American football and baseball player
Born in a cabin in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), the Sauk (or Sac) and Fox Indian athlete Jim Thorpe began a climb to fame in 1907 as a college track-and-field and football star at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. He competed in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, where he won gold medals in both the pentathlon and the decathlon. His medals were stripped from him, however, after a journalist reported that Thorpe had briefly played baseball for pay during the summers of 1909 and 1910, nullifying his status as an amateur athlete. Thorpe went on to a career in professional football and baseball. Widely acclaimed as the greatest all-around athlete of modern times, he had a natural gift that enabled him to excel at almost any sport he played. In addition to track, football, and baseball, Thorpe was adept at swimming, lacrosse, basketball, wrestling, golf, and tennis. His awards were many, including being named the Greatest Male Athlete of the Half-Century in 1950 and America's Athlete of the Century in 1999. His Olympic medals and titles were restored posthumously, in 1982.
Beginning on the Bright Path
James Francis Thorpe was born in a cabin in the Sauk and Fox Indian settlement of Keokuk Falls, near present-day Prague, Oklahoma, on the morning of May 28, 1888 (some sources say 1887). His father was Hiram P. Thorpe, the son of Irishman Hiram G. Thorpe and Noten-o-quah (Wind Woman) of the Sauk and Fox Thunder Clan of Chief Black Hawk. Thorpe's mother, Charlotte Vieux, was of French descent and of Potawatomi and Kickapoo Indian blood. She gave her son Jim the Indian name Wa-tho-huck, meaning "Bright Path" when she saw the path to the cabin illuminated by a ray of sunlight at dawn just after his birth.
Thorpe's father was a horse rancher and amateur athlete who taught his sons how to exercise as young boys. He also taught them the value of fair play and good sportsmanship, traits Thorpe would carry throughout his career as an athlete. Thorpe and his twin brother Charlie and their friends spent their free time fishing, trapping, playing follow-the-leader, and swimming. The boys also helped out with chores on the ranch. By the time Thorpe was fifteen he could catch, saddle, and ride any wild stallion.
In the spring of 1896, Charlie became ill with fever and shortly after died of pneumonia. The death of his twin left Thorpe with a deep emotional wound. His father enrolled him in the Haskell Institute, an Indian boarding school in Lawrence, Kansas, 300 miles away. There, Thorpe developed a love for football after watching the varsity team practice. The team's star fullback made Thorpe a football from strips of leather stuffed with rags. Thorpe began to organize his own games and was soon good enough to play with the older boys.
When Thorpe received word that his father had been shot while hunting and was dying, the twelve-year-old walked 270 miles home, a trip that took him two weeks. By the time he arrived, his dad had recovered. However, his mother died from blood poisoning just a few months later. Thorpe returned to the ranch and attended nearby Garden Grove school for the next three years, playing baseball after school with friends.
In 1904, Thorpe was recruited to attend the highly respected Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It was famous for its football team, the Carlisle Indians, which regularly beat the best Ivy League, military, and Big Ten college teams of the East. At 115 pounds and only 5'5 1/2" at age sixteen, Thorpe was too small to play on the varsity football team, but he won a spot on the tailor-shop team. Just as he was settling into Carlisle, however, Thorpe faced another tragedy: his father died of blood poisoning contracted while hunting.
One spring evening in 1907, the varsity track team discovered young Thorpe. It was the beginning of his track-and-field success as well as a relationship with track and football coach Glenn S. "Pop" Warner that would boost both their careers.
In the spring of 1908, Thorpe won a gold medal at the Penn Relays, with a jump of 6'1", and placed first in five events against Syracuse the following week. He went on to set a school record in the 220-yard hurdles, with a time of 26 seconds, a record he would later break by reaching his personal best time of 23.8 seconds.
