He was born in Oklahoma Indian territory around 1887, to parents of mixed Caucasian and Indian ancestry. According to custom he was named after something that happened, around the time of his birth. Lighting had lit up the trail to the house in which he was born. So it is he was known by the native name, Wa-Tho-Huk. “Bright Path”. He was raised a Catholic, a faith he would practice all his life with the baptismal name, Jacobus Francis Thorpe. He would grow to be the finest all-round athlete of the first half of the 20th century and maybe, for the next 100 years. We remember him as Jim Thorpe.
Thorpe was an indifferent student and ran away from school several times, especially after his twin brother Charlie died of pneumonia, at age 9. His father sent him to the Haskell Institute, an Indian boarding school in Lawrence, Kansas, hoping he wouldn’t run away again.
Two years later, his mother died in childbirth. That was it. After several arguments with his father, he left to take work at a horse ranch. Thorpe returned to his father at 16 and agreed to attend the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
One day in 1907, Thorpe was walking past the school track. Several high jumpers were at practice and he decided to give it a try. With no warm-up and still in street clothes, Thorpe beat them all on his first try with a high jump of 5-feet, 9-inches.
In those days, Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, yeah, THAT Pop Warner, coached football at the Indian School.
Reluctant to let his best track & field athlete try a contact sport, Warner relented and let Thorpe carry the ball on two rushing plays. He’d be easily tackled and change his mind thought Warner, but Thorpe ran circles around the defenders. Twice. Flipping the ball to coach Warner, Thorpe quipped, “Nobody is going to tackle Jim“.
Thorpe came to compete in football, baseball, lacrosse and even ballroom dancing, winning the intercollegiate ballroom dancing championship, in 1912. I can’t help but respect that, as someone who moves, like a refrigerator.
Thorpe came to national attention in 1911, after scoring all four field goals in an upset victory over Harvard, 18-15. In a 1912 victory over Army, Thorpe’s 92-yard touchdown run was called back, due to a teammate’s penalty. He ran it in again on the following play, this time running 97-yards.
He didn’t compete in track & field in 1910 or ’11 but, in the spring of 1912, he started training for the Olympics. At the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, somebody stole his shoes. He scrounged a pair from somewhere including one from a garbage can and won the decathlon, and pentathlon.
It was his first and only decathlon.
Martin Sheridan, champion athlete of the Irish American Athletic Club and five-time Olympic gold medalist 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.”
The New York Times wrote in his 1953 obituary, that Thorpe “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“.
In today’s Olympics, we’re all supposed to be excited when professional athletes paid tens of millions of dollars to play basketball, defeat some kids from Croatia.
That wasn’t so in 1912. There were strict amateur rules. Sports teachers, professional athletes and anyone who ever competed against them were strictly forbidden from amateur sports, particularly when someone noticed.
In 1909 and 1910, Thorpe played baseball for the Rocky Mount Railroaders of the Eastern Carolina League. They were the worst team in the league despite the presence of Jim Thorpe, but no matter. The man was paid $2 a game, and $35 a week, to play baseball.
The fact was widely known but, in 1913, the Worcester Telegram published an article, stating that Thorpe had played professional baseball. Other papers picked up the story. Plausible deniability thus denied, Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Secretary James Edward Sullivan, sprang into action.
Thorpe wrote a letter, hoping it would help: “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 …”
It didn’t. Despite a 30-day rule for such challenges, the AAU retroactively withdrew his amateur status. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) stripped him of his awards, and medals.
Jim Thorpe first signed with the New York Giants in 1913 and played six seasons in the major leagues, between 1913 and 1919. He joined the American Football League Canton Bulldogs in 1915 helping the team to three championships before joining the National Football League where he played, for six years. All the while he would barnstorm around the country with an all-Indian professional basketball team. He was President of the American Football league in 1920 which later became, the NFL.
Jim Thorpe would play professional sports until he was 41. Depression was upon the land on those days and Thorpe struggled to hold down a job. Bouncer. Security Guard. Ditch digger. He briefly joined the Merchant Marine, in 1945. He appeared in several films sometimes sometimes as himself, and sometimes a bit player. He became a chronic alcoholic, married three times and divorced twice, with 8 kids. He was hospitalized with lip cancer in 1950 and admitted, as a charity case.
Jim Thorpe went into heart failure in 1953 while dining with his third wife, Patricia. He was revived and spoke to those around him, but later lost consciousness. Jim Thorpe died at the couple’s home in Lomita, California on March 28, 1953.
Over the years, supporters tried to have his medals restored and Olympic titles, reinstated.
Former teammate and IOC President Avery Brundage would have none of it, saying “ignorance is no excuse.”
In 1981, author Bob Wheeler published Jim Thorpe: World’s Greatest Athlete. Wheeler and his wife Florence Ridlon, herself a PhD and author of several books, may be Thorpe’s greatest supporters.
The couple founded the Jim Thorpe Foundation in 1982 and, that October, the IOC executive committee approved Thorpe’s reinstatement. Sort of.
Jim Thorpe was declared “co-champion” with Ferdinand Bie and Hugo Wieslander, athletes who had always said, that Thorpe had won. On this day in 1983 the IOC presented commemorative medals to two of Thorpe’s children, Gale and Bill. Today, the IOC lists Thorpe as “co-medalist’.
In 1954, the communities of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk of Carbon County Pennsylvania merged to form the borough of Jim Thorpe.
Thorpe’s original medals were at one time in museums but since stolen, and never recovered.
In 2020, a petition called upon the IOC to reinstate Thorpe as the sole winner of the 1912 events. Pictureworks Entertainment, a company producing a film about Thorpe supports the petition as does 1964 gold medalist, Billy Mills.