May 22, 1887 – Birthday of Jim Thorpe, One of the Greatest Athletes in American History

Jim Thorpe was an amazing sports phenomenon. In 1999, he was ranked seventh on the AP list of top athletes of the 20th century, but from his accomplishments, I think “seventh” might be selling him short!

Jim Thorpe during his 1917 stint with the Cincinnati Reds

Jim Thorpe during his 1917 stint with the Cincinnati Reds

He was born in Oklahoma (most biographers think he was born on May 22, 1887) in extreme poverty to parents who were each part Native American. The public largely identified Thorpe as wholly American Indian, making him alternately a source of pride (for his seeming assimilation into America) and the target of bias. He was raised as a Sac and Fox Indian and as a Catholic, with his native name being Wa-Tho-Huk, or “Bright Path.”

Jim Thorpe in Carlisle Indian Industrial School uniform, c. 1909

Jim Thorpe in Carlisle Indian Industrial School uniform, c. 1909

Thorpe began his athletic career at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1907 when he walked past the track and watched the high jumpers. Still in his heavy overalls, he said he could do that, and proceeded to beat the school’s team with an impromptu 5-ft 9-in jump. He was invited to join the team, but also competed in football, baseball, lacrosse and even ballroom dancing, winning the 1912 inter-collegiate ballroom dancing championship! At the time, Carlisle’s athletic coach was Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, later to become famous himself. Reportedly, Pop Warner was hesitant to allow Thorpe, his star track and field athlete, to compete in a physical game such as football. But Thorpe convinced Warner to watch him run some plays against the school’s defense; 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.

He ended up playing as running back, defensive back, placekicker, and punter for his school’s football team. In 1911, he scored all of his team’s points—four field goals and a touchdown—in an 18–15 upset of Harvard. His team finished the season 11–1.

Jim Thorpe in the decathlon during the 1912 summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden

The following year, he led Carlisle to the national collegiate championship, scoring 25 touchdowns and 198 points. Carlisle’s 1912 record included a 27–6 victory over Army, in which Thorpe scored a 92-yard touchdown that was nullified by a penalty incurred by a teammate; he then scored a 97-yard touchdown on the next play. (In this same 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.”) Thorpe was awarded All-American honors in both 1911 and 1912.

In 1912, Thorpe decided to enter the Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, and trained aboard the ship on the way over! He set records for both the pentathlon and decathlon. The story goes that after King Gustav V presented Thorpe with his gold medals for both accomplishments, he grabbed Thorpe’s hand and said, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.” Thorpe is reported to have replied, “Thanks, King.”

Thorpe at the 1912 Summer Olympics

Thorpe at the 1912 Summer Olympics

Thorpe also played in one of two exhibition baseball matches held at the 1912 Olympics. But in January, 1913, U.S.newspapers published stories revealing that Thorpe had played two semi-professional seasons of baseball in the Eastern Carolina League. The Amateur Athletic Union 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. His name was removed from the record books.

Thorpe went on to play professional baseball, football, and basketball, sometimes all in the same year. In 1920 he became the first president of the American Professional Football League, which would evolve into the National Football League.

Thorpe’s last pro game was in 1928. Thereafter, he took various, often low-paying jobs to support his family. He died in poverty of a heart attack on March 28, 1953. The New York Times ran a front page story, 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.” 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. Thorpe’s Olympic 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 with the Canton Bulldogs some time between 1915 and 1920

Thorpe with the Canton Bulldogs some time between 1915 and 1920

Some interesting facts about Thorpe:

• Thorpe once hit 3 home runs into 3 different states in the same game. During a semi-pro baseball game in a ballpark on the Texas-Oklahoma-Arkansas border, he hit his first homer over the leftfield wall with the ball landing in Oklahoma, his second homer over the rightfield wall into Arkansas and his third homer of the game was an inside-the-park home run in centerfield, which was in Texas!

• Thorpe is one of two men in history who played for the New York Giants in two different sports. In football, he was the New York Giants’ running back and in baseball he was the New York Giants’ outfielder.

