Jim Thorpe

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Thorpe participated in the .
Thorpe participated in the 1912 Summer Olympics.
This article refers to the football & baseball player. To see the city in Pennsylvania see Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.

Jacobus Franciscus "Jim" Thorpe (Native American: Wa-Tho-Huk) (May 28, 1887March 28, 1953) is considered by many to be one of the most versatile athletes in modern sports. He won Olympic gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon, starred in college and professional football, and played Major League Baseball. He subsequently lost his Olympic titles for violating amateurism regulations. In 1983, thirty years after his death, his medals were restored.


Early life

Information of Thorpe's place of birth, date of birth and full name vary widely. What is known is that he was born in Indian Territory, but no birth certificate has been found.

According to the findings of Bill Mallon (see references), Thorpe was born on May 28, 1887 (other sources state 1888) on an Indian reservation near the town of Bellemont, Oklahoma (not Prague, Oklahoma, as often seen). His full name is often said to be James Francis Thorpe, but this cannot be confirmed; "Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe" is the name on his christening certificate.

His parents were each of mixed descent. His father, Hiram Thorpe, had an Irish father and a Sac and Fox Indian mother, while his mother, Charlotte Vieux, had a French father and an Indian mother. Thorpe was raised as a Sac and Fox, and his native name was Wa-Tho-Huk, meaning 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 sunlight brightening the path to the cabin where he was born. Some accounts suggest that Hiram Thorpe had 19 children with five different wives, of which no fewer than eleven were with Vieux.

Together with his twin brother Charlie, Thorpe went to school in Tecumseh, Oklahoma at the Sac and Fox Indian Agency School. Charlie died of pneumonia when they were eight years old. Thorpe did not handle his brother's death very well, and ran away from school on several occasions. Hiram Thorpe then sent Jim to what is now known as Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, so that his son would not run away again. When his mother died two years later, Thorpe fell into a depression. After several arguments with his father, he ran away from home to work on a horse farm.

In 1904, Thorpe returned to his father, and decided to join Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Later that year, Hiram Thorpe died. Thorpe once again dropped out of school. He resumed farm work for a few years and then returned to Carlisle, where his athletic career commenced.

A rising star

Legend has it that Thorpe began his athletic career at Carlisle in 1907 when he walked past the track and beat the school's high jumpers with an impromptu 5'9" jump, still wearing plain clothes. Whether this is true or not, Thorpe's earliest recorded track and field results are indeed from 1907. But track and field were certainly not the only events in which Thorpe engaged at Carlisle—he also participated in football, baseball, lacrosse and even ballroom dancing.

He gained nationwide attention for the first time in 1911. As a running back, defensive back, place-kicker, and punter for his school's football team, Thorpe scored all of his team's points in an 18-13 upset against Harvard, 4 field goals and a touchdown. His team finished the season 11-1. The following year, he led Carlisle to the national collegiate championship, scoring 25 touchdowns and 198 points (over 12 games). Carlisle's 1912 record includes an impressive 27-6 victory over Army. In that game, Thorpe scored a 92-yard touchdown which was annulled because of a penalty incurred by a teammate. Thorpe then scored a 97-yard touchdown on the next play. Thorpe won All-American honors in both 1911 and 1912.

Football was—and would remain—Thorpe's favorite sport, and he only sporadically competed in track and field. Nevertheless, track and field would become the sport in which Thorpe would gain the most fame.

An Olympic hero

For the 1912 Summer Olympics, two new multi-event disciplines were on the program, the pentathlon and the decathlon. A pentathlon based on the ancient Greek event had been organized at the 1906 Summer Olympics, but the 1912 edition would consist of the long jump, the javelin throw, 200-meter dash, the discus throw and the 1500-meter run.

The decathlon was an entirely new event in athletics, although there had been a decathlon competition held during American track meets since the 1880s, which had featured on the program of the 1904 St. Louis Olympics. The events of the new decathlon were slightly different from the U.S. version, however. Both events seemed fit for Thorpe, who was so versatile that he alone had formed Carlisle's team on several track meets. Therefore, Thorpe entered the U.S. Olympic trials for both the pentathlon and the decathlon.