By the 1908 football season, Thorpe weighed 175 pounds and was in great shape to start at left halfback. (Sources disagree about his later physical size. Some say he reached 5' 11" and 185 or 190 pounds, others say 6' 1" or 6' 2".) In what he later called the toughest football game of his life, he scored the only touchdown in a 6-6 tie against Penn State, a team loaded with all-American players.
The Indians finished the season 10-2-1, outscoring their opponents 212 to 55. Thorpe was named a third-team all-American by leading football authority Walter Camp.
By the spring track season of 1909, Thorpe was reaching his peak. He won six gold medals in one meet and dominated every other for the rest of the season. When summer came, he followed two teammates to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, to play minor-league baseball. He accepted the manager's offer of $15 a week as "meal money." At the time, this practice was common among college athletes, but most used pseudonyms in order to keep their status as amateurs. Thorpe was unaware of the practice and used his own name. A few years later his lack of awareness would cost him dearly.
Thorpe left Carlisle and returned to Oklahoma during the fall of 1909. He worked on the family ranch, and then returned to North Carolina to play ball in the summer. In Oklahoma he bumped into his former teammate and track coach, Albert Exendine, who encouraged him to come back to Carlisle. The 1911 football season, with Thorpe back on the team and in fine form, made national headlines. Carlisle finished the season 11-1. Thorpe was named first-team all-American halfback, and his teammates elected him captain.
The 1912 Olympics
Thorpe's fame had followed him to the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, where he would compete against the best athletes of the time in both the pentathlon-introduced that year by the Swedes-and the decathlon, a grueling ten-event competition. During the pentathlon, he placed first in the running broad jump, with a leap of 23' 2.7". Although he had thrown a javelin for the first time only two months earlier, Thorpe placed fourth in this event. He finished first in the 200-meter dash, with a time of 22.9 seconds. His discus throw distance measured 116' 8.4", almost three feet ahead of the second place winner. In the 1,500-meter run, Thorpe paced himself, staying behind until the middle of the second lap, when he picked up speed. He had passed all other runners by the beginning of the fourth lap and easily finished first, with a time of 4 minutes 44.8 seconds. With a total score of 7, compared to 21 received by the second place winner, Thorpe won the gold.
Five days later, the long-anticipated decathlon began. The athletes competed in the pouring rain on the first day of the three-day event. Thorpe placed third in the 100-meter dash, second in the running broad jump, and then threw the shot put 42' 5 9/20", more than 2.5 feet further than the second place winner. On a beautiful second day, he placed first in the high jump, fourth in the 400-meter run, and first in the 110-meter hurdles with a time of 15.6 seconds, a time that would not be approached until the 1948 Olympics, when Bob Mathias completed the hurdles in 15.7 seconds. On the third day, Thorpe placed second in discus, third in pole vault, third in the javelin throw, and then beat his pentathlon time in the 1,500-meter run, finishing in 4 minutes 40.1 seconds. He won the decathlon and the gold medal with a total of 8,412.95 points out of a possible 10,000. He finished almost 700 points ahead of Hugo Wieslander of Sweden, the silver medalist.
One of the most famous stories about Thorpe revolves around his acceptance of his second gold medal from King Gustav V of Sweden. As the king presented the medal and a bejeweled chalice as a gift, he grabbed Thorpe's hand and said, "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world." Thorpe answered simply, "Thanks, King."
By the time Thorpe and his fellow Olympians returned home, he was an international hero and celebrity, treated to ticker-tape parades in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, and honored with banquets and parties. Bob Bernotas reported that the 24-year-old Indian was overwhelmed. "I heard people yelling my name, and I couldn't realize how one fellow could have so many friends," he said.
