Jim Thorpe

From New World Encyclopedia

Jim Thorpe
Jim Thorpe olympic.png
Thorpe participated in the 1912 Summer Olympics.
Date of birth May 28, 1888
Place of birth Flag of United States Prague, Oklahoma
Date of death March 28, 1953 (age 64)
Place of death Lomita, California
Height 6 ft 1 in (1.85 m)
Weight 201 lb (91 kg)
Position(s) HB
College Carlisle Indian
Career highlights
Honors NFL 1920s All-Decade Team
Canton Bulldogs
Cleveland Indians
Oorang Indians
Rock Island Independents
New York Giants
Canton Bulldogs
Chicago Cardinals
College Hall of Fame
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1963

Jacobus Franciscus "Jim" Thorpe Sac and Fox Nation: Wa-Tho-Huk) (May 28, 1888 – March 28, 1953) is considered one of the most versatile athletes in modern sports. He won Olympic gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon, starred in college and professional football, played Major League Baseball and also had a brief career in basketball. He subsequently lost his Olympic titles when it was learned that he had played two seasons of minor league baseball prior to competing in the games, thus violating the amateur status rules of the Olympic games. In 1983, thirty years after his death, his medals were restored.

Thorpe's violation of the amateur rules was a technicality that most sports fans were willing to overlook. In contrast, amateur-only rules in Olympic competitions were widely violated by state-supported athletes from former Soviet-bloc countries in the postwar years. The conflicting standard, which excluded professional athletes but allowed state-sponsored athletes to compete, led to the elimination of the amateur-only rules for Olympic competition in most sports in the 1970s.

Olympic medal record
Men’s Athletics
Gold 1912 Stockholm Pentathlon
Gold 1912 Stockholm Decathlon

Thorpe's importance transcends his athletic achievements, however. Like Jackie Robinson and some other minority athletes, Thorpe, a Sac and Fox Indian, overcame the "invisible" status of Native Americans in American society, to become one of the most legendary sports figures of the twentieth century.

Early life

Information about Thorpe's birth, full name, and ethnic background vary widely. What is known is that he was born in Indian Territory, although no birth certificate has been found. He is believed to have been born on May 28, 1888 near the town of Prague, Oklahoma. Jacobus Francis Thorpe is the name on his christening (baptismal) certificate.

His parents were of mixed descent. His father, Hiram Thorpe, had an Irish father and a Sac and Fox Indian mother, while his mother, Charlotte Vieux, had a French father and a Native American mother, a descendant of the great Sac Warrior, Chief Black Hawk. Thorpe was raised as a Sac and Fox, and his native name was Wa-Tho-Huk, meaning Bright Path. As was the custom for Sac and Fox, Thorpe was named for something occurring around the time of his birth, in this case the sunlight brightening the path to the cabin where he was born. Some accounts suggest that Hiram Thorpe had five different wives and produced a total of 19 children, of which no fewer than eleven were with Vieux.

Together with his twin brother, Charlie, Thorpe went to school in Stroud, Oklahoma at the Sac and Fox Indian Agency School. Charlie had helped Jim through school, but died of pneumonia when the twins were nine years old. Thorpe did not handle his brother's death very well and ran away from school on several occasions. Hiram Thorpe then sent Jim to what is now known as Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, so to prevent him from running away again. When his mother died two years later, Thorpe fell into a depression. After several arguments with his father, he disappeared and found work on a horse ranch.

In 1904, Thorpe returned to his father, and decided to join Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania where he was coached by Glenn Scobey "Pop" Warner, one of the most influential coaches in early American football history. Later that year, Hiram Thorpe died and Thorpe once again dropped out of school. He resumed farm work for a few years and then returned to Carlisle, where his athletic career commenced.

A rising star

Jim Thorpe in Carlisle Indian Industrial School uniform, about 1909

Legend has it that Thorpe began his athletic career at Carlisle in 1907 when he walked past the track and beat the school's high jumpers with an impromptu 5 ft 9 in jump, still wearing street clothes. Whether this is true or not, Thorpe's earliest recorded track and field results are indeed from 1907. But track and field was certainly not the only sport in which Thorpe engaged at Carlisle—he also participated in football, baseball, lacrosse and even ballroom dancing.

He gained nationwide attention for the first time in 1911 for his sensational play for the school's football team. As a running back, defensive back, place-kicker, and punter, Thorpe scored all of his team's points—four field goals and a touchdown—in an 18-13 upset of Harvard. His team finished the season 11-1. The following year, he led Carlisle to the national collegiate championship, scoring 25 touchdowns and 198 points (over 12 games). Carlisle's 1912 record includes an impressive 27-6 victory over Army. In that game, Thorpe scored a 92-yard touchdown that was annulled because of a penalty incurred by a teammate. Thorpe then scored a 97-yard touchdown on the next play. Thorpe was named an All-American in both 1911 and 1912.