He easily won the Eastern Trials, winning three events, and was named to the pentathlon team, which also included future IOC president Avery Brundage. There were only a few candidates for the decathlon team, and the trials were cancelled. Thorpe would contest his first—and, as it turned out, only—decathlon in the Olympics.

Thorpe's competition schedule for the Olympics was crowded. Along with the decathlon and pentathlon, he also entered the long jump and high jump competitions. The first event scheduled was the pentathlon. Thorpe was the class of the field, winning four events. He only placed third in the javelin, an event he had not contested before 1912. Although the competition was primarily decided on place points, points were also calculated for the marks achieved in the events. Thorpe scored 4041.530 points, 400 points more than second-placed Ferdinand Bie of Norway.

The same day he won the pentathlon gold, Thorpe qualified for the high-jump final. In that final, he placed fourth, and took seventh place in the long jump. Thorpe's final event was the decathlon, where tough competition from the local favorite, Hugo Wieslander, was expected. But Wieslander was no match for Thorpe either, and finished some 700 points behind Thorpe. Thorpe placed in the top four of all ten events.

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 Nicholas II of Russia for the pentathlon. Legend has it that, when awarding Thorpe his prize, Gustav V 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 later remembered: "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 matches held at the 1912 Olympics, which featured two teams made up of U.S. track and field athletes. It was not Thorpe's first try at baseball, as would soon become known to the rest of the world.

Declared a professional

In 1913, strict rules regarding amateurism were in force for athletes participating in the Olympics. Athletes who received money prizes for competitions, were sports teachers or who had previously competed against professionals were not considered amateurs, and were not allowed to partake in the Olympics.

In late January 1913, U.S. newspapers published stories that made claims Thorpe had played professional baseball. It is not entirely sure which newspaper first brought 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 semi-professional baseball in Rocky Mount, North Carolina in 1909 and 1910, and had received a small amount of money for playing.

Although the public did not seem to care much about Thorpe's past, the Amateur Athletic Union, and especially its secretary James E. Sullivan, took the case very seriously. Thorpe wrote a letter to Sullivan, in which he admitted playing semi-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, and the AAU decided to retroactively withdraw Thorpe's amateur status, and requested the IOC to do the same. Later that year, the IOC unanimously decided to strip Jim Thorpe of his Olympic titles, medals and awards, and declared him a professional.

While Thorpe had indeed played for money, his disqualification was in fact not according to the regulations. In the rulebook for the 1912 Olympics, it was stated that any protests had to be made within 30 days from the closing ceremonies of the Games. The first newspaper reports only appeared in January 1913, about six months after the Stockholm Games had concluded. However, AAU and IOC officials were apparently ignorant of this rule, or chose to ignore it. There is also some evidence that Thorpe's amateur status had already been questioned long before the Olympics, but that this had been (deliberately) ignored by the AAU until they were confronted with it in 1913.

The only positive side to this affair for Thorpe was that, as soon as the news got out that he had been declared a professional, offers came in from Major League Baseball teams to join them.

Baseball and football

Missing image
Thorpe played football for Canton from 1915 through 1920. He also played 52 NFL games.

He signed with the New York Giants in 1913 and played sporadically there as an outfielder for three seasons. After missing the 1916 season completely, he came back to play again for the Giants in 1917, but was sold to the Cincinnati Reds early in the season. 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 lackluster career, he amassed but 91 runs scored, 82 runs batted in and a .252 batting average over 289 games. He continued to play baseball with teams in minor leagues until 1922.

But Thorpe had not abandoned football either. Back in 1915, Thorpe had signed with the Canton Bulldogs. They paid him $250 a game, a tremendous wage at the time. The independent team was successful, and won titles in 1916, 1917 and 1919. In 1920, the Bulldogs were one of the four teams to form the American Professional Football Association, which would become the National Football League two years later. Thorpe was named the APFA's first president, but continued to play for Canton, coaching the team as well.

Thorpe never played on a championship team, although he played for six different teams between 1920 and 1928. He retired from pro football aged 41, having played 52 NFL games.

Later life and death

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. Thorpe was a heavy drinker at times, which was probably the main reason the couple divorced in 1924.

