We are now into the year 2000 and as we begin the new millennium it is important for us to appreciate the history of sport in our country by cherishing some of the relics from the past. For this column, my first in the New Year, I will highlight a few recent additions to the fabulous collection that we have been able to assemble here at the MCI National Sports Gallery. Each of these items is a true museum piece and has never been publicly displayed before.
D.C.'s Own Home Run King
Many have said that Josh Gibson was the greatest of the long ball hitters who played in the Negro Leagues during the 1930's and 40's. Gibson, who played in Washington, D.C.'s Griffith Stadium for the Homestead Grays, was recently honored by Ted Williams who said he was "amazed and awestruck" when he heard from old timers who pointed out where Josh hit his mammoth homers here in Washington, D.C.
Gibson was born in rural Georgia on December 21, 1911. His baseball career began during the Great Depression in 1930 when major league baseball was segregated and ended just three months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. African American newspapers of his era credit Gibson with smacking 75 home runs in 1931, his rookie year. Some say he would have shattered Babe Ruth's home run records had he been able to play in the major leagues. Who knows whether Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa would still be trying to break Gibson's records had he been able to play during a different era. Even with obstacles borne of playing in a segregated world, Gibson carried himself with quiet confidence and was quite charismatic. He was to black youngsters what Ruth was to white kids, just wanting to touch their hero or get an autograph.
We are delighted to be able to display a very rare single signed Josh Gibson autograph on a baseball that was actually obtained by one of the youngsters while meeting their hero. The baseball itself has an interesting history. About two years ago, an older African-American gentleman visited a local card shop in Wheaton, Maryland, The House of Cards, owned and operated by Bill Huggins. This gentleman brought the ball to Bill and described how a relative of his owned a bar across the street from Griffith Stadium - a great ballpark where the Homestead Grays frequently played in the 1930's and 40's. The relative told the young boy that after the ballgame he would introduce him to "the greatest player of all time." Sure enough, after the game, who but Josh Gibson came into the bar for some post-game refreshments and met the starry-eyed boy and even signed a baseball for him! The gentleman eventually consigned the ball to Bill and it wound its way to one of our museum's benefactors who has graciously agreed that we can display it.
Therefore, to commemorate Gibson's great achievements on the baseball diamond, we have opened a very special exhibit of rare artifacts in our Negro League display area. Besides the baseball we are also featuring Gibson's signed contract for the Grays from 1932 in which he was to earn $275 a month, rare photos and a vintage baseball actually used by Gibson and Satchel Paige during their barnstorming tour in 1937.
"Win One For The Gipper" Signed Game Football
We also have in our possession an artifact that is truly a one-of-a-kind museum piece and has been called the "Holy Grail" of college football artifacts . . . the game ball from the "Win One For The Gipper" battle between Army and Notre Dame. The autographed "game ball" football is signed by the entire 1928 Notre Dame football squad, including Coach Knute Rockne, after the team battled Army in a spectacular football game. Thanks to Hollywood, and Ronald Reagan who played one George Gipp, that college game is perhaps the most famous college football game of the 20th century. Let me explain.
George Gipp, perhaps the greatest all-around player in college football history, was a legend in his own time even though he died from a throat infection at the young age of 25. Shortly after being named outstanding college player in America in 1920, Gipp contracted strept throat while helping the Irish defeat Northwestern late in his senior season. Shortly, the strept turned into a fatal throat infection. While on his deathbed, in a scene made famous by Ronald Reagan as an actor (who played the football hero), Gipp told Knute Rockne:
I've got to go Rock. It's all right. I'm not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys - tell them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock. But I'll know about it, and I'll be happy.
Knute Rockne waited eight years to relay Gipp's parting request. On November 10, 1928, an injury riddled Notre Dame team traveled to Yankee Stadium to face the unbeaten Army team. As legend has it, Rockne made this pre-game speech to the underdog Irish:
The day before he died, George Gipp asked me to wait until the situation seemed hopeless - then ask a Notre Dame team to go out and beat Army for him. This is the day, and you are the team. Go win one for the Gipper.
Ultimately, in a slugfest before a record 85,000 fans, Notre Dame won the game 12 to 6 on a pair of second half touchdowns. Even now, over 70 years later, every aspiring football player, or anyone facing huge odds, hears the tale of the Gipper! The football that we are showcasing has never been publicly displayed before. We have received it from the family member who secured the autographed "game ball" at the annual Notre Dame post-season banquet in late 1928. The ball itself is in spectacular condition and is signed by Knute Rockne and the entire team including Johnny "One Play" O'Brien, who scored the game's winning touchdown on a 30-yard trick pass as underdog Notre Dame beat the great Army team.
How did this magnificent artifact end up in our museum? Well, it turns out that in the latter part of 1928 one Walt Foster attended the Notre Dame "end of season" banquet where he received the great signed game ball. The ball has remained within the family since that time and though it has been enjoyed by the family and their friends it has never previously been publicly displayed. Thanks to Kelly Snyder, a direct relative of Walt Foster, we are able to share football's "Holy Grail" with our patrons. For those of you who regularly read this column, you know that our museum showcases many great items but I must admit this has generated a tremendous amount of interest!
Jim Thorpe: The Best Athlete Ever?
For the last several months everyone had fun debating about who the greatest athlete of the 20th century was. Many have crowned Michael Jordan, others Babe Ruth and still others say it was Muhammad Ali. Those three were certainly tremendous and their athletic feats were extraordinary, but for my money the answer to that question was stated 88 years ago by King Gustav V of Sweden for when Jim Thorpe
won the pentathlon and decathlon competitions at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, the King presented Thorpe with two gold medals and said simply, "You, Sir, are the greatest athlete in the world."
Though many have been spectacular at their individual sports, can you imagine being an Olympic champion in track and field, a professional baseball player for several years and probably amongst the top five professional football players of all time? Well that, folks, gives you a thumbnail sketch of the athletic prowess of the great Jim Thorpe. Though he was humble and modest, I believe that Jim was the brightest star of them all and one whose all-around athletic abilities should be celebrated throughout the 21st century.
To commemorate Jim's great career, we are showcasing several items including the only single signed baseball that I have ever seen of Jim's, a trophy won by Jim and his track and field team at Carlisle Indian School in 1909, and several other rare artifacts and photos. The baseball, on loan from the Cumberland County Historical Society, was signed by Thorpe while in Carlisle, Pennsylvania for the movie premiere of
The Jim Thorpe Story. The ball is a showpiece and the trophy is fantastic! It turns out that the Carlisle Indian School track team of 1909 really included at times only two individuals who ran several different events - Lewis Tewanima, a Hopi long distance runner who ran in the 1908 and 1912 Olympics, as well as teammate Jim Thorpe. Those two fellows often outperformed a whole team of competitors!