• Often Thorpe would demonstrate his football kicking prowess during halftimes by placekicking field goals from the 50-yard line, then turning and dropkicking through the opposite goal post.

• Thorpe would earn enshrinement in the pro football, college football, U.S. Olympic and national track and field Halls of Fame.

You can learn more about Jim Thorpe and see additional pictures on a website devoted to him, here.

Books on Thorpe for Young People

In addition to biographies for adults, there are a number of books about Thorpe’s life and accomplishments for young people, no doubt owing to his inspirational achievements.

A very nice graphic book on his life is Jim Thorpe: Greatest Athlete in the World, by Jennifer Fandel and illustrated by Rod Whigham.

The Native American author Joseph Bruchac has two books on Jim Thorpe: for younger readers, there is Jim Thorpe’s Bright Path illustrated by S.D. Nelson.

For teens, he has written Jim Thorpe: Original All-American.

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8 Responses to May 22, 1887 – Birthday of Jim Thorpe, One of the Greatest Athletes in American History

  1. Staci says:

    I wish kids would be interested in these people from the past and see how hard work, dedication, and never giving up will bring great things to your life!

  2. Barbara says:

    Jim Thorpe’s loss of his Olympic medals was a tragedy. Can’t help thinking a lot of jealousy was involved. He is buried in Jim Thorpe (formerly Mach Chunk), Pennsylvania. When he died, his family didn’t want the expense of burying him, so this coal mining village in PA asked for and received permission to bury him and rename the village. Although they did this out of admiration for his talents, the village has gradually become a lovely little tourist destination, but I hear his descendants are now trying to get his remains given to them. I think he should be left where he was wanted.

    • carrie says:

      this is his great granddaughter its not that the family did not have the money to bury him. His wife at the time was paid to move his body to Pa and bury him there. She accepted the money and so he is now buried there. Only half of the family want his body moved. My half wants him to stay where he is. Other half believe his soul is not at rest because he is not buried on tribal grounds. we believe he is at rest because the ground where he is buried was blessed. Carrie

  3. Doret says:

    Thanks for the link. I loved Bruchac biography. He didn’t deserve to lose his medals

    I just checked out the list.

    I think Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Bill Russell are too low and a few others.

    When the Olympic committee only allows an athlete to compete in 3 events, because they are worried they heads above everyone else the athlete should be higher than 9.

    I suppose who have put the list together could argue that female athletes weren’t to par with Babe, Though they have to give her credit for getting disqualified for her high jump technique because she was ahead of her it. Now standard practice. If not for that DQ she would have went home with 3 gold medals

    Bill Russells has a ring for every finger both thumbs and one toe. Won MVP 5 times. In the beginning that could not have been easy, since he was the first Black player for the Boston Red Sox’s

    8 gold medals, 11 in all, for Jackie Joyner Kersee and she’s ranked 40 really!.

    22 Grand Slams singles titles for Steffi Graf and she’s ranked 68 really.

    Maybe if female athletes promise to start wearing athletic supporters they will be ranked closer to where they should be.

    Am I going blind or is Andree Agassi really not on that list?

    Jill – I am sorry for taking up all this space. I will not look at that. list any more. Nor will I seek out any updated verison. At least not today.

  4. Margot says:

    Fun reading over here today. I confess my ignorance of the Jim Thorpe story. I do recall my father talking often about him but you know how daughters often ignore their father’s interests. I really didn’t know about his talents in so many sports. If he were an athlete today, he’d be a multi-millionaire competing against drug-enhanced bodies.

  5. Julie P. says:

    I remember reading a bio of Jim Thorpe when I was just a kid. I was blown away by his story and his accomplishments! Now I live just a few miles from where he was from.

  6. Valerie says:

    I know I have heard of Jim Thorpe before and that he was a talented athlete, but I had no idea that he was proficient in so many different sports. So sad about his olympic medals being stripped. Especially when you think nowadays that there are professional athletes who compete in the Olympics (and to be honest, I’ve always thought that it shouldn’t have become that way).

  7. Andrew E Smith says:

    Jim was superior with dominance there a lot of Jim Thorpe’s in Indian country but will we ever see the likes of him ever again

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