Thorpe, James Francis ("Jim")
THORPE, James Francis ("Jim")
(b. 22 May 1887 in Keokuk Falls, now Prague, Oklahoma; d. 28 March 1953 in Lomita, California), Native American who, as the winner of the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics and as an outstanding collegiate football and track and field star and professional baseball and football player, is considered one of the world's greatest all-around athletes.
Thorpe was the son of Hiram P. Thorp (the "e" was added later), a horse rancher, and Charlotte Vieux Thorp, a homemaker who raised Thorpe and his twin brother in the Roman Catholic faith. Thorpe's father, Hiram, was the son of Hiram G. Thorp, an Irishman, and No-ten-o-quah ("Wind Woman"), a Sac and Fox of the Woodland tribe that originated in the Wisconsin area. Thorpe's mother, Charlotte, was the daughter of a French father and an Indian mother of Potawatomi and Kickapoo descent; she belonged to the Thunder Clan of the great Sac and Fox chief Black Hawk. As a result, Thorpe was only partially Native American, although he was brought up as a member of the Sac and Fox tribe.
There was great personal sadness and tragedy in Thorpe's childhood. Hiram and Charlotte divorced, Hiram remarried, and then the couple reunited; Thorpe's twin brother died of pneumonia just short of their eighth birthday; Charlotte died when Thorpe was twelve; and Hiram died when he was sixteen. Prior to these events, the energetic, outgoing boy enjoyed a carefree existence in the fields and rivers near the Sac and Fox reservation east of Oklahoma City. Thorpe's father, according to his son and local reputation, was an unusually strong man as well as an outstanding athlete who taught Thorpe an instinctive method of all-over training—hunting, fishing, wrestling, swimming, high jump, broad jump, and horseback riding. Thorpe showed an early facility for long-distance running. He once ran away from the local Sac and Fox school after his father had dropped him off from a horse-drawn wagon. By the time Hiram arrived home, Thorpe had covered twenty miles, taking a shortcut, and was waiting for his father at the front door of the family's one-room home.
School was often a problematic exercise for Thorpe. Intelligent and highly observant, he resisted the regimentation and physical restriction of Indian education at the time. With hopes that a boarding school far away would help concentrate his son's study habits, Hiram decided in 1898 to send his difficult son to the Haskell Institute, an Indian school 300 miles away in Lawrence, Kansas. Thorpe lasted only one year at Haskell, after which he left home to work for a few months on a ranch in Texas. Throughout these difficult years, as Thorpe adjusted to family deaths and his father's growing exasperation, he picked up skills in the two sports that were to define major periods of his life—baseball and football.
In 1904, when Thorpe was sixteen, he was sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial Training School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, known as "Carlisle." Founded in 1879 by Richard Henry Pratt as a federal, coeducational institution to teach Native Americans the ways and skills of the white man, Carlisle was the showcase school of the post-frontier era. However misguided and paternalistic such a concept seems at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Pratt sincerely believed that Native Americans faced extinction if they did not learn how to stand up, through education, to the dominant white culture. To Pratt this meant erasing one's Native American ways and becoming white. Sports were a major part of the Carlisle experience. When Pratt hired Glenn Scobey ("Pop") Warner as the school's football and track and field coach, the Carlisle athletes, known as the Indians, became world-famous for their outstanding skill and power. At this time, the game of football was evolving and changing by the year, and Warner was one of the most prominent strategists and innovators in the game's history.
In spring 1907, in one of sports history's most legendary discovery stories, Thorpe was on his way across campus to an intramural football game when he casually cleared a Carlisle high-jump bar set at five feet, nine inches, setting a school record. Warner immediately put him on the track team, and Thorpe broke most of the Carlisle records. He also managed to squeeze in stints on the school's baseball and basketball teams. A year later, Thorpe won a gold medal for the high jump at the Penn Relays, then placed first in five events in a dual meet against Syracuse, and won every event he entered in both the Pennsylvania Intercollegiate and the Middle Atlantic Association meets. In 1909 at a remarkable dual meet against Lafayette, Thorpe won six gold medals and one bronze, in the 100-yard dash. Teammates noted that Thorpe was not usually interested in breaking records, but in winning.
Although Warner discouraged Thorpe from playing football because he did not want his star track athlete to get hurt, Thorpe insisted on trying out for the team in autumn 1907. He amazed the coach by running and tackling like a natural. Carlisle ended the season with a 10–1 record, including a 23–5 win over Harvard. Except for two games, Thorpe warmed the bench, but, as was his habit since boyhood, he watched the players' every move, visualizing the plays in his mind. By the end of the 1908 season, he was the most talked-about athlete in Pennsylvania and began attracting the national attention that marked his athletic career. With a team record of ten wins, two losses (one to Harvard), and one tie (with the University of Pennsylvania in the game Thorpe later called "the toughest game in my twenty-two years of college and professional football"), Thorpe made a series of brilliant plays that earned him recognition as a third-team All-American.
