Visiting Bricktown's Oklahoma Sports HOF
OKLAHOMA CITY -- "Astronauts, country music stars and athletes, we seem to just spit 'em out." That's Justin Lenhart's succinct summation of Oklahoman occupations that have made an outsized impact on American culture. As curator of the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, Lenhart's focus is on the "athletes" portion of
OKLAHOMA CITY -- "Astronauts, country music stars and athletes, we seem to just spit 'em out."
That's Justin Lenhart's succinct summation of Oklahoman occupations that have made an outsized impact on American culture. As curator of the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, Lenhart's focus is on the "athletes" portion of this Sooner State equation. The Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, established in 1986, relocated to the Oklahoma City Dodgers' home of Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark in 2018. The area in which it resides, fittingly located on Mickey Mantle Drive, is a former restaurant space.
"Incorporating it into the ballpark was a lot of fun. The tie's a natural fit," said Lenhart. "The Dodgers have been just great to work with, as has the city of Oklahoma City."
The OSHOF's 204 inductees feature those born and raised in Oklahoma as well as people with connections to the state (be they collegiate, professional or otherwise). Of these individuals, one literally towers above the rest. A statue of Jim Thorpe stands outside the entrance, the latest addition to a bronzed Bricktown Ballpark pantheon that also includes Mickey Mantle, Warren Spahn and Johnny Bench. Inside, one finds 400 pieces related to Thorpe's remarkable life and times. Thorpe, who was born in 1887 on Indian Territory that was later part of Oklahoma, won two gold medals at the 1912 Summer Olympics and went on to play professionally in the NFL and Major League Baseball.
The Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame's youth program, Bright Path, is named after the English translation of Thorpe's Native American name (Wa-tho-huk).
"We really dig deep into the American Indian experience. When we talk about Jim Thorpe we talk about the boarding school he went to, how we was a man lost in his own time," said Lenhart. "The most famous athlete in the world, but he was also treated as a minority in a lot of places. American Indians weren't even considered citizens when he represented the United States in the 1912 Olympics.... That opens a door to history that I think a lot of sports museums don't have."
The history of Jim Thorpe has a direct connection to this year's Oklahoma City Dodgers, as third baseman Eddy Alvarez is on the roster and has appeared in 47 games. Alvarez won a speed skating silver medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics; when he made his Major League debut some six years later, he joined Thorpe as the only player to play Major League Baseball and win an Olympic medal in another sport.
Alvarez, currently on the injured reserve list, visited the OSHOF earlier this season.
"I wasn't anticipating how amazing it was," said Alvarez, as quoted in the OKC Dodgers "Beyond the Bricks" blog. "I had an idea in my head of what [Thorpe] looked like and then I got to see more photos and it changed my perspective of him and made him more real to me."
Lenhart says displays and memorabilia related to Mantle, Bench and well-remembered collegiate football players and wrestlers are among the OSHOF's most popular. But, as the approach to Thorpe illustrates, there are many stories to tell and different ways to tell them.
"It's a museum of nostalgia, but we also try to tell a unique and complete story," said Lenhart. "Walter Young was an All-American at the University of Oklahoma in the '30s and '40s. He was drafted into the Air Corps during World War II and was a decorated bombardier in the air corps. We get into what [Oklahoma State softball player] Michelle Smith did pre-Title IX and how she pushed that ahead. We partnered with the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Rhode Island, looking at women's fashion from the Victorian era all the way up to 2017 and paralleling that with women's rights movements."
There are numerous avenues to explore, in other words, from the proverbial heavy hitters to comparatively unknown individuals such as legendary basketball coach Bertha Teague, X Games founder Matt Hoffman and decathlete Jeff Bennett. Oklahoma sports, like sports everywhere, provides a vantage point from which to illuminate the complexities, contradictions and evolution of American culture.
"We don't just stick to the stick and ball games or the dudes who played football," said Lenhart. "I think the sky's the limit."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.