Dinner is finished. My mother is in the kitchen washing dishes. My father sits in his favorite chair in the living room, reading the evening paper. I lie on the rug in front of him, reading the sports page. The year is 1951. I am eight years old.
The dial on the console radio is turned to my favorite show. I am listening to Bill Stern, a famous broadcaster, who is talking about sports. He usually talks about athletes who "overcame adversity" and have "grace under pressure" and "maintain a will to win, despite great odds." Stern later will be seen as almost a comic figure, full of melodrama and pathos. Woody Allen will make fun of him in a movie. But on this night in 1951 I think Stern is wonderful.
He tells a story about Jim Thorpe. The greatest athlete in American history is dying. "His money is gone. He is sick. He is lonely," says Stern. "Is there no one who remembers the greatness of this man? If you have a couple of spare bucks, why don't you send them to Jim Thorpe? If you don't have any money, send him a card. Let him know you still think about him. His address...."
I find a pen and a piece of paper. I copy the address. I would like to say that at eight years old I am a budding philanthropist, a pure heart on the way to a life of missionary work, but that is not the case. Of course, I am a sucker for a sad story as much as any second-grader might be. I am also a collector of autographs.
April 1, 1990
I don't remember how I started in the autograph game. Someone, I suppose, told me that if you send mail to famous athletes, they sometimes send mail back to you. I have become the master of the two-cent postcard. Is there a player on the Boston Red Sox or the New York Yankees who has not received a card from me? I have written to tennis players and golfers, to prizefighters and college halfbacks. I am sly. I am ruthless. I tell all of them that they are my favorite athlete and that I want to grow up to be exactly like them. Oh, yes, and if it's not too much trouble, could you send me a postcard with your autograph written across the bottom?
I decide that with Thorpe more than the usual is needed. I write him an entire letter in my blocky penmanship. I tell him how sad his plight has made me, how much I admire his accomplishments and how unfair it is that he lost his Olympic medals for having played pro baseball. Enclosed is a dollar from the Christmas money sent to me by my aunt Mildred. I say that I know he can put it to better use than I ever could. And, oh, yes—I enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope, hoping to get an autograph in return. Thank you, Jim. And Godspeed.
For the next two weeks, I wait. The autograph game makes the daily mail delivery a momentous occasion. The postcards that have been sent are so much bait strewn across the water. How many fish will bite? Thorpe is the biggest fish of all. The appearance of the familiar envelope, the stamp canceled with a New York postmark, is the payoff.
I read the letter in my room. Jim has written a letter! Yes, he is touched by my thoughtful ness and my generosity. Of course, he hopes I become a great athlete. Yes, he will give me his autograph. The letter is three paragraphs long, signed by him at the bottom. On a second piece of stationery, he has written simply, "Thanks Pal, Jim Thorpe, 1951."
This is the prize of my collection. I throw away the letter. I cut out the autograph from the other sheet and glue it onto a piece of lined paper in my special binder notebook. I forget.
A hundred years will pass. Or so it will seem. Thorpe dies. I stop collecting autographs around the same time I notice girls who wear tight sweaters. I grow up, leave home, chug into the rigors of adult living. I chug for a long time, through short hair and long hair and short hair again, through jobs and marriage and kids.
One day I will read an article about collecting the letters of famous people. The article talks about how much letters from the likes of F.D.R. and Churchill and Lincoln and Marilyn Monroe might be worth. It says one valuable letter is a surprise. Yes, a letter from Jim Thorpe. Very few of his letters are known to exist. A letter from Thorpe could be worth as much as $4,500. Later somebody else tells me it would be worth less than that but still a few thousand dollars.
I will look at Thorpe's signature, pasted in this book that I somehow have kept all these years. His autograph is in a place of honor, between that of Johnny Lipon, a favorite shortstop, and the signatures of Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor, the Australian tennis players. "Thanks Pal, Jim Thorpe, 1951." An autograph, yes, but not a letter. I am eight years old. I have thrown the letter into the wastebasket. The waste-basket has been emptied. The contents have been burned.
Who's to know?
Eight years old. I am such a chucklehead.