The Washington Post
Legendary Rodeo Champion Jim Shoulders, 79
Jim Shoulders, 79, the Babe Ruth of rodeo cowboys who won an unprecedented 16 world championships in the 1940s and ’50s, died of complications of heart disease June 20 at his home in Henryetta, Okla.
In a sport rivaled only by boxing for the toll it takes on athletes’ bodies, Mr. Shoulders won an astonishing five all-around Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association championships in a 10-year span, as well as seven bull riding and four bareback riding crowns. Nearly unbeatable during his prime in the 1950s, he was also the reserve champion 10 times, including four second-place finishes in the all-around competition.
Often dubbed the greatest rough-stock rider of all time, Mr. Shoulders was a lifetime member of the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs and the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. He’s the only professional cowboy honored in the Madison Square Garden Hall of Fame.
Americans who don’t follow professional rodeo knew him better for his role in a 1980s series of humorous Miller Lite beer commercials, which paired him with baseball manager Billy Martin, slugger Boog Powell and sportscaster John Madden. He also helped design the bestselling Wrangler jeans that became as much a part of the western apparel as a Resistol hat.
All of that came about because of his skill on the back of a horse or bull.
“If there ever was a man that had no pain quotient, it was him,” said Clem McSpadden, a renowned rodeo announcer and former Democratic congressman from Oklahoma. “Heck, he didn’t even wear a mouthpiece. I saw his knee swell up to the size of a cantaloupe, and he’d go spur his horse and win. That was probably the thing that other cowboys recognized. They’ll be talking about him for generations to come.”
Mr. Shoulders broke both arms twice and his collarbone three times. He didn’t count the concussions or rib fractures, but he remembered twice breaking his pelvis, and the 27 facial bones he once broke. “When you got banged up, you just learned how to heal quick,” he told the Oklahoman newspaper.
During one rodeo, he broke his hand, and instead of bowing out of the competition, he simply switched hands and went on to ride a bull to victory — the equivalent of a major league baseball player changing from right-handed to left-handed pitching between innings.
Between the medical distractions, he made bull riding a more prominent part of the sport. He also was a top-notch bareback and saddle bronc rider and roper. But he played down the skill involved.
“Jim Shoulders used to say that all there is to bull riding is to put one leg on each side of the bull and make an ugly face for eight seconds,” bull rider Don Gay once said.
He had a laconic sense of humor about his injuries. “The American people don’t want to see anybody get killed, but if somebody gets killed, we don’t want to miss it,” he said.
The beer commercials played to Mr. Shoulders’s natural sense of humor. “I’ll teach Billy to be a cowpuncher as long as he doesn’t practice on my cows,” he said in one with the combative Martin.
Although he didn’t know a sewing machine from a rowing machine, Mr. Shoulders also helped test Wrangler’s 13MWZ Cowboy Cut jeans, one of the most popular styles in the manufacturer’s history. It took 13 tries before Mr. Shoulders approved the design: flat rivets that won’t scratch a saddle, boot-cut leg openings, front pockets deep enough for gloves, back pockets reinforced to be tool-proof, and a high rise in the back so that a man wouldn’t have to sit on his billfold and his shirttail would not flap out. And a zipper to get in and out of the pants quickly; no button flies.
So emblematic have the jeans become that experienced western horsemen tell novices to “sit so the tips of your W’s rest on the saddle.”
Mr. Shoulders was born May 13, 1928, in Tulsa. He entered his first rodeo at age 14.
“It was the Fourth of July, and I’d been working the wheat harvest for 25 cents an hour,” he told interviewers years later. “I thought $18 for one day’s work was pretty good. I knew I was rich and would never see another poor day.”
In his first full year as a pro, he made $7,000. The most money he ever won in a single year in rodeo was $50,000, which at the time was more than Mickey Mantle earned. But baseball turned to television, which drove earnings higher, and rodeo did not.
“I always felt like I didn’t win enough. In 1947, my wife, Sharon, and I had just got married and I decided to enter the rodeo at the Madison Square Garden and we would call it a honeymoon,” Mr. Shoulders told the Oklahoman.
In 1949, at age 21, he won the first of his world titles, and those winnings bought him a 400-acre ranch in Henryetta, where he raised livestock after his 25 years on the rodeo circuit ended in 1970. He also ran a rodeo company of his own and had an active endorsement career for Wrangler, Miller and Justin Boots.
He also owned the legendarily “unridable” bucking bull Tornado, which bested 200 consecutive riders over a 14-year span. Finally, in the 1967 National Finals, 46-year-old Oklahoman Warren G. “Freckles” Brown broke the bull’s string. W.K. “Kip” Stratton, who wrote “Chasing the Rodeo” (2005), was a 12-year-old witness.
“From Jim Shoulders’s perspective as the owner of the animal, it would have been in his interest to keep the streak going,” Stratton said in an interview yesterday. “But Jim Shoulders was the first person down on the arena floor to congratulate Freckles. That in a nutshell tells you everything you need to know about him.”
Survivors, in addition to his wife, include four children, Jamie Doak of Bixby, Okla., Marvin P. Shoulders of Henryetta, Jana Shoulders of Tulsa and Marcie Shoulders of Tonkawa, Okla.; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.