|1888||Born May 28 near Prague, Oklahoma; mother names him Wa-thohuck, Sauk and Fox for "Bright Path"|
|1896||Twin brother, Charles, dies|
|1898||Is enrolled in Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas|
|1901||Mother dies of blood poisoning|
|1904||Enrolls in Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania|
|1904||Father dies of blood poisoning|
|1907||Joins the Carlisle varsity track and football teams|
|1909-10||Takes time away from Carlisle to go back to Oklahoma; plays minor-league baseball at Rocky Mount and Fayetteville, North Carolina|
|1911||Reenrolls at Carlisle; is named first-team All-American by Walter Camp for season with Carlisle Indians football team|
|1912||Wins gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon at Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden|
|1912||Named first-team All-American in football for second consecutive year|
|1913||Stripped of Olympic titles when news story breaks that he played baseball for pay in 1909-1910; gives back Olympic gold medals|
|1913||Leaves Carlisle and signs three-year contract with New York Giants pro baseball team|
|1913||Marries Carlisle sweetheart, Iva Miller; they will have a son and three daughters|
|1916-20||Plays halfback and serves as head coach for Canton Bulldogs pro football career ends|
|1918||Son James, Jr., dies at age 3 after a sudden illness|
|1919||Leaves New York Giants baseball team after run-in with manager John McGraw|
|1920||American Professional Football Association is formed; Thorpe is Named Greatest Football Player of the Half-Century and Greatest|
|1922-23||Organizes and plays for traveling Oorang Indians football team|
|1923||Marriage to Iva Miller ends|
|1925||Marries Freeda Kirkpatrick; they will have four sons|
|1926||Plays final season with Canton Bulldogs|
|1928||Plays token game with Chicago Cardinals on Thanksgiving Day; football career end|
|1929-45||Works as laborer, movie extra, and lecturer|
|1932||After former fans raise money so he can attend, Thorpe takes seat next to Vice President Charles Curtis at Olympic Games in Los Angeles to a standing ovation by crowd of 105,000|
|1941||Marriage to Freeda Kirkpatrick ends|
|1945||Serves briefly in U.S. merchant marine; marries Patricia Gladys Askew|
|1948||Joins recreation staff of Chicago Park District and teaches trackfundamentals to young people; is hired to prepare Israel's National Soccer Team for match against U.S. Olympic Soccer Team in New York|
|1950||Named greatest Football Player of the Half-century and greatest Male Athlete of the Half-Century|
|1951||Movie about his life, Jim Thorpe-All-American, premieres in Oklahoma City and Carlisle|
|1953||Dies of massive heart attack on March 28 in Lomita, California; is buried in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, which changes its name to Jim Thorpe|
|1963||Inducted as charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio|
|1973||Amateur Athletic Union restores Thorpe's status as amateur for 1909-1912|
|1982-83||International Olympic Committee restores Thorpe's Olympic records and returns gold medals to his family|
|1999||U.S. Congress passes resolution naming Thorpe America's Athlete of the Century|
Greatest Football Season
The year 1912 brought Thorpe not only two Olympic gold medals, but it proved to be his greatest football season as well. He helped the Carlisle Indians to a season finish of 12-1-1. The team set a national record, scoring 504 points and allowing only 114. Thorpe scored 198 of those 504 points, setting an all-time record. Camp again named him a first-team all-American.
In a November 1912 game against the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, future five-star general and U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower played halfback and faced Thorpe. Bernotas wrote that Eisenhower later recalled, "On the football field there was no one like him in the world. Against us he dominated all of the action.… I personally feel no other athlete possessed his all-around abilities in games and sports."
AAU Strikes Blow
In January 1913, a reporter learned that Thorpe had played baseball for pay in North Carolina a few years earlier. By the end of the month, the story broke nationwide that Thorpe was a professional athlete and should not have been allowed to compete in the Olympics. The AAU demanded a letter from Thorpe, and he sent one, drafted with Warner's help, saying he "was not wise in the ways of the world and did not realize this was wrong." He said he only played baseball because he enjoyed it, not for the money, and that he hoped the AAU and his fans would "not be too hard in judging" him. However, the unyielding AAU erased Thorpe's records from the books and asked for his medals and awards back. On Warner's advice, he returned them, and the AAU gave them to the second-place winners.
