yet.  There was an alderman/magistrate (low level judge) named Louis Alpern from Pittsburgh’s 3rd ward in 1909, and there is a person by that name said by Ancestry.com to have been residing in the area in both 1920 and 1940 who was born around 1880, putting him in his late 20’s – early 30’s in 1909.  It looks like he may have been the subject of corruption charges later on, and it’s possible he considered himself quite the big shot.  Could the photo be of a Pittsburgh politico who wanted his fantasy pic with the local boys of summer?”

Well, Todd, allow us to introduce you to Louis “Squire” Alpern.

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 2.20.47 AM

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 2.21.56 AMAlpern was born on September 25, 1875, taking an early interest in politics, eventually running for alderman – and winning – in 1905.  In 1909 he was appointed police magistrate as well.  He married Lillie Cohen, and passed away of influenza and pneumonia on January 22, 1937.

Once you’ve got the guy and you’ve got his picture, it’s pretty easy to fill in the blanks.  We can now date the postcard photo to March of 1911, probably to March 13 exactly.

The March 12 issue of the Pittsburgh Post contains an article entitled “Rear Division Of Buccaneers Off For Camp.” It goes on to describe a party of nine people, headed by Pirates owner Barney Dreyfus, who were heading to Hot Springs, Arkansas for spring training.  Buried in the article is this paragraph:

“The baseball party consisted of nine persons, but only four of these were players.  They were Thomas W. Leach, John B. Miller, William B. McKechine and Rivington Bisland.  The others who accompanied President Dreyfus were John P. Harris, who is now one of the stockholders in the club; Police Magistrate Louis Alpern, William J. Murray, former manager of the Philadelphia Nationals, and now the chief scout for the Pirates, and Michael J. Feeney, a local baseball enthusiast.”

So we can place Alpern with a group of Pirates heading to Hot Springs on March 11 or 12 of 1911.

Even better, the March 14 edition of the Pittsburgh Gazette contains this tidbit:

“In the morning the 14-pound medicine ball figured prominently in the stunts on the athletic field.  The players kept it going in a circle, which embraced also Vice President John P. Harris and Squire Louis Alpern, for whom Trainer Ed Laforce dug up uniforms.  Harris evidently came out here to take off weight, and he succeeded on the first day to the extent of six pounds.  He thoroughly enjoyed the sport, and the players had a lot of fun at his expense.”

Wagner PCIf you look off in the distance behind Wagner, to his left, you can see the 14-pound medicine ball in question, sitting on the ground near a small group of players.  In the foreground, manager Fred Clarke (HOF) and shortstop Honus Wagner (HOF), flanking Third Ward Alderman and police magistrate Louis Alpern, wearing a catcher’s mitt and the uniform provided him by trainer Ed Laforce, the players also having fun at his expense.

The supporting documentation makes this postcard, on our opinion, one of the coolest pieces we’ve ever sold.  We offer our thanks to our friends over at Net54 for giving us a venue for a collective brainstorming session, and we offer our thanks to Todd for finding Louis Alpern’s name and offering his wild theory.

And of course, we’re happy to award Todd a $200 credit to use in the auction!

The_Gazette_Times_Tue__Mar_14__1911_ Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 2.09.47 AM

It’s Not Crazy, It’s Sports

A few months ago, acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris interviewed Al from LOTG about the weirder side of collecting. A small part of the interview was featured in Most Valuable Whatever, one in a series of six documentary shorts directed by Morris under the umbrella of “It’s Not Crazy, It’s Sports.”

The series has been airing on ESPN, and just made its debut on the internet today.

You can watch it here, learn about Ty Cobb’s dentures, the Butt Fumble Jersey, Maple Leaf Gardens’ clubhouse toilet, and Luis Gonzalez’ bubblegum.

Click here to watch the film online.