The Return Of Jarring Jim
February 20, 1939
On February 20, 1939, a traveling auditor for the Internal Revenue Service returned to the town of his alma mater on business. Nine years earlier he had been the best football player at KU, as well as a star center for the University’s basketball team, and a conference champion in three track-and-field events. His athletic dominance, especially in football, had elicited the attention of universities throughout the Midwest. And after claiming the decathlon gold medal in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, sportswriters across the country had plunged into a lively debate over whether or not he had surpassed the immortal Jim Thorpe as the greatest athlete in America’s history.
However, glory had proven short-lived for KU’s James Bausch. By 1939, he had all but faded from the national consciousness. To his credit, he did not seem to mind its passing.
Upon hearing that the former Kansas football, basketball and track star was in town, Bill Hargiss, KU’s track coach, invited Bausch to attend a practice. The 1932 Olympic decathlon champion donned his track togs for the first time in nearly six years and took a lap around the track before spotting some shot putters working in a remote corner of the field. “To their delight,” the University Daily Kansan reported, “he offered his assistance.” His “work with the putters” so occupied him, the student paper continued, “that he almost forgot a dinner engagement,” and left the field with only 20 minutes to shower and dress for his appointment. It was not the first time Bausch had made a rather quick exit from KU in the interest of propriety.
Ten years earlier, Bausch was a 23-year-old sophomore who had just transferred to KU from Wichita University (now Wichita State). He starred on the football team during his first semester, earning all-conference honors for his performance as a full back and the nickname “Jarring Jim” for the ferocious intensity with which he played.
Not all of his nicknames were so complimentary. In 1929, newspaper reporters from Manhattan, Kansas criticized the 6-foot 2-inch, 200-pound back as an “all-star yellow-belly” after KU’s cross-state rival upended the Jayhawks 6-0 in Memorial Stadium that year. Bausch did not forget this slight. In the opening kickoff of the following year’s game in Manhattan, he returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown and kicked the extra point. Later in the game, he ran an interception back for a score and again kicked the extra point. He was the only player on either team to score in a contest that ended 14-0 in the Jayhawks’ favor.
This achievement was not, however, an unmitigated triumph. It also raised a number of suspicious – and perhaps envious – eyebrows within the Big Six Conference. When the other schools in the conference discovered that a KU booster from Topeka had provided Bausch with a job at his insurance company as an enticement to transfer from Wichita, they began an investigation into KU’s football program.
Contrary to what one might expect, the other schools were not upset that Bausch had a job. It was considered quite proper for a college athlete to be employed, so long as he actually worked for the money. Rather, KU’s adversaries charged that Kansas had actively recruited Bausch and thus had violated conference rules, for it was considered improper at the time for a coach, administrator or booster to seek to influence a player’s choice of school. Adding to the charge of illegal recruitment, KU’s conference rivals pointed out that there existed some doubt as to whether or not Bausch had actually sold any insurance at all for the Topeka company. Even if he had, the $75 stipend that he received each month seemed quite excessive to the other schools, and so they accused him of “professionalism.”
KU Athletic Director “Phog” Allen, KU Chancellor E. H. Lindley, and the majority of Kansas newspapers joined together in denying the existence of any impropriety whatsoever. They attributed the investigation to conference opponents’ jealousy of the KU team, which was well on its way to the league’s championship. As the accusations and denials increased in their intensity, Bausch spoke out in his own defense, charging that representatives of Missouri’s athletic department (which was one of the chief instigators of the investigation) had offered him money to lure him away from KU during his first season in Lawrence. His allegation muddled the investigation but did not hinder the fervor of KU’s adversaries. (This was not the first time that alleged rules violations had tarnished the Kansas football program. In 1910 the Missouri Valley Conference – to which KU belonged – very nearly decided to abandon football altogether as a consequence of the pervasive cheating of its schools that characterized the sport. KU, it should be noted, was hardly innocent in this regard.)
When it became apparent that KU had no intention of declaring its star player ineligible, the other conference schools turned to their trump card. On October 24, 1930, four of the five schools in the conference voted to refuse to schedule games against Kansas the following year. Of the Big Six schools, only Kansas State, KU’s intra-state rival, had abstained from the vote. The balloting amounted to an ouster of KU from the conference. By December, faced with the unappealing possibility of being left conference-less in 1931, the University of Kansas decided that it would be in its best interest to declare Bausch ineligible. Before that happened, however, the Jayhawk star announced that he would be giving up his eligibility to play in the East-West Shrine game – a post-season bowl game in which the nation’s best players competed against each other.