In spite of the disgrace, both national and international fans and the press were on his side throughout the ordeal. Their support helped him to go on with his career. Yet, the supposed misdeed haunted him for the rest of his life.
Related Biography: Coach Glenn Scobey "Pop" Warner
"Pop" Warner was Carlisle's athletic director when nineteen-year-old Jim Thorpe began his career. Under Warner's guidance, Thorpe played his best years in football and won two gold medals in track at the 1912 Olympics.
The legend goes that Thorpe was watching the varsity track team practice the high jump. None could clear the bar, set at 5'9". Thorpe asked if he could try it, and the boys agreed. He cleared the bar on the first jump. Bob Bernotas, in his book Jim Thorpe: Sac and Fox Athlete, wrote that the next day, Warner called Thorpe into his office and said, "Do you know what you have done?" Thorpe replied, "Nothing bad, I hope." "Bad," Warner growled, "Boy, you've just broken the school record!" Warner put Thorpe on the team and assigned senior athlete Albert Exendine to train him; in time Thorpe broke all of Exendine's records.
Glenn S. Warner was born April 5, 1871, in Springville, New York. He earned a law degree from Cornell University in 1894. When Warner began playing football at Cornell, his teammates nicknamed him "Pop" because, at age 25, he was older than they were. He practiced law only briefly before beginning a lifelong career as a coach.
Warner was one of the first to use the single wingback attack and invented the double wingback formation. He is credited with developing the screen pass, reverse play, mousetrap, unbalanced line, rolling and clipping blocks, and others.
Carlisle closed in 1914, and Warner took over at the University of Pittsburgh. After nine years he joined Stanford University and became a renowned contemporary of the famed Knute Rockne, coach at Notre Dame. He went to Temple University in 1933 and then retired to Palo Alto in 1939, with a coaching record of 312 wins, 104 losses, and 32 ties in forty years. He died on September 7, 1954, at age 83.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1908||Tied for first place in high jump at Penn Relays, taking home gold medal after flip of a coin|
|1908||Named third-team All-American by Walter Camp after first season as halfback with Carlisle Indians, who finished 10-2-1|
|1909||Wins six gold medals and one bronze in Lafayette-Carlisle track meet|
|1911||Selected first-team All-American by Camp after Carlisle Indians finish season 11-1, losing the one game by only one point|
|1912||Won gold medals in pentathlon and decathlon at fifth Olympiad in Stockholm, Sweden|
|1912||Won Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) All-Around Championship decathlon with 7,476 points, breaking old record of 7,385 points, in spite of being weakened by ptomaine poisoning and hampered by bad weather|
|1912||Named first-team All-American for second consecutive year after Carlisle Indians finish season 12-1-1, leading the nation in scoring, with 504 points|
|1920||Named first president of American Professional Football Association (APFA), which two years later was renamed National Football League (NFL)|
|1950||Selected by Associated Press polls as Greatest Football Player of the Half-Century and Greatest Male Athlete of the Half-Century|
|1951||Named to National College Football Hall of Fame|
|1951||Monument to Thorpe is erected in Carlisle, Pennsylvania|
|1953||Towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, combine and are renamed Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania|
|1955||NFL names its annual most valuable player award the Jim Thorpe Trophy|
|1958||Elected to National Indian Hall of Fame in Anadarko, Oklahoma|
|1961||Elected to Pennsylvania Hall of Fame|
|1963||Inducted as charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio; life-size statue of Thorpe adorns lobby|
|1966||Portrait of Thorpe painted by Charles Banks Wilson unveiled in Oklahoma State Capitol; hangs alongside portraits of U.S. Senator Robert S. Kerr, Sequoyah, and Will Rogers|
|1973||House in which Thorpe's family lived from 1917 to 1923, in Yale, Oklahoma, opened as historic site by Oklahoma Historical Society|
|1975||Enshrined in National Track and Field Hall of Fame|
|1975||Portion of Oklahoma Highway 51 renamed Jim Thorpe Memorial Highway|
|1977||Named Greatest American Football Player in History in national poll conducted by Sport Magazine|
|1984||U.S. Government issues Jim Thorpe postage stamp|
|1996||Honored by Atlantic Committee for the Olympic Games by routing the Olympic torch relay through birthplace of Prague, Oklahoma|
|1996-2001||Named ABC's Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Century|
|1999||Named America's Athlete of the Century by a resolutions of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate|
In 1913, after receiving offers from six major-league baseball clubs, Thorpe left Carlisle and joined manager John McGraw's New York Giants. The easygoing Indian had trouble getting along with McGraw, and Thorpe performed better when away from the tough manager, farmed out to the minor leagues, and during a brief stint with the Cincinnati Reds. In 1919, McGraw supposedly called Thorpe a "dumb Indian" after he missed a signal and cost the team a run. Thorpe's pride got the better of him, and he went after McGraw. He was traded to the Boston Braves soon afterward for a final season in pro baseball. After leaving Boston he played minor league ball for the next nine summers, finishing his baseball career at Akron, Ohio, in 1928.