Thorpe remarried in 1926 to Freeda Kirkpatrick, and had four sons with her: Carl, William, Richard, and John. After the end of his athletic career, Thorpe struggled to support his family. He found it difficult to work outside sports, and never could hang on to a job for a very long time. The Great Depression didn't make things easier, and Thorpe went from job to job. Among other jobs, he featured as an extra in several movies, usually playing an Indian chief in Western movies. But he also worked as a construction worker, a bouncer and briefly joined the Merchant Marine in 1945. Four years earlier, his wife had divorced him, as she was fed up with Thorpe regularly being away from home for weeks.

By the 1950s, Thorpe had no money left, and when he had to be admitted to the hospital to be treated for lip cancer in 1950, he could only afford his bills because he was allowed as a charity case.

Three years later, Thorpe suffered from a heart attack (his third) while eating dinner with his third wife, Patricia Askew, in his trailer home in Lomita, California. Artificial respiration briefly revived Thorpe, but he lost consciousness shortly afterwards, and passed away on March 28, 1953, at age 65.


Initially, Thorpe's family wanted to bury him in Oklahoma and erect a monument there, but the governor did not allow this. When Thorpe's third wife, Patricia, heard that the small Pennsylvania town of Mauch Chunk was desperately seeking to attract business, she struck a deal with the town. Mauch Chunk bought Thorpe's remains, erected a monument to him, and renamed the town in his honor (see Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania). Thorpe's monument, featuring the quote from Gustav V, can still be found there.

Thorpe also received great acclaim from the press. Before his death, in 1950, an Associated Press poll among sportswriters voted Thorpe the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century, while another poll elected him as the best football player over the same period. By the end of the century, memories of Thorpe had faded a little, but he still was listed near the top of many "athlete of the century" lists.

In 1951, while Thorpe was still alive, a feature film about his life was released. Jim Thorpe: All-American starred Burt Lancaster, and was directed by Michael Curtiz (the director of Casablanca). Thorpe did not earn any money for the movie, as he had already sold the film rights to MGM in 1931 (for $1500). The movie was titled "Man of Bronze" when released in the UK.

In 1963, Jim Thorpe received the NFL's highest honor, induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In addition, Thorpe is also memorialized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame rotunda with the larger-than-life Jim Thorpe Statue.

In 1986, the Jim Thorpe Award was established, awarded to the best defensive back in college football.


The  recognized Thorpe's achievements with a postage stamp.
The USPS recognized Thorpe's achievements with a postage stamp.

Over the years, several attempts have been made to reinstate Thorpe's Olympic titles, most started by one of Thorpe's seven surviving children. Most persistent were Robert Wheeler and Florence Ridlon. They succeeded in having the AAU and United States Olympic Committee (USOC) overturn their decisions and restore Thorpe's amateur status prior to 1913.

In 1982, they set up the Jim Thorpe Foundation, and managed to get support from the US Congress. Armed with this support, and evidence from 1912 showing Thorpe's disqualification had occurred outside of the 30-day limit, they finally got attention from the IOC, which had not made any attempts to reinstate Thorpe.

In October 1982, the IOC Executive Committee approved Thorpe's reinstatement. In an unusual ruling, however, they declared that Thorpe was now co-champion with Bie and Wieslander, even though both athletes had always said they considered Thorpe to be the only champion. In a ceremony on January 18, 1983, two of Thorpe's children, Gale and Bill, were presented with commemorative medals. (The original medals had both ended up in museums, but were stolen and are still missing.)

Preceded by:
New Position
NFL Presidents Succeeded by:
Joseph Carr


  • Jim Thorpe, the Legend Remembered, by Rosemary Kissinger Updyke, 1997
  • In the Matter of Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe, published in The 1912 Olympic Games - Results for All Competitors in All Events, with Commentary by Bill Mallon and Ture Widlund, 2002.
  • The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics (Sydney 2000 Edition) by David Wallechinsky, 2000.
  • Jim Thorpe: The World's Greatest Athlete by Robert W. Wheeler, 2003

External links

Template:Footer Olympic Champions Decathlonde:James Francis Thorpe et:Jim Thorpe it:Jim Thorpe ja:ジム・ソープ pl:Jim Thorpe


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