Published on August 10, 2010 by Christian
Jacobus Franciscus “Jim” Thorpe (May 28, 1888 – March 28, 1953) was an American athlete of mixed ancestry (mixed Caucasian and American Indian). Considered one of the most versatile athletes of modern sports, he won Olympic gold medals for the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon, played American football (collegiate and professional), and also played professional baseball and basketball. He lost his Olympic titles after it was found he was paid for playing two seasons of semi-professional baseball before competing in the Olympics, thus violating the amateurism rules.
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Of Native American and European American ancestry, Thorpe grew up in the Sac and Fox nation in Oklahoma. He played as part of several All-American Indian teams throughout his career, and “barnstormed” (played mainly in small towns) as a professional basketball player with a team composed entirely of American Indians.
His professional sports career ended during the Great Depression; and Thorpe struggled to earn a living after that. He worked several odd jobs, struggled with alcoholism, and lived his last years in failing health and poverty. During 1983, thirty years after his death, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recredited his former Olympic medals to him.
A free agent
Declared a rare free agent during the era of the reserve clause, Jim Thorpe had a choice of baseball teams for which to play. He refused a starting position with the Saint Louis Browns to be a reserve with the New York Giants. One of the immediate benefits of joining the team came that October, when the Giants joined the Chicago White Sox for a world tour. Barnstorming across the United States and then around the world, Thorpe was the celebrity of the world tour. Everywhere the teams went, Thorpe increased their publicity and increased the tour’s attendance receipts. He met with the Pope and the last khedive of Egypt, and played before 20,000 people in London including King George V. While in Rome, Thorpe was filmed wrestling with another baseball player on the floor of the Coliseum. No copy of that film is known to exist.
Baseball, football, and basketball
Thorpe contracted with the New York Giants baseball club during 1913 and played sporadically with them as an outfielder for three seasons. After playing in the minor leagues with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1916, he returned to the Giants during 1917 but was sold to the Cincinnati Reds early in the season. In the “double no-hitter” between Fred Toney of the Reds and Hippo Vaughn of the Chicago Cubs, Thorpe drove in the winning run during the 10th inning. Late in the season, he was sold back to the Giants. Again, he played sporadically for the Giants during 1918 and was traded to the Boston Braves on May 21, 1919, for Pat Ragan. In his career, he amassed 91 runs scored, 82 runs batted in and a .252 batting average over 289 games. He continued to play baseball with teams in the minor leagues until 1922.
But Thorpe had not abandoned football either. He first played professional football during 1913, as a member of the Indiana-based Pine Village Pros, a team that had a several-season winning series against local teams during the 1910s. By 1915, Thorpe had contracted with the Canton Bulldogs They paid him $250 ($5,359 in current dollar terms) a game, a tremendous wage at the time. Before Thorpe’s contract, Canton was averaging 1,200 fans a game; 8,000 showed up for his debut against Massillon. The team won titles during 1916, 1917, and 1919. Thorpe reportedly ended the 1919 championship game by kicking a wind-assisted 95-yard punt from his team’s own 5-yard line, effectively putting the game out of reach. During 1920, the Bulldogs were one of 14 teams to form the American Professional Football Association (APFA), which would become the National Football League (NFL) two years later. Thorpe was nominally the APFA’s first president; however, he spent most of the year playing for Canton and a year later was replaced by Joseph Carr. He continued to play for Canton, coaching the team as well. Between 1921 and 1923, Thorpe played for the LaRue, Ohio, (Marion County, Ohio) Oorang Indians, an all-Native American team. Although the team record was 3â€“6 during 1922, and 1â€“10 during 1923, Thorpe played well and was selected for the Green Bay Press-Gazette’s first All-NFL team during 1923 (the Press-Gazette’s team would later be formalized by the NFL as the league’s official All-NFL team during 1931).
Thorpe never played for an NFL championship team. He retired from professional football at the age of 41 years, having played 52 NFL games for six teams from 1920 to 1928.
World Famous Indians letterhead
Until 2005, most of Thorpe’s biographers were unaware of his basketball career. A ticket discovered in an old book that year revealed his career in basketball. By 1926, he was the main feature of the “World Famous Indians” of LaRue, which sponsored traveling football, baseball, and basketball teams. “Jim Thorpe and His World-Famous Indians” barnstormed for at least two years (1927â€“28) in parts of New York, Pennsylvania, and Marion, Ohio. Although pictures of Thorpe in his WFI basketball uniform were printed on postcards and published in newspapers, this period of his life was not well documented.