Who Was Jim Thorpe?
An All-American in football at the Carlisle Indian School, Jim Thorpe won the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics before his gold medals were revoked on a technicality. Thorpe played professional baseball and football, and sought an acting career after retiring from sports.
Early Years and Schools
Jim Thorpe was born circa May 28, 1887, near current-day Prague, Oklahoma. A child of Sac and Fox and Potawatomi Indian bloodlines, as well as French and Irish roots, he was given the name Wa-Tho-Huk, meaning "Bright Path," but christened Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe.
Thorpe learned to hunt and trap prey at an early age, developing his legendary endurance via extensive excursions through Indian Territory. His aversion to the classroom was exacerbated by the early deaths of his twin brother and both parents, and his stints at the Haskell Institute in Kansas, the local Garden Grove school and the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania were marked by long bouts of truancy.
As a student at Carlisle in the spring of 1907, Thorpe joined a track-and-field practice session on campus. Clad in his work clothes, he launched himself over a 5'9" high bar to break the school record, catching the attention of coach Pop Warner. Thorpe soon became the star of the track program, and with his athletic skills he also enjoyed success in baseball, hockey, lacrosse and ballroom dancing.
However, it was football that propelled Thorpe to national renown. Starring as a halfback, place kicker, punter and defender, Thorpe led his team to a surprise victory over top-ranked Harvard in November 1911, and fueled a blowout of West Point a year later. Carlisle went a combined 23-2-1 over the 1911-12 seasons, with Thorpe garnering All-American honors both times.
Olympic Glory and Downfall
Named to the U.S. team for the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, Thorpe burst out of the gate by winning four of five events to claim the gold medal in the pentathlon. A week later he overwhelmed the field in the decathlon, winning the high jump, the 110-meter hurdles and the 1,500 meters despite competing in a pair of mismatched shoes. Finishing the three-day event with a total of 8,412.95 points (of a possible 10,000), a mark that bested the runner-up by nearly 700 points, Thorpe was proclaimed by Sweden’s King Gustaf V to be the greatest athlete in the world.
Thorpe was honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York City as part of his hero’s welcome home. However, a newspaper report the following January revealed that the Olympic champion had been paid to play minor league baseball in 1909 and 1910. Despite his handwritten plea to the Amateur Athletic Union, Thorpe was stripped of his amateur eligibility and forced to return his gold medals, his historic performance stricken from the Olympic record books.
Professional Sports Career
In 1913, Thorpe married his college sweetheart, Iva Miller, and signed to play professional baseball with the New York Giants. Troubled by the curveball, Thorpe batted just .252 over a six-year big-league career with the Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Boston Braves, although he managed an impressive .327 average in his final year.
Thorpe made a much bigger impact in the early stages of pro football. He signed with the Canton Bulldogs for $250 per game in 1915, justifying the price tag by drawing massive audiences and leading the team to league championships in 1916, '17 and '19. In 1920, the Bulldogs were among the 14 clubs that made up the American Professional Football Association – soon to be renamed the National Football League – with Thorpe serving as league president for a season.
From 1922 to '23, Thorpe coached and played for an all-Native American team called the Oorang Indians. Sponsored by Walter Lingo, owner of the Oorang Dog Kennels in LaRue, Ohio, the team's games featured players performing "war dances" and other rituals to entertain audiences. Thorpe went on to play for the NFL’s Cleveland Indians, Rock Island Independents, New York Giants and Chicago Cardinals through 1928.
Post-Athletic Career and Death
Having already divorced and remarried, to a former Oorang Kennels employee named Freeda Kirkpatrick, Thorpe encountered increasing difficulties after his athletic career concluded. He sought a career in Hollywood, and while he was credited with appearing in more than 60 films from 1931 to 1950, he mainly scored bit roles as a stereotypical American Indian. He undertook odd jobs to support seven children from two marriages, and a growing drinking habit led to a second divorce, in 1941.
Despite his struggles, Thorpe found a purpose in fighting for his people. He formed a casting company to pressure Hollywood studios into casting authentic Native Americans for roles, and he sought to procure original Sac and Fox land holdings from the federal government. Scraping by with funds earned from public speaking, he married for the third and final time in 1945, to Patricia Gladys Askew.
Thorpe achieved some public redemption in the final years of his life. The Associated Press named him the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century in 1950, and the following year he was portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the film Jim Thorpe – All-American. After he succumbed to a heart attack on March 28, 1953, at his trailer home in Lomita, California, his body was moved to an eastern Pennsylvania community that renamed itself Jim Thorpe in exchange for housing his remains.
Legacy and Burial Controversy
Thorpe was elected a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963, and in 1982 his name was restored to the Olympic record books as a co-winner of the 1912 track events. Proving he still loomed large in the American consciousness, he was voted the previous century's greatest athlete in a 2000 ABC Sports poll, and finished third in another ballot conducted by the Associated Press.
In 2010, Thorpe's son Jack filed a federal lawsuit to bring his father's remains back to Oklahoma. A trial court judge originally sided in the family's favor, but in 2014 a federal appeals court overturned that ruling. The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear another appeal, thus maintaining Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, as the athlete’s final resting spot.
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