In the fall of 1915, Thorpe joined Jack Cusack's Canton (Ohio) Bulldogs pro football team. The team did so well with gate receipts that next season Cusack hired several all-American players. Thorpe stayed with the team each fall through 1920, while continuing to play pro baseball during the summers. In 1919 the Bulldogs ended the season undefeated, with an unofficial world championship.
After leaving the Bulldogs, Thorpe joined the Cleveland Tigers for one season and then became a part of the Oorang Indians, who spiced their games with Indian dances and hunting exhibitions. In 1924, at age thirty-six, he joined the Rock Island Independents and also played briefly with the New York Giants football team. He rejoined Canton in 1926 but played only a few games to please the fans. He played his final games with the Chicago Cardinals in 1928.
Thorpe excelled at every aspect of football: kicking, running, passing, and tackling. He was famous for his innovative body block, in which he rammed his big shoulder into a player's legs or upper body, often causing a fumble. He then grabbed the ball and ran for a touchdown. Knute Rockne often told the story about how he once tackled Thorpe, who said, "You shouldn't do that, Sonny. All these people came to watch old Jim run." The next time, Thorpe brought him down with his shoulder and ran forty yards for a touchdown before trotting back and telling him, "That's good, Sonny, you let old Jim run." Dozens of other players told the same story over the years, with themselves as "Sonny."
When his professional sports career came to an end, Thorpe was at a loss to find another. Living in the Los Angeles area, he emceed dance marathons and sporting events, worked as a painter and laborer, and acted bit parts in western movies. When the 1932 Olympics were to be held in Los Angeles, word got out that Thorpe lived in the city but could not afford a ticket to the games. Fans sent money so he could attend, and when he took his seat the crowd of 105,000 gave him a standing ovation.
In 1937 Thorpe became involved in a campaign to abolish the Bureau of Indian Affairs and then worked for a while as a public speaker, advocating better living conditions for American Indians.
Thorpe suffered the first of three heart attacks in 1942. In 1945 he was called to serve in the U.S. merchant marine. After World War II, Thorpe became a strong advocate of athletic programs for children. At age sixty, in exhibitions in San Francisco and New York, he kicked the football over the goal post from the fifty-yard line and punted the ball up to seventy-five yards.
The Greatest Athlete
In 1950, Associated Press polls of sportswriters and commentators elected Thorpe the Greatest Football Player of the Half-Century and the Greatest Male Athlete of the Half-Century. Thorpe was the first choice of 252 of the 391 journalists.
In 1951, a movie about his life, Jim Thorpe-All-American, premiered, starring Burt Lancaster. Thorpe had served as adviser on the film, showing Lancaster how to kick a football.
|BSN: Boston Braves; CIN: Cincinnati Reds; NYG: New York Giants.|
In 1951, Thorpe suffered a second heart attack. Although he quickly recovered from that attack, he had a third, massive, attack while eating lunch at home in Lomita, California, on March 28, 1953. He died soon afterward.