During the army game, future President Dwight Eisenhower injured his knee while trying to tackle Thorpe. Eisenhower recalled of Thorpe in a 1961 speech, "Here and there, there are some people who are supremely endowed. My memory goes back to Jim Thorpe. He never practiced in his life, and he could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw."[1]

Football was—and would remain—Thorpe's favorite sport, and he competed only sporadically in track and field. Nevertheless, track and field would become the sport in which Thorpe would gain the most fame.

An Olympic hero

For the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, two new multi-event competitions were on the program, the pentathlon and the decathlon. A pentathlon based on the ancient Greek event had been organized at the 1906 Summer Olympics, but the 1912 edition would consist of the long jump, the javelin throw, 200-meter dash, the discus throw and the 1500-meter run.

The decathlon was an entirely new event in athletics, although it had been featured in American track meets since the 1880s and a version had been featured on the program of the 1904 St. Louis Olympics. However, the events of the new decathlon were slightly different from the U.S. competition. Both events seemed a perfect fit for Thorpe, who was so versatile that he alone had formed Carlisle's team on several track meets. Thorpe entered the U.S. Olympic trials for both the pentathlon and the decathlon.

He easily won the awards, winning three events, and was named to the pentathlon team, which also included future IOC president Avery Brundage. There were only a few candidates for the decathlon team, and the trials were cancelled. Thorpe would contest his first—and, as it turned out, only—decathlon in the Olympics.

Thorpe's competition schedule for the Olympics was crowded. Along with the decathlon and pentathlon, he also entered the long jump and high jump competitions. The first event scheduled was the pentathlon. Thorpe was the class of the field, winning four events. He placed only third in the javelin, an event he had not competed in before 1912. Although the competition was primarily decided on place points, points were also calculated for the marks achieved in the events. Thorpe scored 4041.530 points, 400 points more than runner-up Ferdinand Bie of Norway.

The same day he won the pentathlon gold, Thorpe qualified for the high-jump final. In that final, he placed fourth, and took seventh place in the long jump. Thorpe's final event was the decathlon, where tough competition from local favorite Hugo Wieslander was expected. But Wieslander was no match for Thorpe either, finishing some 700 points behind. Thorpe placed in the top four of all ten events.

As was the custom of the day, the medals were presented to the athletes during the closing ceremonies of the Games. Along with the two gold medals, Thorpe also received two challenge prizes, which were donated by King Gustav V of Sweden for the decathlon and Czar Nicholas II of Russia for the pentathlon. Legend has it that, when awarding Thorpe his prize, King Gustav said, "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world," to which Thorpe replied, "Thanks, King."

Thorpe's successes had not gone unnoticed at home, and he was honored with a ticker-tape parade on Broadway. He later remembered: "I heard people yelling my name, and I couldn't realize how one fellow could have so many friends."

Apart from his track and field appearance, Thorpe also played in one of two exhibition baseball matches held at the 1912 Olympics, which featured two teams made up of U.S. track and field athletes. It was not Thorpe's first try at baseball, as would soon become known to the baseball world.

Declared a professional

In 1913, strict rules regarding amateurism were in force for athletes participating in the Olympics. Athletes who received money prizes for competitions, sports teachers, or those who had previously competed against professionals were not considered amateurs and were not allowed to compete in the Olympics.

In late January 1913, U.S. newspapers reported that Thorpe had played professional baseball—in the Eastern Carolina League for Rocky Mount, North Carolina in 1909 and 1910, and had received a small amount of money for playing.

Although the public did not seem to care much about Thorpe's past, the Amateur Athletic Union, and especially its secretary James E. Sullivan, took the case very seriously. Thorpe wrote a letter to Sullivan, in which he admitted playing professional baseball:

...I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know all about such things. In fact, I did not know that I was doing wrong, because I was doing what I knew several other college men had done, except that they did not use their own names.

His letter did not help, and the AAU decided to retroactively withdraw Thorpe's amateur status, and requested the IOC to do the same. Later that year, the IOC unanimously decided to strip Jim Thorpe of his Olympic titles, medals and awards, declaring him a professional.