Off the field, Thorpe's behavior and attitude deteriorated as he enjoyed the privileges of being one of Warner's football boys, housed in a separate building and generally protected from the strict discipline that characterized the rest of the school. His excessive drinking, which plagued him the rest of his life, began at Carlisle. At the same time, school officials noted that Thorpe was a natural leader, generous, tolerant, and funny.
Age twenty-one and restive, Thorpe left Carlisle for two years to play baseball for a reported $15 per week in the East Carolina League for the Rocky Mount and the Fayetteville teams. He pitched and played first base and "circle[d] the bases like a deer." However, the league folded in 1911 and Thorpe was persuaded by Warner to return to school, not only to play football but also to train for the 1912 Olympics. Carlisle's 1911 football season was spectacular, with an 11–1 record. Thorpe stunned crowds by recovering his own punts, scoring multiple touchdowns, spearheading an 18–15 victory over the previously unbeaten Harvard, and kicking one punt of eighty-three yards against Brown University. Named as a first-team All-America half-back, his play showed an amazing blend of speed, stamina, and dexterity that captivated the nation.
At the fifth Olympiad in Stockholm, Sweden, in July 1912, Thorpe gained world acclaim by winning gold medals in the pentathlon and the decathlon, as well as placing in both the high jump and the long jump. For the pentathlon, he made four out of five (running broad jump, javelin throw, 200-meter dash, discus throw, and 1,500-meter race) first places and fourth in the javelin throw. In the ten events of the decathlon (100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400-meter race, discus throw, 110-meter hurdles, pole vault, javelin throw, and 1,500-meter race), Thorpe scored 8,412.95 out of a possible 10,000 points; this record stood for 36 years. Although stories circulated that, as a natural athlete, Thorpe never trained for the events, in fact he worked hard and consistently under the watchful eye of Warner. When King Gustav V presented the champion with his medals, as well as two lavish trophies, the king made the famous statement that immortalized Thorpe in sports history: "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world."
Returning to Carlisle in autumn 1912, Thorpe, as the team captain, led the Indians to the school's greatest football season with a 12–1–1 record. Dickinson, Villanova, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Georgetown, Lehigh, West Point ("Thorpe went through the … line as if it were an open door"), and Brown—Thorpe thrilled audiences and sportswriters as a player "close to perfection." In an era when the evolving game of football was dominated by collegiate competition, Thorpe defined a new kind of aggressive play for a generation. For the second year in a row, he was named as a first-team All-American.
But all the glory quickly ended when it was reported in the Worcester Telegram (Massachusetts) in January 1913 that Thorpe was a professional athlete because he had received pay for playing baseball in North Carolina. In a decision that would roil sports fans and Native American sympathizers as an elitist sham for the rest of the century, the American Amateur Union (AAU) demanded that Thorpe return the medals and trophies and that his name be stricken from the Olympic records. Many would feel, passionately, that Thorpe had been abandoned by everyone, including Warner, in order to serve as a sacrificial symbol of the purity of amateurism. There would also always be a strong suspicion that a white athlete would have been treated differently. "I was not very wise in the ways of the world," Thorpe wrote in 1913 in a letter to the AAU, "and did not realize this was wrong."
The dramatic fall from grace was a major pivot in Thorpe's life—another huge disappointment in a life that was full of setbacks. He left Carlisle without graduating and switched to professional sports, signing in 1913 with the New York Giants baseball team. Until his last official game in Akron, Ohio, in 1928, he played with various teams, including the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Braves. Baseball was not Thorpe's best sport (he was never really coached well) and a myth grew up that he could not hit a curveball. Nevertheless, playing for Boston in 1919, he hit .327 in 156 at bats and maintained good batting averages for the rest of the decade.
However, it was in professional football that Thorpe's enormous fame and skill brought a new level of respect, spectators, and money for what was then considered a stepchild to the collegiate gridiron. At a time when players stayed in for the entire sixty minutes and played without an armor of protective equipment, Thorpe's style continued to demonstrate a remarkable stamina and inventiveness—especially considering his age and the fact that he was playing both football and baseball throughout the 1920s. As the sportswriter Red Smith would comment after Thorpe's death, "Nobody who saw him … could ever forget the wild glory of that inexhaustible Indian."