A front-page obituary in the New York Times called the loss of his Olympic medals a tragedy that should have long been rectified and said, "His memory should be kept for what it deserves—that of the greatest all-round athlete of our time."
After a Catholic funeral, Thorpe's body was supposed to have been buried in Oklahoma. However, his wife, Patricia, offered it to the economically struggling town of Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, if the town would change its name to Jim Thorpe. The people voted to do so, and to merge the neighboring town of East Mauch Chunk into the bargain. A large monument to Thorpe was erected, and his body was transferred to Pennsylvania.
Restoration of Medals
In 1973 the AAU finally restored Thorpe's amateur status for 1909-1912. In 1975 the U.S. Olympic Committee reinstated Thorpe, and in 1982, after a lengthy campaign by Thorpe's sons and daughters and many supporters, the International Committee agreed to restore Thorpe's status and return replicas of the medals.
Thorpe is considered the greatest American male athlete in history. He was named "The Legend" on the all-time NFL team; his statue graces the lobby of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and his portrait hangs in the Oklahoma State Capitol. The NFL's annual most valuable player award is called the Jim Thorpe Trophy. In 1996, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games honored his memory by routing the Olympic torch relay through his birthplace of Prague, Oklahoma. In 1999, the U.S. House and Senate passed resolutions designating Thorpe America's Athlete of the Century.
Although Thorpe sold the rights to his life story to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) for $1,500 in 1929, the planned movie, to be called Red Son of Carlisle, was never produced, as the Great Depression settled in on America. In 1949, as Thorpe's fame was undergoing a revival, Warner Brothers studios announced that it had purchased the rights to his life story from MGM and was planning to make the film. Unfortunately, Thorpe never realized any further money from the deal, because his original contract gave him no rights in the event of a resale.
The film, titled Jim Thorpe-All-American, premiered in August 1951, the month that Thorpe was inducted into the National College Football Hall of Fame. The film became a box-office hit. Written by Russell Birdwell and Frank Davis and directed by Michael Curtiz, the film stars, in addition to Lancaster, Charles Bickford as Pop Warner, Steve Cochran as "Peter Allendine" (a character based on Albert Exendine), and Phyllis Thaxter as "Margaret Miller" (a character based on Thorpe's first wife, Iva Miller).
The story, like most films, does not follow Thorpe's life in true detail. It portrays him as striving to be a success for his mother and taking up football to impress his girl at Carlisle. It plays down racial issues and becomes melodramatic when Thorpe struggles with a drinking problem and tries to find work in his later years. However, it ends with Warner bringing Thorpe the good news that Oklahoma will erect a monument to the great athlete.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY THORPE:
(With Thomas F. Collison) Jim Thorpe's History of the Olympics, Wetzel Publishing, 1932.
Bernotas, Bob. Jim Thorpe: Sac and Fox Athlete. New York: Chelsea House, 1992.
Brown, Ralph Adams. "James Francis Thorpe." Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 5: 1951-1955. American Council of Learned Societies, 1977. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Detroit: Gale Group, 2002.
Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 5: 1951-1955. "Glenn Scobey Warner." American Council of Learned Societies, 1977. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Detroit: Gale Group, 2002.
Wheeler, Robert W. Jim Thorpe: World's Greatest Athlete. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.
Gould, Stephen Jay. "The Athlete of the Century." American Heritage (October 1998): 14.
Hannigan, Dave. "Thorpe Restored to Land of Giants." Sunday Times (London) (September 19, 1999).
Kindred, Dave. "Jim Thorpe Wins Again." Sporting News (January 8, 1996): 6.
Kindred, Dave. "The Flame Burns Forever in Prague." Sporting News (May 27, 1996): 7.