After leaving KU, Bausch remained in Lawrence throughout 1931 and continued to train with Kansas track coach, Brutus Hamilton. (Although he had attracted attention primarily as a football player at KU, Bausch had starred in basketball and track as well. As a sophomore, he had won the conference title in the shot put, discuss, and pole vault, and had carved out quite a niche as an all-around athlete.) Competing for the Kansas City Athletic Club at the Kansas Relays on April 17, 1931, Bausch participated in his first decathlon and, despite a wet field, set a new Relays record. In fact, he very nearly beat the American record for the event. He won another decathlon two months later and in September of that year set a new American record in the pentathlon.
In June 1932, having established a reputation as one of the nation’s best decathletes, he tried out for the US Olympic team. He was not the only competitor from Lawrence to vie for a spot on the team. Clyde Coffman, a KU junior, and Wilson Charles, the defending Amateur Athletic Union champion and former Haskell Institute star, also sought a chance to head to Los Angeles for the Tenth Olympiad.
As fate would have it, the three men with Lawrence connections swept the decathlon trials and so constituted the entire decathlon team for the United States. (All told that year, KU sent four students to the Olympic games: Bausch and Coffman for the decathlon, Glenn Cunningham for the 1,500-meter run, and Peter J. Mehringer as the nation’s 191.5-pound freestyle wrestler. With Charles also competing, Lawrence could claim five Olympians – an impressive total for a town its size, as local papers pointed out at the time.)
In winning the trials, Bausch set a new American record and gained some personal momentum. However, neither he nor his Sunflower State teammates were favored in the Olympic event. That honor went to Finland’s Akilles Jarvinen who, at his nation’s trials, had set a new world record of 8,255 points. His teammate, Paavo Yrola, who had won the gold medal four years earlier, was also expected to be a contender.
On August 5, 1932 the decathlon competition began. After the first day of the two-day competition, Charles led the field while Bausch held onto fifth place. The former Jayhawk star had reason for optimism, as his best events were to come in day two. However, sportswriters pointed out, he had cause for concern as well since Jarvinen sat in third place with his best events also awaiting him the following day. Never lacking in confidence, Bausch promised his fellow athletes in the Olympic village that night that he “would not only win the decathlon … but break the world’s record, too.”
Despite placing sixth in the first event of day two, the 110-meter high hurdles, Bausch moved into third place while Jarvinen took over second. Bausch went on to win the next three events – the discus, pole vault, and javelin – in dramatic fashion. In the discus, an event for which Bausch was the favorite and had very nearly qualified as an individual competitor, he easily claimed victory with a toss of 146 feet 3¼ inches. In the pole vault, Bausch waited until everyone else had vaulted at least once (and some had already finished) before taking his initial vault. He and Coffman tied for first in the event with an impressive height of 13 feet 1½ inches. It was, as Francis W. Schruben later wrote for Kanshistique, “a tremendous feat with the old stiff poles for a man his size.” He managed his greatest coup, however, when he defeated Jarvinen in the javelin throw, the Finn’s best event, by nearly two feet, establishing a new Olympic decathlon record for the event in the process.
Following Bausch’s three consecutive victories, the decathlon’s final competition, the 1,500-meter run, proved anticlimactic. Bausch had already racked up 7,900 points; all he needed to do to secure the gold medal was finish the race. He ran the “metric mile” in 5:17, a time so slow that reporters mistook his “plodding around the track” as a sign of fatigue. In fact, though he finished second to last, he set a new personal best in the event. The 500 points he received for the decathlon’s last race boosted his score to 8,462.23 points. His total not only shattered Jarvinen’s mark, it eclipsed the unofficial world record of 4,412 that had been set in 1912 by Jim Thorpe. (Track and field officials had invalidated Thorpe’s score when they found him guilty of “professionalism” for playing semi-pro baseball as a student at Carlisle Indian Industrial School. In 1982, the International Olympic Committee returned the gold medal for the event to his family.)
Having made good on his previous night’s boast, the brash gold medallist deflected praise from his accomplishment by declaring that he would have broken 8,600 points had his knee not bothered him. Hearing the decathlon champ’s remarks, the US Olympic coach Lawson Robertson reputedly asked Bausch, “Jim, did you ever get a group picture taken of yourself.” Indeed, many believed the former Jayhawk’s ego to be enormous, though some, like Glenn Cunningham, reasoned that “what most people thought was boastful was in reality just a statement of fact. [Bausch] would talk about what he was going to do, and then he would do it.” That he might be forgiven some excessive pride was, perhaps, not too much to ask. An Olympic gold medal and world record in what was then the signature event of the Olympic games certainly provided reason for both confidence and celebration.
