Born: May 28, 1888
Died: March 28, 1953
American football player, baseball player, and Olympic athlete
American track star and professional football and baseball player Jim Thorpe was the hero of the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, but had his gold medals taken from him for his status as a professional athlete.
James Francis Thorpe (Native American name, Wa-tho-huck, or Bright Path) was born south of Bellemonta, near Prague, Oklahoma, on May 28, 1888. He was the son of Hiran P. Thorpe, of Irish and Sac-Fox Indian descent, and Charlotte View, of Potowatomi and Kickapoo descent. He grew up with five siblings, although his twin brother, Charlie, died at the age of nine. Jim's athletic abilities showed at a very early age, when he learned to ride horses and swim at the age of three. Thorpe first attended the Sac-Fox Indian Agency school near Tecumseh, Oklahoma, before being sent to the Haskell Indian School near Lawrence, Kansas, in 1898.
When Thorpe was sixteen, he was recruited to attend a vocational school (a school to learn a trade) for Native Americans, the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. His track potential was obvious in 1907, when he cleared the high jump bar at 5 feet 9 inches while dressed in street clothes. Glenn S. "Pop" Warner, the school's legendary track and football coach, asked him to join the track team. That fall Thorpe made the varsity football team, playing some but starting the next year as a running back. In 1908 Thorpe was awarded third team All-American status, the highest honor for a collegiate athlete.
Following the spring of 1909, when Thorpe starred in track, he left the Carlisle school with two other students to go to North Carolina, where they played baseball at Rocky Mount in the Eastern Carolina Association. Thorpe pitched and played first base for what he said was $15 per week. The next year he played for Fayetteville, winning ten games and losing ten games pitching, while batting .236. These two years of paid performances in minor league baseball would later tarnish his 1912 amateur Olympic status.
Thorpe had matured to almost six feet in height and 185 pounds and led Carlisle to outstanding football seasons in 1911 and 1912. In 1911, against Harvard University's undefeated team led by the renowned coach Percy Houghton, Thorpe kicked four field goals—two over 40 yards—and the game ended in a stunning 18-15 victory. Carlisle lost only two games in 1911 and 1912, against Penn State and Syracuse University, but conquered such teams as the U.S. Army, Georgetown University, Harvard, and the University of Pittsburgh. In his last year he scored twenty-five touchdowns and 198 points, and for the second year in a row he was named All-American by football pioneer Walter Camp (1859–1925).
During the summer of 1912, before Thorpe's last year at Carlisle, he was chosen to represent the United States at the Stockholm Olympics in the decathlon (ten track events) and the pentathlon (five track events). He was an easy victor in the pentathlon, winning four of the five events (broad jump, 200 meter dash, discus, and 1,500 meter race), losing only the javelin. In the decathlon Thorpe set an Olympic mark of 8,413 points that would stand for two
The gold medal ceremony for the decathlon, Thorpe said, was the proudest moment of his life. A half-year later charges against Thorpe for professionalism led to Thorpe's confession that he had been paid to play baseball in North Carolina in 1909 and 1910. (Actually, Thorpe had been paid cash by coach "Pop" Warner as an athlete at Carlisle before that.) Shortly thereafter the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and the American Olympic Committee declared Thorpe a professional, asked Thorpe to return the medals won at the Olympics, and erased his name from the record books.
Thorpe, a great athlete but not a great baseball player, almost immediately signed a large $6,000-per-year, three-year contract with the New York Giants, managed by John J. McGraw. Thorpe was to be mainly as a gate attraction. His six-year major league career resulted in a .252 batting average with three teams: the New York Giants, the Cincinnati Reds, and the Boston Braves. He batted .327 in 1919, his last year in the majors.
Thorpe signed to play professional football in 1915 with the Canton Bulldogs for the "enormous" sum of $250 a game. Attendance at Canton immediately skyrocketed, and Thorpe led Canton to several championships over its chief rival, the Massillon Tigers. In 1920 he was appointed president of the American Professional Football Association, which would become the National Football League. Thorpe was the chief drawing power in professional football until Red Grange (1903–1991) entered the game in 1925.
Honors for past athletic achievements kept coming to Thorpe. At mid-century the Associated Press (AP) polled sportswriters and broadcasters to determine the greatest football player and most outstanding male athlete of the first half of the twentieth century. Thorpe outdistanced Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski (1908–1990) for the title of the greatest football player. He led Babe Ruth (1895–1948) and Jack Dempsey (1896–1983) for the most outstanding male athlete, being paired with Babe Didrikson Zaharias (1914–1956), the outstanding female athlete.
This recognition, however, did not influence the United States Olympic Committee to help restore Thorpe's Olympic medals. There had been an attempt in 1943 by the Oklahoma legislature to get the AAU to reinstate Thorpe as an amateur. Thirty years later the AAU did restore his amateur status. In 1952, shortly before his death, there was an attempt by Congressman Frank Bow of Canton, Ohio, to get Avery Brundage, president of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) to use his good offices to restore Thorpe's medals to him. This effort failed. Following Brundage's death in 1975, the USOC requested the International Olympic Committee to restore Thorpe's medals, but it was turned down. Not until 1982, when USOC president William E. Simon met with the International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch, was the action finally taken.
Outside of athletics, Thorpe's life had much more tragedy than two gold medal losses. Besides his twin brother Charlie's death when he was nine years old, his mother died of blood poisoning before he was a teenager. Four years later, shortly after Thorpe entered Carlisle, his father died. Following his marriage to Iva Miller in 1913, their first son died at the age of four from polio, a life-threatening disease that affects development in children. Twice divorced, he had one boy and three girls from his first marriage, and four boys from his second marriage in 1926 to Freeda Kirkpatrick. His third marriage was to Patricia Askew in 1945. His place in sports history, though, was established well before he died of a heart attack on March 28, 1953 in Lomita, California, at the age of sixty-four.
Birchfield, D. L. Jim Thorpe, World's Greatest Athlete. Parsippany, NJ: Modern Curriculum Press, 1994.
Farrell, Edward. Young Jim Thorpe: All-American Athlete. Mahweh, NJ: Troll Associates, 1996.
Lipsyte, Robert. Jim Thorpe: 20th-Century Jock. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Richards, Gregory B. Jim Thorpe, World's Greatest Athlete. Chicago: Children's Press, 1984.
Wheeler, Robert W. Jim Thorpe: World's Greatest Athlete. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.