American Indians in Football. http://members.tripod.com/~johnnyrogers/ (October 15, 2002).
Baseball-Reference.com. http://www.baseballreference.com/ (October 18, 2002). "Jim Thorpe."
Canning, Whit. "Profile: Jim Thorpe, 1888-1953." Fort Worth Star-Telegram. National Environmental Coalition of Native Americans. http://oraibi.alphacdc.com/necona/jim_thorpe_news.html (October 15, 2002).
CMG Worldwide. http://www.cmgww.com/sports/thorpe/ (October 14, 2002).
DISCovering Biography. "Jim Thorpe." Detroit: Gale Group, 1997.
Internet Movie Database. http://us.imdb.com/ (October 14, 2002), "Jim Thorpe."
Jim Thorpe Association. http://www.jimthorpeassoc.org/ (October 15, 2002). "Biography of Jim Thorpe."
National Environmental Coalition of Native Americans. http://oraibi.alphacdc.com/necona/jim_thorpe_news.html (October 15, 2002). "Congress Designates Jim Thorpe as Athlete of the Century."
Professional Football Researchers Association. http://www.footballresearch.com/ (October 15, 2002). "Thorpe Arrives: 1915."
Pro Football Hall of Fame. http://www.profootballhof.com/ (October 18, 2002). "Jim Thorpe."
Sketch by Ann H. Shurgin
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).
Star of the 1912 Olympics
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 decades. King Gustav of Sweden addressed Thorpe as the "greatest athlete in the world" and presented him with several gifts, including one from Czar Nicholas of Russia (1868–1918)—a silver, 30-pound likeness of a Viking ship, lined with gold and containing precious jewels.
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.
The campaign to restore his medals
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.
For More Information
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.
American track star and professional football and baseball player Jim Thorpe (1888-1953) was the hero of the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, only to have his gold medals taken from him for professionalism.
James Francis Thorpe (Native American name, Wa-tho-huck or Bright Path) was born south of Bellemonta, near Prague, Oklahoma, on May 28, 1888, the son of Hiran P. Thorpe of Irish and Sac and Fox Indian extraction and Charlotte View of Potowatomi and Kickapoo extraction. Raised with a twin brother, Charlie, on a farm, Thorpe first attended the Sac and Fox Indian Agency school near Tecumseh, Oklahoma, before being sent to the Haskell Indian School near Lawrence, Kansas, in 1898.
When Thorpe was 16 he was recruited to attend a vocational school for Native Americans, the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. His track potential was evident in 1907 when he cleared the high jump bar at 5' 9" while dressed in street clothes. Glenn S. "Pop" Warner, the school's legendary track and football coach, then asked him out for the track team.
That fall Thorpe made the varsity football team, playing some and starting the next year at half-back. The Carlisle Indians played many of the best collegiate teams, even before Thorpe often beating such teams as Chicago, Harvard, Minnesota, Nebraska, Penn, Penn State, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse. Thorpe was given third team All-American status by Walter Camp in 1908.
Following the spring of 1909, when he starred in track, Thorpe 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 10 games and losing 10 games pitching and batting .236. These two years of paid performances in minor league baseball would later tarnish his 1912 amateur Olympic status.
For two years Thorpe had a rather aimless life while not playing baseball, drifting from village to village in Oklahoma before a former teammate at Carlisle asked him to return to school. He did so in the fall of 1911. 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's undefeated team under the renowned coach Percy Houghton, Thorpe kicked four field goals, two over 40 yards, en route to a stunning 18-15 victory. Carlisle lost only two games in 1911 and 1912, splitting with Penn and Syracuse, while conquering such teams as Army, Georgetown, Harvard, and Pittsburgh. In his last year he scored 25 touchdowns and 198 points and was named All-American by Walter Camp for the second consecutive year.
