Legendary Rodeo Champion Jim Shoulders, 79

Jim Shoulders in action in San Angelo, Tex., in his prime in 1954. He was a world champion riding bulls as well as broncos.
Jim Shoulders in action in San Angelo, Tex., in his prime in 1954. He was a world champion riding bulls as well as broncos. (By Devere Helfrich Courtesy Of Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Via Associated Press)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 21, 2007

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 best-selling 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.

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