While Thorpe had indeed played for money, his disqualification was in fact not according to the regulations. In the rulebook for the 1912 Olympics, it was stated that any protests had to be made within 30 days from the closing ceremonies of the Games. The first newspaper reports only appeared in January 1913, about six months after the Stockholm Games had concluded. However, AAU and IOC officials were apparently ignorant of this rule, or chose to ignore it. There is also some evidence that Thorpe's amateur status had already been questioned long before the Olympics, but that this had been (deliberately) ignored by the AAU until they were confronted with it in 1913.

The only positive side to this affair for Thorpe was that, as soon as the news got out that he had been declared a professional, offers came in from Major League Baseball teams to join them. Declared a rare free agent in the era of baseball's reserve clause, which allowed teams to control player's contracts, Jim Thorpe could pick his own team.

Baseball, football, and basketball

Thorpe played football for Canton from 1915 through 1920. He also played 52 NFL games.

Thorpe turned down a starting position with the St. Louis Browns and instead signed with the New York Giants in 1913. That October the Giants joined the Chicago White Sox for a world tour. Barnstorming across the United States and then around the world, Thorpe was the unquestioned star of the world tour. [4] Everywhere the teams went Thorpe brought them publicity and increased the tour's box office receipts. Among the highlights were a meeting with the Pope, the last khedive of Egypt, and playing before 20,000 in London with King George V in attendance. While in Rome Thorpe was filmed wrestling with another baseball player on the floor of the Coliseum. Unfortunately the film has been lost, and one of the ironies of Thorpe's life is that no footage exists of him in his athletic prime.

Thorpe played sporadically as an outfielder for the Giants for three seasons. After missing the 1916 season completely, he came back to play again for the Giants in 1917, but was sold to the Cincinnati Reds early in the season. In the "double no-hitter" between Fred Toney of the Reds and Hippo Vaughn of the Chicago Cubs, Thorpe drove in the winning run in the 10th inning. Late in the season, he was sold back to the Giants but again played only sporadically and was traded to the Boston Braves on May 21, 1919. In his lackluster baseball career, he amassed 91 runs scored, 82 runs batted in and a .252 batting average over 289 games. He continued to play baseball with teams in minor leagues until 1922.

But Thorpe had not abandoned football. Back in 1915, Thorpe had signed with the Canton Bulldogs, who paid him $250 a game, a tremendous wage at the time. The independent team was successful, and won titles in 1916, 1917 and 1919. In 1920, the Bulldogs were one of the fourteen teams to form the American Professional Football Association, which would become the National Football League two years later. Thorpe was named the APFA's first president, but continued to play for Canton, coaching the team as well. Between 1921 and 1923, Thorpe played for the La Rue, Ohio Oorang Indians, an all Native American team. Although the team went 3 and 6 in their first year, and 1 and 10 in their second year, Thorpe played well. In 1923 Thorpe kicked what would be a record 99 yard punt. However, at this point in the history of the NFL such records weren't kept. Today, Steve O'Neal of the New York Jets owns the record with a 98 yard punt.

Thorpe never played on a championship team, although he played for six different teams between 1920 and 1928. He retired from pro football aged 41, having played 52 NFL games.

Thorpe continued to be active in sports. By 1926 he was the primary draw for the "World Famous Indians" in La Rue, Ohio which sponsored traveling football, baseball, and basketball teams. A ticket discovered in an old book recently brought to light his career in basketball. "Jim Thorpe and His World-Famous Indians" barnstormed for at least two years (1927-1928) in parts of New York, Pennsylvania, and Marion, Ohio.[2] Although pictures of Thorpe in his WFI basketball uniform were printed on postcards and published in newspapers, this period of his life was not well-documented, and until 2005 most of Thorpe's biographers were unaware of his basketball career.[3]

Later life and death

In 1913, Thorpe married Iva Miller, whom he had met at Carlisle. They had four children: Jim Jr. (who died at age two), Gale, Charlotte and Grace. Thorpe was a heavy drinker at times, which may have been a factor in the couple's divorce in 1924.

Thorpe remarried in 1926 to Freeda Kirkpatrick (1906? - 2007), the manager of the baseball team he was playing for at the time.[4] They had four sons: Carl, William, Richard, and John. After the end of his athletic career, Thorpe struggled to support his family. He found it difficult to work outside sports, and never could hang on to a job for long. The Great Depression didn't make things easier, and Thorpe went from job to job. Among other jobs, he featured as an extra in several movies, usually playing an Indian chief in Western movies. But he also worked as a construction worker, a bouncer. His second wife divorced him in 1941, apparently fed up with Thorpe being away for weeks at a time, and Thorpe briefly joined the Merchant Marines in 1945.