Star of the 1912 Olympics
During the summer of 1912, before his last year at Carlisle, Thorpe was chosen to represent America at the Stockholm Olympics in the decathlon and the pentathlon. 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 decades. King Gustav of Sweden addressed Thorpe as the "greatest athlete in the world" and presented him with several gifts, including one from Czar Nicholas of Russia—a silver, 30-pound likeness of a Viking ship, lined with gold and containing precious jewels.
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 a confession by Thorpe 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 and the American Olympic Committee declared Thorpe a professional and asked Thorpe to return the medals won at the Olympics and erased his name from the record books. Thorpe's plea to the A.A.U. that "I did not know that I was doing wrong because I was doing what I knew several other college men had done … " went for naught.
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, principally as a gate attraction. His six year major league career resulted in a .252 batting average with three teams: New York, Cincinnati Reds, and 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 quintupled, and Thorpe led Canton to several championships over its chief contender, the Massilon Tigers. In 1920 he was appointed president of the American Professional Football Association, forerunner of the National Football League. Thorpe was the chief drawing power in professional football until Red Grange entered the game in 1925. Following his play at Canton, Thorpe played for the Oorang Indians, Cleveland Indians, Rock Island Independents, and several other teams before bowing out at age 41 with the Chicago Cardinals in 1929.
Out of sports, Thorpe was not as successful. With the coming of the Depression Thorpe did bit parts in Hollywood movies, was a day laborer in Los Angeles, and had a ghost-written book published at the time of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, Jim Thorpe's History of the Olympics. He continued through the 1930s with rather insignificant movie parts, and he was asked regularly to give lectures on his athletic career. He joined the Merchant Marines late in World War II. Following the war he became a member of the recreation staff of the Chicago Park District in 1948.
The Campaign To Restore His Medals
Honors for past athletic achievements kept coming to Thorpe. At mid-century the Associated Press polled sportswriters and broadcasters to determine the greatest football player and most outstanding male athlete of the first half of the 20th century. Thorpe outdistanced Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski for the former and led Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey for the latter, being paired with Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the outstanding female athlete.
This recognition, however, did not influence the U.S. Olympic Committee to help restore his Olympic medals. There had been an attempt in 1943 by the Oklahoma legislature to get the A.A.U. to reinstate Thorpe as an amateur. Thirty years later the A.A.U. 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 U.S. Olympic Committee (U.S.O.C.) to use his good offices to restore Thorpe's medals to him. This failed. Following Brundage's death in 1975, the U.S.O.C. requested the International Olympic Committee to restore Thorpe's medals, but it was turned down. Not until 1982, when U.S.O.C. president William E. Simon met with the International Olympic Committee president Juan Samaranch, was the action finally taken.
Outside of athletics, Thorpe's life had much more tragedy than two gold medal losses. His twin brother, Charlie, died 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 (1913), their first son died at the age of four from polio. Twice divorced, he had one boy and three girls of his first marriage and four boys from his second marriage in 1926 to Freeda Kirkpatrick. His third marriage was to Patricia Askew in 1945. Thorpe's wanderlust and heavy drinking contributed to marital tensions, and he never successfully adjusted to life's routines outside of athletics. His place in sport history, though, was established well before he died of a heart attack in Lomita, California, at the age of 64 on March 28, 1953.
The most thorough biography of Thorpe is Robert W. Wheeler, Jim Thorpe: World's Greatest Athlete (1979), the author being a key figure in restoring Thorpe's medals. Jack McCallum, "The Regilding of a Legend, " Sports Illustrated (October 25, 1982), examines the gold medal controversy. The numerous studies about Thorpe include Wilbur J. Gorbrecht, Jim Thorpe, Carlisle Indian (1969); Robert L. Whitman, Jim Thorpe and the Oorang Indians (1984); Guernsey Van Riper, Jim Thorpe, Olympic Champion (1981); Jack Newcombe, The Best of the Athletic Boys: The White Man's impact on Jim Thorpe (1975); and Gene Schoor and H. Gilfond, The Jim Thorpe Story (1951). □