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.
Further Reading on Jim Thorpe
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).