By the 1950s, Thorpe had no money left, and when he was hospitalized for lip cancer in 1950, he was admitted as a charity case. In early 1953, Thorpe suffered his third heart attack while eating dinner with his third wife, Patricia Askew, in his trailer home in Lomita, California. Artificial respiration briefly revived Thorpe, but he lost consciousness shortly afterwards, and died on March 28 1953.


Over the years, several attempts have been made by Thorpe's children to reinstate Thorpe's Olympic titles. Most persistent were Robert Wheeler and Florence Ridlon, who succeeded in having the AAU and United States Olympic Committee (USOC) overturn their decisions and restore Thorpe's amateur status prior to 1913.

In 1982, they established the Jim Thorpe Foundation and got support from the US Congress. Armed with this support, and evidence from 1912 showing Thorpe's disqualification had occurred outside of the 30-day limit, they finally got attention of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which had not made any attempts to reinstate Thorpe.

In October 1982, the IOC Executive Committee approved Thorpe's reinstatement. In an unusual ruling, however, they declared that Thorpe was now co-champion with Bie and Wieslander, even though both athletes had always said they considered Thorpe to be the only champion. In a ceremony on January 18, 1983, two of Thorpe's children, Gale and Bill, were presented with commemorative medals. (The original medals had both ended up in museums, but were stolen and are still missing.)

Thorpe's reputation has long survived his years of athletic competition. In 1950, an Associated Press poll among sportswriters voted Thorpe the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century, while another poll voted him as the best football player over the same period. By the end of the century, memories of Thorpe had faded a little, but he still was listed near the top of many "athlete of the century" lists.

In 1951, while Thorpe was still alive, a feature film about his life was released. Jim Thorpe—All-American starred Burt Lancaster and was directed by Michael Curtiz (the director of Casablanca). Although Thorpe was listed as a consultant in the credits, he did not earn any money for the movie, as he had already sold the film rights to MGM in 1931 (for $1500). The movie was titled Man of Bronze when released in the UK. It included some archival footage of both the 1912 and 1932 Olympics, as well as a banquet in which Thorpe was honored. The real Thorpe was seen in some long shots in the film.[5]

In 1963, Jim Thorpe received the NFL's highest honor, induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In addition, Thorpe is also memorialized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame rotunda with the larger-than-life Jim Thorpe Statue.

In 1986, the Jim Thorpe Award was established, awarded to the best defensive back in college football. In 1999, despite 81 years having passed since his last game and 46 years since his death, he was ranked number 88 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players. He was the only player on the list who had played professional football prior to the founding of the NFL.

Curiously, Thorpe's commercial value also survived his passing. When Thorpe's third wife, Patricia, heard that the small Pennsylvania town of Mauch Chunk was desperately seeking to attract business, she struck a deal with the town. Mauch Chunk bought Thorpe's remains, erected a monument to him, and renamed the town in his honor (see Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania). Thorpe's monument, featuring the quote from Gustav V, can still be found there.


  1. Greg Botelho, This week in History: "Roller-coaster life of Indian icon, sports' first star July 15, 1912: Jim Thorpe reigns at Games" [1] CNN.com.Retrieved February 24, 2008.
  2. images
  3. History Detectives, PBS "Jim Thorpe Ticket:[2] www.pbs.org.Retrieved February 24, 2008.
  4. [3] Freeda Thorpe, former wife of Jim Thorpe, dies at 101 2007. yahoo.com. accessdate March 09, 2007.
  5. Turner Classic Movies

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Botelho, Greg . "Roller-coaster life of Indian icon, sports' first star

July 15, 1912: Jim Thorpe reigns at Games" [5] This week in History: CNN.com. Retrieved February 24, 2008.</ref>

  • History Detectives: The Jim Thorpe Ticket. PBS.org. 2005.
  • Mallon, Bill and Ture Widlund. "In the Matter of Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe." published in The 1912 Olympic Games - Results for All Competitors in All Events, with Commentary. 2001. ISBN 9780786410477
  • Newcombe, Jack, The Best of the Athletic Boys: The White Man's Impact on Jim Thorpe. DoubleDay, 1975. ISBN 9780385061865
  • Updyke, Rosemary Kissinger, Jim Thorpe, the Legend Remembered. Pelican Publishing Company, 1997. ISBN 9781565545397
  • Wallechinsky, David. The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics (Sydney 2000 Edition). Overlook, 2000. ISBN 9781585670338
  • Wheeler, Robert W. Jim Thorpe: The World's Greatest Athlete. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981. ISBN 9780806117454

External links

All links retrieved August 1, 2022.


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