Starting in 1915 Thorpe played and sometimes coached for the Canton (Ohio) Bulldogs, often before as many as 10,000 fans, as they won a couple of so-called world championships. In 1920 Thorpe was named the first president of the American Professional Football Association, the precursor to the National Football League (NFL). For two years, 1922 and 1923, he organized the almost circus-like football attraction of the Oorang Indians, a team sponsored by an Airedale dog kennel in Marion, Ohio. Native American dances and war whoops at halftime were big-ticket draws—attempts to use Thorpe's fame in the service of professional football. Before his last game (a brief, sad appearance) for the Chicago Cardinals in 1928, he also played for the Rock Island Independents and the New York Giants football team. Thorpe remained an amazing kicker, able to punt forty yards well into middle age.
Thorpe was married three times, with the first two unions ending in divorce. Drinking and a peripatetic lifestyle frustrated his sincere attempts at a stable married life. On 13 October 1913 he married his Carlisle classmate Iva Miller; they had a son who died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, and three daughters. They divorced in 1924. On 23 October 1925 he married Freeda Kirkpatrick, with whom he had four sons. They divorced in 1941. His third marriage, on 2 June 1945, was to Patricia Gladys Askew. With so many children to support and his athletic career finished, Thorpe moved to the Los Angeles area in the 1930s and appeared in more than sixty movies over the next twenty years, usually as an uncredited extra. There were also periodic—often exaggerated—newspaper reports that "Big Jim" was digging ditches, acting as an emcee for depression-era dance marathons, and otherwise on hard times. It is accurate to say that he was constantly in need of money. By the end of the 1930s Thorpe had become an outspoken critic of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and traveled around the country as a public speaker. One of the ironies of Thorpe's life was that his great talent and fame came too early in modern sports to yield him a secure, lucrative livelihood.
Although in his fifties when World War II broke out, Thorpe eagerly served his country, first as a security staff member at the Ford Motor Company plant in Dearborn, Michigan, and then in 1945 with the U.S. Merchant Marine. At the midcentury point, an Associated Press (AP) poll of sportswriters and broadcasters named "The Indian" as the greatest football player of the half-century; two weeks later, another AP poll named him the greatest athlete of the past fifty years. In 1951 Warner Brothers released the movie Jim Thorpe—All-American, starring Burt Lancaster as Thorpe (Thorpe had sold the rights to his life story to MGM during the Great Depression). After this brief echo of his former glory days, Thorpe suffered a massive heart attack and died in his trailer home in Lomita, California, on 28 March 1953.
In a bizarre series of mishaps, Thorpe's body remained without permanent burial until his widow arranged a deal with two adjacent Pennsylvania towns: If they would combine under a new town name, "Jim Thorpe," and build a proper memorial, they could have the honor of burying the athlete. The towns held an election and voted to become Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, and a red granite mausoleum was dedicated in 1957. Subsequent to Thorpe's death, other honors kept on coming. In 1955 the NFL announced the Jim Thorpe Trophy, an annual award for the Most Valuable Player. In 1963 he was inducted as a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and a life-sized statue of him was erected in the lobby of the Hall of Fame headquarters in Canton, Ohio. After a long and difficult campaign by Thorpe's family members and supporters, in 1973 the AAU restored Thorpe's amateur status for 1912, paving the way for the restoration of his Olympic medals—and records—by the International Olympic Committee in 1982.
Thorpe was arguably the greatest all-around athlete of modern times. Certainly he was the first celebrity athlete in an era that would only increase its adulation of and financial rewards to sports heroes. His life and career formed a template that continues to define modern athletics: the outsider ethnic as athlete; the transition from collegiate to professional sports; the conflict between amateurism and professionalism; the exploitation of athletes by the media and commerce; the human toll superior talent plus fame exact from the athlete; and, most importantly, the insatiable hunger of fans and human beings in general to believe in a redemptive value in sports and the sacred place of the great athlete in our culture.
Significant archival materials regarding Thorpe's early life, family, and Sac and Fox background can be found at the Oklahoma Historical Society and the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Materials regarding the Carlisle Indian School are principally at the Cumberland Historical Society in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, has materials covering Thorpe's professional football career. Reliable books written about Thorpe include Jack Newcombe, The Best of the Athletic Boys (1975); Robert Wheeler, Jim Thorpe: World ' s Greatest Athlete, rev. ed (1979); Bob Bernotas, Jim Thorpe: Sac and Fox Athlete (1992); and Robert Lipsyte, Jim Thorpe: Twentieth-Century Jock (1993). See also Jack McCallum, "The Regilding of a Legend," Sports Illustrated (25 Oct. 1982). An obituary is in the New York Times (29 Mar. 1953).