Sunday, November 29, 2009

Twice a Hero, Once a Rascal

At the Outfit we tend to shine a light on Chicago’s political, legal, and police corruption. But we shouldn’t forget that Chicago has some of the best sports scandals in the nation as well. And when sports intersects with politics and religion, the stories can be fascinating. Like this one by guest poster, Mike Bohn.

Bohn is the author of Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports, recently published with Potomac Books. His other books include Money Golf, 600 Years of Bettin’ on Birdies (2007), The Achille Lauro Hijacking, Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism (2004), and Nerve Center, Inside the White House Situation Room (2003). As a freelance writer, he regularly contributes features and golf reporting to a group of newspapers in Virginia. For more information, visit his website

As the tryouts for the 1924 American Olympic swimming team approached, Chicago’s Johnny Weissmuller was a mortal lock to make the team. He had broken thirty-eight world records over the course of 1922 and 1923.

Yet as Weissmuller prepared to travel to Indiana, a dark cloud descended over the family home at 1521 Cleveland Avenue in the German Town section of Chicago. U.S. Olympic officials had asked all team aspirants to provide proof of citizenship. Stunned, Elizabeth explained to her anxious son that he was not an American. She and her husband, Peter, had emigrated from Austria in 1905 when Johnny was seven months old.

After arriving in America, the family initially had settled in Windber, Pennsylvania, where their second son, Peter, was born. After moving to Chicago in 1908, Papa Weissmuller worked in a bar, and Elizabeth as a cook. Neither had the time nor inclination to apply for U.S. citizenship.

Johnny burst onto the American swimming scene as a seventeen-year-old in 1921. Bill Bachrach, the swimming director at the Illinois Athletic Club in Chicago, had taken the raw youngster and molded him into a swimming sensation. Bachrach was both an able coach and an inspired con man. He and Johnny connived to shave just tenths of seconds off records instead of shattering them. New records meant new headlines; more headlines brought more money to the IAC.

Just before the Indianapolis meet, word leaked to the press that Johnny had been born in Austria. U.S. Representative Henry Rathbone of Chicago further muddied the, um, water, by asking the U.S. department of labor to investigate.
Elizabeth spoke to the press and, with her fingers crossed, tearfully claimed that Johnny had been born in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune reacted with a positive story—“Can’t Bar Weissmuller from Olympiad; Was Born Here.” Rathbone pulled back slightly in the face of an emotional mother and sought a politically safe middle ground.

Johnny and his mother then decided to have him swap birth certificates with his American-born brother. Bachrach was likely involved because he was the Olympic swimming coach, plus Johnny was his meal ticket at the IAC. Within a few days, someone altered the baptismal records of Windber’s Saint John Cantius Catholic Church. Peter Weissmuller suddenly had a middle name—John—albeit written in different ink and penmanship. Bachrach stood ready to spin the press about how the family had always called the boy by his middle name.

Back in Chicago, Johnny gave the Olympic Committee his brother’s birth certificate. Officials, eager to have Weissmuller on the team, quickly accepted the unexpectedly tidy solution to a messy problem. The federal investigation fizzled, Rathbone retreated, and Elizabeth said ten Hail Marys.

Johnny, now as American as apple strudel, swam to Olympic glory, winning a total of five gold medals in 1924 and 1928. A hero twice over, he also starred in eighteen Tarzan movies in the 1930s and 40s. Reportedly worried that he might have to return his Olympic medals, Weissmuller never revealed the secret of his actual birthplace.


Sara Paretsky said...

lovely story, and a welcome respite from the current news!

Mike Dennis said...

Great story, Libby. Only in Chicago!

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