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Jim Thorpe

The Über-athlete

Jim Thorpe was the greatest athlete of the 20th Century; some say the greatest athlete ever. He was excellent at every sport he tried, and the only American athlete to excel at the amateur and professional levels in 3 major sports—track and field, football and baseball.

James Francis Thorpe was born in a one-room cabin on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma on May 28, 1887. He was a member of the Thunder clan of the Sac and Fox tribe, and his Indian name was Wa-Tho-Huk (Bright Path).

Thorpe was a descendent of the famous warrior Chief Black Hawk and it was often said that Jim had inherited his looks and athletic ability. Jim recalled, "Our lives were lived in the open, winter and summer. We were never in the house when we could be out of it. And we played hard. I wasn’t content unless I was trying my skill in some game against my fellow playmates or testing my endurance and wits against some member of the animal kingdom." 

Jim Thorpe -- The Über-athlete

Jim’s father sent him to Carlisle Indian School near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and enrolled him in an apprentice program to become a tailor. Not long after his arrival, he was walking across the sports field and saw some students practicing the high jump. He asked if he could give it a try and easily made the jump, not realizing that the bar was set higher than anyone at the school had ever jumped before. When legendary coach Glenn Scobey "Pop" Warner heard about it, he convinced Jim to join the track and field team. 

Jim was an outstanding competitor in track and field, winning many of the meets the school participated in—practically single-handedly. He excelled at many other sports; including basketball, lacrosse, baseball, swimming, ice hockey, archery, boxing, tennis and even won a national ballroom dancing contest. He was also an outstanding football player and helped Carlisle win a national championship in 1911. It was a great accomplishment for such a small school and Coach Warner would later describe Thorpe as "The most complete athlete in the world."

Warner suggested that Thorpe compete in the 1912 Olympics in Sweden. While the other athletes practiced constantly on the 11-day voyage, Jim spent his days napping in a hammock. When one of the trainers complained about it, the coach replied, "Leave him alone. Jim does all his training in his head."

Jim Thorpe at the starting line

At the Olympics, he won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon events—a feat that has never been equaled. As Sweden’s King Gustav V was congratulating Thorpe, he said, "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world." Thorpe’s reply was, "Thanks King."

Jim returned to the US with $50,000 worth of trophies and was greeted with a ticker-tape parade in New York City. He recalled, "I heard people yelling my name and I couldn’t realize how one fellow could have so many friends." Thorpe received many offers to join professional sports teams, but Pop Warner convinced him to return to the Carlisle football team. During the 1912 season, Jim scored a total of 198 points, including 25 touchdowns and helped them win the championship once again.

A year after the Olympics, a reporter discovered that he had played two seasons of semi-professional baseball in North Carolina. Though he had been paid less than $30 a week, the Amateur Athletic Union voided his amateur status and the Olympic Committee stripped him of his medals. They also removed his name from the record books. The silver medal winners refused to accept his gold medals, and one of them said, "Those belong to Jim."

Jim Thorpe high jumping

In 1913, Jim signed a contract to play professional baseball for $5000 for the New York Giants. In one baseball game in Texas, on a field located on the border with Oklahoma and Arkansas, he hit three home runs in three different states. He hit the first one over the left field wall and into Oklahoma. He hit the second one over the right field wall and into Arkansas, and he hit the last homer within the park.

Jim played baseball during the summer and football during the winter. He was paid $250 a game to play for the Canton Bulldogs—an enormous salary for a football player in those days. He led the team to the championship in 1916, 1917, and 1919. Thorpe was the first great professional football player and helped to make football a popular sport. He was named the first president of the American Professional Football Association, which later became the National Football League. Jim Thorpe was also inducted as a charter member into the Professional Football hall of Fame in 1963, and his statue is located at the entrance to the museum in Canton, Ohio.

He played his last football game at the age of 41, and as he got older, he began to drink heavily. He was hired as the superintendent of recreation for the Chicago Park System, but he lost that job because of his drinking. After that, he drifted about and did construction work or odd jobs.

Jim Thorpe playing baseball

Thorpe played a few bit parts in several films, including the James Cagney classic, White Heat. He also worked as a casting director, recruiting Indians for Westerns.

In 1941, at the age of 52, Jim showed the crowd during half time at a football game that he was still an amazing athlete, despite his advancing age. He stood on the 50 yard line and in street shoes, drop-kicked a ball over one goalpost and then turned around and place-kicked another ball over the other goalpost. In 1942, Thorpe tried to enlist in the Army but was rejected, so he served throughout the war as a seaman in the Merchant Marine.

In 1950, Thorpe was selected by America’s sportswriters as the most outstanding athlete of the first half of the 20th Century. Jim had sold his life story for $3,000 in the 1930s, and it was made into a film in 1951, when Burt Lancaster portrayed him in Jim Thorpe—All American.

Later that year, Jim checked into the hospital to undergo surgery for cancer of the lip and it was discovered that he couldn’t pay his bill. His wife said, "We’re broke. Jim has nothing but his name and his memories. He has spent money on his own people and has given it away. He has often been exploited." Word quickly spread that Thorpe had fallen upon hard times and several thousand dollars was raised by his fans to help him.

Jim playing football

Jim Thorpe died of a heart attack on March 28, 1953. At the time of his death, he was a greeter in a Los Angeles bar and lived in a trailer in Lomita, California. Jim’s wife was very disappointed to hear that Oklahoma was not willing to assist in creating any type of memorial for him, so she worked out a deal with two struggling communities in Pennsylvania with the unlikely names of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, near where the Carlisle Indian School was located. They agreed to merge and take the name Jim Thorpe. He is buried at a memorial site there.

For nearly 60 years, Thorpe’s fans tried to get his medals and records restored to him. One of the people who had competed against him in the 1912 Olympics was Avery Brundage, who became the head of the United States Olympic Committee and later the head of the International Olympic Committee. Brundage always blocked any effort to reinstate Thorpe, and it wasn’t till 1982, after Brundage had died, that Thorpe’s medals were finally returned to his family and his records restored.

In May 1999, a resolution was introduced in the United States House of Representatives to name Jim Thorpe, "America’s Athlete of the Century."
 

 

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