Describing Jim Thorpe as a great athlete would be doing him a severe injustice. A better description would be calling him the greatest athlete of the 20th Century. This label will probably be debated by many, but Thorpe’s accomplishments speak louder than words. King Gustav V of Sweden told Thorpe: “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.”
James Francis Thorpe was born on May 28, 1887 in a one-room cabin near Prague, Oklahoma. Although there is much confusion on Thorpe’s date of birth, this is the date according to his estate. He was born to Hiram Thorpe, a farmer, and Mary James, a Pottawatomie Indian and descendant of the last great Sauk and Fox chief Black Hawk, a noted warrior and athlete. Jim was actually born a twin, but his brother Charlie died at the age of nine. His Indian name, Wa-Tho-Huk, translated to “Bright Path,” something that Thorpe definitely had ahead of him.
In 1904, Thorpe started school at Carlisle Industrial Indian School in Pennsylvania. The establishment offered American Indians the opportunity to gain practical training in over 20 trades, in addition to off-campus employment at local farms, homes, or industries. Thorpe began his athletic career at Carlisle, both playing football and running track. He was triumphantly selected as a third-team All-American in 1908, and in 1909 and 1910 he made the first team. Iconic football legend Glenn “Pop” Warner coached Thorpe at Carlisle and was able to see the young phenomenon evolve in his pursuant excellence with athletics.
At the tender age of 24, Thorpe sailed with the American Olympic team to Stockholm, Sweden for the 1912 Olympic Games. Remarkably, he trained aboard the ship on the journey across sea. He blew away the competition in both the pentathlon and the decathlon and set records that would stand for decades. King Gustav V presented Thorpe with his gold medals for both accomplishments. As stated in Bob Bernotas’ “Jim Thorpe, Sac and Fox Athlete”: “Before Thorpe could walk away, the king grabbed his hand and uttered the sentence that was to follow for the rest of his life.’Sir,’ he declared, ‘you are the greatest athlete in the world,’ Thorpe, never a man to stand on ceremony, answered simple and honestly, ‘Thanks King.’”
Thorpe’s glorious Olympic wins were jeopardized in 1913 when it surfaced that he had played two semi-professional seasons of baseball. The Olympics Committee had strict rules about Olympians receiving monetary compensation for participating in professional athletics. Thorpe, who stated he played for the love of the game and not the money, was put under the microscope. Ultimately, it was decided that his baseball experience adversely affected his amateur status in the track and field events. His name was removed from the record books and his gold medals were taken away.
Thorpe moved on after the Olympic ordeal and signed to play baseball for the New York Giants. He played outfield with New York for three seasons before relocating and playing with the Cincinnati Reds in 1917. He played 77 games with the Reds before finally returning to the Giants for an additional 26 games. In 1919, he played his final season in major league baseball, ending on the Boston Braves team.
During much of his baseball years, Thorpe was also immersed in professional football. He played for the Canton (Ohio) Bulldogs from 1915 until 1920 and the Cleveland Indians in 1921. In the years following, he organized, coached and played with the Oorang Indians, a professional football team comprised completely of American Indians. Additionally, he was instrumental in forming the American Professional Football Association, and eventually became the president of the group. Through the years, the association evolved into today’s NFL. In all, Thorpe played with six different teams during his career in pro football, ending with a stint with the Chicago Cardinals in 1929.
Life after professional athletics was exciting for Thorpe. He worked as an extra in movies, served as superintendent of recreation in the Chicago Park System, and was also quite vocal with matters of Indian affairs. He also had stints as a public speaker/lecturer and even led an all-Indian song and dance troupe entitled The Jim Thorpe Show. The Merchant Marines even had the honor of Thorpe’s presence, as he served with beginning at age 58.
Two monumental honors were bestowed unto Thorpe in 1950 when he was named “the greatest American football player” and the “greatest overall male athlete” by the Associated Press.
Thorpe died on March 28, 1953 of a heart attack. The New York Times ran a front page story, remembering the athlete, stating that Thorpe “was a magnificent performer.” He had all the strength, speed and coordination of the finest players, plus an incredible stamina. The tragedy of the loss of his Stockholm medals because of thoughtless and unimportant professionalism darkened much of his career and should have been rectified long ago. His memory should be kept for what it deserves–that of the greatest all-round athlete of our time.” Thorpe’s medals were finally restored to him posthumously in 1982. In addition, and most importantly to his family, his name was put back into the record books.
Thorpe married three times and was blessed with eight children. In 1913, he married Iva Miller. Their first son, James Jr., died at age three from an influenza epidemic during World War I but their three daughters, Gail, Charlotte, and Grace, lived into the 1990s. He married Freda Kirkpatrick in 1926 and they had four sons, Carl Philipp (deceased), William, Richard, and John (Jack). Jack Thorpe, the youngest, became principal chief of the Sauk and Fox in the 1980s. At the time of his death, Thorpe had been married to Patricia Askew for almost eight years.
In 1950, the nation’s press selected Jim Thorpe as the most outstanding athlete of the first half of the 20th Century and in 1996-2001, he was awarded ABC’s Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Century.