On a recent visit to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio I rediscovered the remarkable Jim Thorpe. Thorpe was a Native American who was voted the athlete of the first half of the 20th century. He excelled in football, track and field, baseball and basketball.
The entrance to the Hall of Fame is a tribute to Thorpe. There is a larger-than-life gold statue of him and a special hall dedicated to his accomplishments. Turns out he was one of the founders of the National Football League (NFL).
Although football was his self-admitted favourite sport he also played and excelled in many others. In the 1980s he was voted the Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century receiving more votes than others such as Michael Jordan, Muhammed Ali, Wayne Gretzsky, Jack Nichlous, and Babe Ruth.
James Francis “Jim” Thorpe was born May 22, 1887 in Oklahoma. He was a Sac and Fox Native American whose name Wa-Tho-Huk is translated as “Bright Path”. Thorpe had natural athletic talent and excelled in a variety of sports from an early age. Jim attended Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. There the famous coach Pop Warner developed his talent.
He tried out for and made the American Olympic Team competing in the 1912 Olympic Games held in Stockholm, Sweden. His primary events were the gruelling pentathlon and decathlon. Jim won gold medals in both events setting records that stood for decades.
Six months after the Games it was discovered he had played minor league professional baseball prior to the games. This was a strict no-no at the time. He was paid about $50 for his six games. Most white athletes did the same thing, but they used aliases to prevent their discovery. Jim’s mistake, he didn’t. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) reviewed his case and in the end stripped him of his medals, records and other awards. However the IOC didn’t follow their own rules. The Olympic rules said that any appeals must be filed within 30 days of the closing of the Games. The objections weren’t filed until 6 months after the Games.
In 1982 the Jim Thorpe Foundation with the support of the US Congress petitioned the IOC to reverse their 1913 ruling. They were successful and on January 18, 1983 the IOC presented commemorative medals to two of Jim’s children in a special ceremony. His original medals were stolen from a museum and to this day have never been recovered.
After the Olympic Games ended in 1913 he played professional baseball for the National League champion New York Giants and later the Boston Bears and the Cincinnati Reds. He retired from baseball in 1919.
Next he played professional football with the Canton Bulldogs of the fledgling American Professional Football Association (APFA) the forerunner to the NFL. Jim played six seasons from 1920 to 1928. He retired at age 41. Thorpe was First Team All-Pro in 1923, NFL 1920s All-Decade Team, NFL 50th Anniversary All-Time Team, College Football Hall of Fame, and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee in 1963. He is one of 17 players in the Hall in the charter class. Jim was the first president of the APFA from 1920 to 1921 while at the same time playing. He is considered one of the founders of the NFL.
Books have been written about his life and accomplishments. He faced much racism during his career, but his feats endeared him to the world regardless. In his personal life he struggled with chronic alcoholism. Jim married three times and had 6 children. He died March 28, 1953 at his home in Lomita, California with his wife at his side. He was 64 years of age. He is buried in the town named for him Jim Thorpe, PA.
Thorpe was memorialized in the 1951 Warner Bros. film “Jim Thorpe – All American” starring the great American actor Burt Lancaster as Thorpe. Contrary to rumours he was paid the considerable sum of $15,000 for the story. The United States Postal Service (USPS) has issued a 20c and a 32c commemorative postage stamps honouring him.
Some of the greatest tributes were from his fellow competitors. Future President Dwight Eisenhower who played against him in college recalled of Jim 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.”
Martin Sheridan, a five-time Olympic gold medalist said in 1909 while shaking his hand after watching Thorpe destroy all his previous records,
“Jim, my boy, you’re a great man. I never expect to look upon a finer athlete.”
Jim Thorpe, All-American truly was a remarkable athlete and person.