About Jacobus Franciscus "Jim" Thorpe
Jacobus Franciscus "Jim" Thorpe (Sac and Fox (Sauk): Wa-Tho-Huk, translated to Bright Path) (May 28, 1888 – March 28, 1953) was an American athlete of mixed ancestry (mixed Caucasian and American Indian). Considered one of the most versatile athletes of modern sports, he won Olympic gold medals for the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon, played American football (collegiate and professional), and also played professional baseball and basketball. He lost his Olympic titles after it was found he was paid for playing two seasons of semi-professional baseball before competing in the Olympics, thus violating the amateurism rules. In 1983, 30 years after his death, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) restored his Olympic medals.
Of Native American and European American ancestry, Thorpe grew up in the Sac and Fox nation in Oklahoma. He played as part of several All-American Indian teams throughout his career, and "barnstormed" (played mainly in small towns) as a professional basketball player with a team composed entirely of American Indians.
His professional sports career ended during the Great Depression; and Thorpe struggled to earn a living after that. He worked several odd jobs, struggled with alcoholism, and lived his last years in failing health and poverty.
Information about Thorpe's birth, name, and ethnic background varies widely. He was born in Indian Territory, but no birth certificate has been found. Thorpe was generally considered born on May 28, 1888, near the town of Prague, Oklahoma. He was christened "Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe" in the Catholic Church.
Thorpe's parents were of mixed-race ancestry and both were Catholic. His father, Hiram Thorpe, had an Irish father and a Sac and Fox Indian mother. His mother, Charlotte Vieux, had a French father and a Potawatomi mother, a descendant of Chief Louis Vieux. Thorpe was raised as a Sac and Fox, and his native name was Wa-Tho-Huk, translated as "path lighted by great flash of lightning" or, more simply, "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 light brightening the path to the cabin where he was born. Thorpe's mother was Roman Catholic and raised her children in that faith, which Thorpe observed throughout his adult life.
Thorpe attended the Sac and Fox Indian Agency School in Stroud, Oklahoma, with his twin brother Charlie. Charlie helped Jim through school, but died of pneumonia when he was nine years old. Thereafter, Thorpe ran away from school on several occasions. Hiram Thorpe then sent him to the present-day Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, so that he would not run away again. When his mother died of childbirth complications two years later, Thorpe became depressed. After several arguments with his father, he left home to work on a horse ranch.
In 1904, Thorpe returned to his father and decided to attend Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. There, his athletic ability was recognized and he was coached by Glenn Scobey "Pop" Warner, one of the most influential coaches of early American football history. Later that year, Hiram Thorpe died from gangrene poisoning after being wounded in a hunting accident. Thorpe again dropped out of school. He resumed farm work for a few years and then returned to Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
Thorpe reportedly 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 while still wearing street clothes. His earliest recorded track and field results are from 1907. He also competed in football, baseball, lacrosse and even ballroom dancing, winning the 1912 inter-collegiate ballroom dancing championship.
Reportedly, Pop Warner was hesitant to allow Thorpe, his best track and field athlete, to compete in a physical game such as football. Thorpe, however, convinced Warner to let him participate in some plays against the school team's defense; Warner assumed he would be tackled easily and give up the idea. Thorpe "ran around past and through them not once, but twice." He then walked over to Warner and said, "Nobody is going to tackle Jim," while flipping him the ball.
Thorpe gained nationwide attention for the first time in 1911. As a running back, defensive back, placekicker, and punter, Thorpe scored all of his football team's points—four field goals and a touchdown—in an 18–15 upset of Harvard. His team finished the season 11–1. The next year, Carlisle won the national collegiate championship largely as a result of his efforts - he scored 25 touchdowns and 198 points.
Carlisle's 1912 record included a 27–6 victory over Army. In that game, Thorpe's 92-yard touchdown was nullified by a teammate's penalty; the next play, Thorpe scored a 97-yard touchdown. Future President Dwight Eisenhower, who played against him that season, 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.
Thorpe was awarded All-American honors in both 1911 and 1912.
Football was—- and would remain—- Thorpe's favorite sport. He competed only sporadically in track and field. Nevertheless, track and field became the sport in which Thorpe gained his greatest fame.
In the spring of 1912 he started training for the Olympics. He had confined his efforts to the jumps, the hurdles and the shot-put but now he undertook the pole vault, the javelin, discus, the hammer and the fifty-six-pound weight. In the Olympic trials held at Celtic Park in New York, his all-round ability stood out in all these events and so he riveted a claim to a place on the team that went to Sweden.
For the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, two new multi-event disciplines were included, the pentathlon and the decathlon. A pentathlon based on the ancient Greek event had been organized at the 1906 Summer Olympics. The 1912 version consisted of the long jump, the javelin throw, 200-meter dash, the discus throw and the 1500-meter run.
The decathlon was a relatively new event of modern athletics, although it had been part of American track meets since the 1880s and a version had been featured on the program of the 1904 St. Louis Olympics. The events of the new decathlon differed slightly from the American version. Both events seemed appropriate for Thorpe, who was so versatile that he alone had constituted Carlisle's team in several track meets. He could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat, the 220 in 21.8 seconds, the 440 in 51.8 seconds, the 880 in 1:57, the mile in 4:35, the 120-yard high hurdles in 15 seconds, and the 220-yard low hurdles in 24 seconds. He could long jump 23 ft 6 in and high-jump 6 ft 5 in. He could pole vault 11 feet, put the shot 47 ft 9 in, throw the javelin 163 feet, and throw the discus 136 feet.
Thorpe entered the U.S. Olympic trials for both the pentathlon and the decathlon. He won the awards easily, winning three events, and was named to the pentathlon team, which also included future International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Avery Brundage. There were only a few candidates for the decathlon team, and the trials were cancelled.
His schedule in the Olympics was busy. Along with the decathlon and pentathlon, he competed in the long jump and high jump. The first competition was the pentathlon; Thorpe won four of the five events and placed third in the javelin, an event in which he had not competed before 1912. Although the pentathlon was primarily decided on place points, points were also earned for the marks achieved in the individual events. He won the gold medal. The same day, Thorpe qualified for the high jump final. He placed fourth and also took seventh place in the long jump.
Thorpe's final event was the decathlon, his first—and as it turned out, only—Olympic decathlon. Strong competition from local favorite Hugo Wieslander was expected. Thorpe, however, easily defeated Wieslander by more than 700 points. He placed in the top four of all ten events. Thorpe's Olympic record of 8,413 points would stand for nearly two decades. Overall, Thorpe won eight of the 15 individual events of the pentathlon and decathlon.
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. Several sources recount 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 remembered later, "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 games at the 1912 Olympics, which featured two teams composed of U.S. track and field athletes. It was not Thorpe's first try at baseball, as the public would soon learn.
After his victories at the Olympic Games in Sweden, on September 2, 1912, Thorpe returned to Celtic Park, the home of the Irish American Athletic Club, in Queens, New York (where he had qualified four months earlier for the Olympic Games), to compete in the Amateur Athletic Union's All-Around Championship. Competing against Bruno Brodd of the Irish American Athletic Club, and J. Bredemus of Princeton University, he won seven of the ten events contested, and came in second in the remaining three. With a total point score of 7,476 points, Thorpe broke the previous record of 7,385 points set in 1909, (also set at Celtic Park), by Martin Sheridan, the champion athlete of the Irish American Athletic Club. Sheridan, a five-time Olympic gold medalist, was present to watch his record broken, and approached Thorpe after the event. He shook his hand saying, "Jim my boy, you're a great man. I never expect to look upon a finer athlete." Sheridan told a reporter from The New York World, "Thorpe is the greatest athlete that ever lived. He has me beaten fifty ways. Even when I was in my prime, I could not do what he did today."
In 1913, strict rules regarding amateurism were in effect for athletes participating in the Olympics. Athletes who received money prizes for competitions, were sports teachers, or had competed previously against professionals, were not considered amateurs and were barred from competition.
In late January 1913, U.S. newspapers published stories announcing that Thorpe had played professional baseball. It is not entirely certain which newspaper first published the story; the earliest article found is from the Providence Times, but the Worcester Telegram is usually mentioned as the first. Thorpe had indeed played professional baseball in the Eastern Carolina League for Rocky Mount, North Carolina, in 1909 and 1910, receiving meager pay; reportedly as little as $2 ($47 today) a game and as much as $35 ($822 today) a week. College players, in fact, regularly spent summers playing professionally, but most used aliases, unlike Thorpe.
Although the public did not seem to care much about Thorpe's past, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), and especially its secretary James Edward 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. The AAU decided to withdraw Thorpe's amateur status retroactively and asked the International Olympic Commission (IOC) to do the same. Later that year, the IOC unanimously decided to strip Thorpe of his Olympic titles, medals, and awards, and declared him a professional.
Although Thorpe had played for money, the AAU and IOC did not follow the rules for disqualification. The rulebook for the 1912 Olympics stated that protests had to be made within 30 days from the closing ceremonies of the games. The first newspaper reports did not appear until January 1913, about six months after the Stockholm Games had concluded. There is also some evidence that Thorpe's amateur status had been questioned long before the Olympics, but the AAU had ignored the issue until being confronted with it in 1913.
The only positive element of this affair for Thorpe was that, as soon as the news was reported that he had been declared a professional, he received offers from professional sports clubs.
A free agent
Declared a rare free agent during the era of the reserve clause, Jim Thorpe had a choice of baseball teams for which to play. He refused a starting position with the Saint Louis Browns to be a reserve with the New York Giants. One of the immediate benefits of joining the team came that October, when the Giants joined the Chicago White Sox for a world tour. Barnstorming across the United States and then around the world, Thorpe was the celebrity of the world tour. Everywhere the teams went, Thorpe increased their publicity and increased the tour's attendance receipts. He met with the Pope and the last khedive of Egypt, and played before 20,000 people in London including King George V. While in Rome, Thorpe was filmed wrestling with another baseball player on the floor of the Coliseum. No copy of that film is known to exist.
Baseball, football, and basketball
Thorpe signed with the New York Giants baseball club in 1913 and played sporadically with them as an outfielder for three seasons. After playing in the minor leagues with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1916, he returned to 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. Again, he played sporadically for the Giants in 1918 and was traded to the Boston Braves on May 21, 1919, for Pat Ragan. In his 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 the minor leagues until 1922.
But Thorpe had not abandoned football either. He first played professional football in 1913, as a member of the Indiana-based Pine Village Pros, a team that had a several-season winning streak against local teams during the 1910s. By 1915, Thorpe had signed with the Canton Bulldogs They paid him $250 ($5,410 today) a game, a tremendous wage at the time. Before Thorpe's signing, Canton was averaging 1,200 fans a game; 8,000 showed up for his debut against Massillon. The team won titles in 1916, 1917, and 1919. Thorpe reportedly ended the 1919 championship game by kicking a wind-assisted 95-yard punt from his team's own 5-yard line, effectively putting the game out of reach. In 1920, the Bulldogs were one of 14 teams to form the American Professional Football Association (APFA), which would become the National Football League (NFL) two years later. Thorpe was nominally the APFA's first president; however, he spent most of the year playing for Canton and a year later was replaced by Joseph Carr. He continued to play for Canton, coaching the team as well. Between 1921 and 1923, Thorpe played for the LaRue, Ohio, (Marion County, Ohio) Oorang Indians, an all-Native American team. Although the team's record was 3–6 in 1922, and 1–10 in 1923, Thorpe played well and was selected for the Green Bay Press-Gazette's first All-NFL team in 1923 (the Press-Gazette's team would later be formalized by the NFL as the league's official All-NFL team in 1931).
Thorpe never played for an NFL championship team. He retired from professional football at age 41, having played 52 NFL games for six teams from 1920 to 1928.
Until 2005, most of Thorpe's biographers were unaware of his basketball career. A ticket discovered in an old book that year revealed his career in basketball. By 1926, he was the main feature of the "World Famous Indians" of LaRue, which sponsored traveling football, baseball, and basketball teams. "Jim Thorpe and His World-Famous Indians" barnstormed for at least two years (1927–28) in parts of New York, Pennsylvania, and Marion, Ohio. 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.
Marriage and family
In 1913, Thorpe married Iva Miller, whom he had met at Carlisle. They had four children: Jim Jr. (who died at age 2), Gale, Charlotte and Grace. Miller filed for divorce from Thorpe in 1925, claiming desertion.
In 1926, Thorpe married Freeda V. Kirkpatrick (b.September 19, 1905, d. March 2, 2007). She was working for the manager of the baseball team for which he was playing at the time. They had four sons: Carl, William, Richard and John "Jack". William, Richard and Jack survived their mother, who divorced their father in 1941 after 15 years of marriage.
Lastly, Thorpe married Patricia Askew, who was with him when he died.
After his athletic career, Thorpe struggled to provide for his family. He found it difficult to work a non-sports job and never held a job for an extended period of time. During the Great Depression in particular, Thorpe had various jobs, among others as an extra for several movies, usually playing an American Indian chief in Westerns. He also worked as a construction worker, a doorman (bouncer), a security guard, and a ditch digger, and he briefly joined the United States Merchant Marine in 1945. Thorpe was a chronic alcoholic during his later life.
By the 1950s, Thorpe had no money left. When he was hospitalized for lip cancer in 1950, he was admitted as a charity case. At a press conference announcing the procedure, Thorpe's wife Patricia wept and pleaded for help, saying, "[W]e'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."
In early 1953, Thorpe suffered his third heart failure, while eating dinner with his wife Patricia in their home in Lomita, California. He was briefly revived by artificial respiration and was able to speak to those around him, but lost consciousness shortly afterward and died on March 28 at the age of 64.
Thorpe, half Caucasian, was raised as an American Indian. His accomplishments occurred during a period of racial inequality in the United States. It has been often suggested that his medals were stripped because of his ethnicity. While it is difficult to prove this, the public comment at the time largely reflected this view. At the time Thorpe won his gold medals, not all Native Americans were recognized as US citizens. (The US government had wanted them to make concessions to adopt European-American ways to receive such recognition.) All American Indians were not granted citizenship until 1924.
While Thorpe attended Carlisle, students' ethnicity was used for marketing purposes. A photograph of Thorpe and the 1911 football team emphasized the racial differences between the competing athletes. The inscription on the football reads, "1911, Indians 18, Harvard 15." Additionally, the school and journalists often categorized sporting competitions as conflicts of Indians against whites. Newspaper headings such as “Indians Scalp Army 27–6” or “Jim Thorpe on Rampage” made stereotypical journalistic play of the Indian nature of Carlisle's football team. The first notice of Thorpe in The New York Times was headlined "Indian Thorpe in Olympiad.; Redskin from Carlisle Will Strive for Place on American Team"; his accomplishments were described in a similar racial context by other newspapers and sportswriters throughout his life.
Olympic awards reinstated
Over the years, supporters of Thorpe attempted to have his Olympic titles reinstated. US Olympic officials, including former teammate and later president of the IOC Avery Brundage, rebuffed several attempts, with Brundage once saying, "Ignorance is no excuse." Most persistent were the author Robert Wheeler and his wife, Florence Ridlon. They succeeded in having the AAU and United States Olympic Committee (USOC) overturn its decision and restore Thorpe's amateur status prior to 1913.
In 1982, Wheeler and Ridlon established the Jim Thorpe Foundation and gained support from the U.S. Congress. Armed with this support and evidence from 1912 proving that Thorpe's disqualification had occurred after the 30-day time period allowed by Olympics rules, they succeeded in making the case to the IOC. In October 1982, the IOC Executive Committee approved Thorpe's reinstatement. In an unusual ruling, they declared that Thorpe was co-champion with Bie and Wieslander, although both of these athletes had always said they considered Thorpe to be the only champion. In a ceremony on January 18, 1983, the IOC presented two of Thorpe's children, Gale and Bill, with commemorative medals. Thorpe's original medals had been held in museums, but they had been stolen and have never been recovered.
Thorpe's monument, featuring the quote from Gustav V ("You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world."), still stands near the town named for him, Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. The grave rests on mounds of soil from Thorpe's native Oklahoma and from the stadium in which he won his Olympic medals.
Thorpe's achievements received great acclaim from sports journalists, both during his lifetime and since his death. In 1950, an Associated Press poll of almost 400 sportswriters and broadcasters voted Thorpe the "greatest athlete" of the first half of the 20th century. That same year, the Associated Press named Thorpe the "greatest American football player" of the first half of the century. In 1999, the Associated Press placed him third on its list of the top athletes of the century, following Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan. ESPN ranked Thorpe seventh on their list of best North American athletes of the century.
Thorpe was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963, one of seventeen players in the charter class. Thorpe is memorialized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame rotunda with a larger-than-life statue. He was also inducted into halls of fame for college football, American Olympic teams, and the national track and field competition.
President Richard Nixon, as authorized by U.S. Senate Joint Resolution 73, proclaimed Monday, April 16, 1973 as "Jim Thorpe Day" to promote the nationwide recognition of Thorpe. In 1986, the Jim Thorpe Association established an award with Thorpe's name. The Jim Thorpe Award is given annually to the best defensive back in college football. The annual Thorpe Cup athletics meeting is named in his honor.
Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania
Thorpe's wife Patricia was angry after his death when the government of Oklahoma would not erect a memorial to honor him. When she heard that the small Pennsylvania towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk were desperately seeking to attract business, she made a deal with officials. The towns bought Thorpe's remains, erected a monument to him, merged and renamed the newly united town in his honor, Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Thorpe had never been there. The monument site contains his tomb, two statues of him in athletic poses, and historical markers describing his life story.
In June 2010, Thorpe's son, Jack, filed a federal lawsuit against the borough of Jim Thorpe, seeking to have his father's remains returned to his homeland and re-interred near other family members in Oklahoma. Citing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Jack Thorpe is arguing to bring his father's remains to the reservation in Oklahoma. There Thorpe's remains would be buried near his father, sisters, and brother, and would be one mile away from the place he was born. Jack Thorpe says the agreement between his stepmother and borough officials was made against the wishes of other family members. They want him buried in Native American land.
In the 1930s, Thorpe appeared in several short films and features. Usually, his roles were little more than cameo appearances as an Indian, although in the 1932 comedy, Always Kickin, Thorpe was prominently cast in a speaking part as himself, a kicking coach teaching young football players to drop-kick. In 1931, during the Great Depression, he sold the film rights to his life story to MGM for $1,500 ($21,600 today). The movie included archival footage of the 1912 and 1932 Olympics, as well as a banquet in which Thorpe was honored. Thorpe was seen in some long shots in the film; one scene had Thorpe as a coaching assistant. It was also distributed in the United Kingdom, where it was called Man of Bronze.
Thorpe was memorialized in the Warner Bros. film Jim Thorpe -- All-American (1951) starring Burt Lancaster, with Billy Gray performing as Thorpe as a child. The film was directed by Michael Curtiz. Although there were accusations that Thorpe received no money from the movie he was paid $15,000 by Warner Bros. plus a $2,500 donation towards an annuity for him by the studio head of publicity.
This historical athlete appeared as a ghost in the 1994 television film Windrunner: A Spirited Journey, portrayed by Russell Means.
Jim Thorpe's Timeline
May 28, 1888
Prague, Lincoln CO, OK
March 28, 1953