Following his victory, sportswriters, coaches, and fans launched a debate over whether or not Bausch had surpassed Jim Thorpe as the greatest athlete in American history. Ed Pollock, in an article for the Philadelphia Public Ledger, asserted that the “big ‘I’ man from Kansas [a reference to his position as a running back, not his ego], decathlon champion and world’s record-holder, is crowding the Indian [Thorpe] for the honors, and in the opinion of many has displaced Thorpe.” Pollock cited Robinson (the Olympic coach), Hamilton (Bausch’s college coach), and Amos Alonzo Stagg (the Hall of Fame football coach), who had seen Thorpe in the 1912 Olympics, as notable personalities who believed the former Jayhawk to be the greatest American athlete of all time.
Others, such as Dr. Leroy Mercer of the University of Pennsylvania, who had been Thorpe’s teammate in 1912, maintained that if dominance in other sports were taken into account then Thorpe surpassed the Kansan. A comparison of their decathlon performances did little to solve the argument, since each had bested the other in five events. Prudently, neither Bausch nor Thorpe entered the fray on their own behalf.
Even as the debate began, Lawrence scrambled to make plans to welcome home its five Olympic athletes, which included not just one, but two gold medal winners, as KU’s Pete Mehringer had taken home a gold medal in wrestling. The city invited suggestions from the community at large of ways in which it might honor the Olympians. The University considered naming a building after Bausch and the city contemplated doing the same thing for a street. (No mention was made, however, of bestowing a similar honor on Mehringer. In fact, by the 1950s, regional papers had forgotten the wrestling gold medallist entirely. When KU’s Al Oerter claimed a gold medal for the discus in the 1956 Olympic games, local publications asserted that it was the second such honor awarded to a KU athlete and cited Bausch as the first.)
For a few brief years following his record-breaking performance, Bausch enjoyed the life of a minor celebrity. In late 1932, for example, newspaper gossip columns reported his supposed engagements to Mildred Harris Chaplin (Charlie Chaplin’s first wife) and actress Minna Gombell. In January 1933, 600 sports reporters voted to award the former KU star the 1932 Sullivan Memorial Medal. (The Sullivan award was annually presented to the athlete who “by his performance and by his example and influence as an amateur and as a man, has done most during the past year to advance the cause of sportsmanship.”) Among the reasons the journalists offered to justify their selection of Bausch was that he had “worked his way through school and turned down professional offers for two years” to play football for Kansas. Thus the honor was perhaps a shade ironic in light of both his brazenness and the charges that had been brought against him while at KU.
As the national media had taken notice of the former Jayhawk only after his victory in Los Angeles, Kansas columnists seized the opportunity to lambaste the East Coast papers and draw attention to their region. They pointed to Bausch’s career at the University in criticizing their colleagues to the east for claiming that “he never came into prominence until the Olympics.” Similar charges of an East Coast, journalistic bias against Bausch echoed not only from Kansas, but from throughout the Midwest.
Although he played professional football and basketball briefly, Bausch’s real passion, apparently, did not lie in the world of athletic achievement. As his true talent did lie there, perhaps it is not surprising that his renown dissipated quickly after he gave up sports entirely in the mid-1930s. Four months after winning his medal, he took a job as a singer for a jazz orchestra. So serious was he about developing a career as a “crooner” – he was reputed to sound like Bing Crosby – that he skipped the AAU championship meet in 1933 in order to sing with his band. When his attempt to establish a singing career fell by the wayside and the glory of his Olympic victory faded into the past, he took a job with the IRS. It was this job that brought him back to Lawrence in 1939, a year after an apartment fire had destroyed his gold medal (or so Clyde Coffman later remembered). He went on to a number of other occupations including, ironically enough, one as an insurance salesman. Later in his life he battled alcoholism, though he apparently “scored his greatest triumph” by overcoming it shortly before his death in 1974.
Bausch was not entirely forgotten following his brief moment in the sun. Four months after he visited his alma mater in 1939, the University Daily Kansan released the results of a poll concerning the greatest athlete in the university’s history. Bausch topped the list. (Cunningham, Tommy Johnson, Charlie Black, and Ray Ebling rounded out the top five.) Fifteen years later, at halftime of a game against Oklahoma in Memorial Stadium, his former gridiron teammates stood beside him to cheer as the executive secretary of the Big Seven conference presented him with a plaque commemorating his induction into the National Football Hall of Fame (now the College Football Hall of Fame).
In 1979, the National Track Hall of Fame added to that honor by making him one of only a handful of people who have been enshrined in the halls of fame of multiple sports. Even so, for an athlete once compared to Jim Thorpe, his standing certainly pales by comparison. In a nation with a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sports mentality, it is not surprising that in 1999 when Sports Illustrated listed the greatest athletes of the century. Bausch did not even rank among the top 10 Kansas had produced.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas