Thorpe was primarily of Native American ancestry. He was raised as a Sac and Fox, and named Wa-Tho-Huk, roughly translated as "Bright Path". He struggled with racism throughout much of his life and his accomplishments were publicized with headlines describing him as a "Redskin" and "Indian athlete". He also played on several All-American Indian teams throughout his career, and barnstormed as a professional basketball player with a team composed entirely of Native Americans.
Thorpe was named the greatest athlete of the first half of the twentieth century by the Associated Press (AP) in 1950, and ranked third on the AP list of athletes of the century in 1999. After his professional sports career ended Thorpe lived in abject poverty. He worked several odd jobs, struggled with alcoholism, and lived out the last years of his life in failing health. In 1983, thirty years after his death, his medals were restored.
Information about Thorpe's birth, full name, and ethnic background vary widely. What is known is that he was born in Indian Territory, but no birth certificate has been found. Thorpe's birth is generally considered to have taken place on May 28, 1888 near the town of Prague, Oklahoma. Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe is the name on his christening (baptismal) certificate.
His parents were 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 a Native American mother. Thorpe was raised as a Sac and Fox, and his native name was Wa-Tho-Huk, translated as "A path lighted by a great flash of lightning" or more simply "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. Thorpe's mother was Catholic and raised the children in the faith, which Thorpe later observed throughout his adult life.
Together with his twin brother, Charlie, Thorpe went to school in Stroud, Oklahoma at the Sac and Fox Indian Agency School. Charlie died of pneumonia when they were nine years old. Charlie had helped Jim through school. Thorpe did not handle his brother's death very well, and ran away from school on several occasions. Hiram Thorpe then sent him to what is now known as Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, so that he would not run away again. When his mother died of childbirth complications two years later, Thorpe fell into a depression. After several arguments with his father, he ran away from home to work on a horse ranch.
In 1904, Thorpe returned to his father, and decided to join Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania where he was coached by Glenn Scobey "Pop" Warner, one of the most influential coaches in early American football history. Later that year, Hiram Thorpe died from gangrene poisoning after a hunting accident. 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.
Thorpe reportedly 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 ft 9 in jump while still wearing plain clothes. His 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. Reportedly, Pop Warner was hesitant to allow Thorpe, his star track and field athlete, to compete in a physical game such as football. Thorpe however, coerced Warner into allowing him to run some plays against the school's defense; Warner assumed he would be tackled easily and give up the idea of playing football. Thorpe "ran around past and through them not once, but twice." He then walked over to Warner and said "nobody is going to tackle Jim," while flipping him the ball.
He gained nationwide attention for the first time in 1911. As a running back, defensive back, placekicker, and punter for his school's football team; Thorpe scored all of his team's points—four field goals and a touchdown—in an 18-15 upset of Harvard. His team finished the season 11–1. The following year, he led Carlisle to the national collegiate championship, scoring 25 touchdowns and 198 points. Carlisle's 1912 record includes a 27-6 victory over Army. In that game, Thorpe scored a 92-yard touchdown that was annulled because of a penalty incurred by a teammate. Thorpe then scored a 97-yard touchdown on the next play.
During that game, future President Dwight Eisenhower injured his knee while trying to tackle Thorpe. Eisenhower recalled of Thorpe 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." Thorpe was given All-American honors in both 1911 and 1912.
Football was—and would remain—Thorpe's favorite sport, and he competed only sporadically in track and field. Nevertheless, track and field would become the sport in which Thorpe would gain the most fame.
For the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, 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 it had been competed in American track meets since the 1880s and a version had been featured on the program of the 1904 St. Louis Olympics. However, the events of the new decathlon were slightly different from the U.S. version. Both events seemed a fit for Thorpe, who was so versatile that he alone had formed Carlisle's team on several track meets. He could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat, the 220 in 21.8, the 440 in 51.8, the 880 in 1:57, the mile in 4:35, 120-yard high hurdles in 15 seconds, and the 220-yard low hurdles in 24 seconds. He could broad-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 the discus 136 feet. Thorpe entered the U.S. Olympic trials for both the pentathlon and the decathlon.
He easily won the awards, winning three events, and was named to the pentathlon team, which also included future International Olympic Committee (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 Olympic record 8,413 points would stand for nearly two decades.
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 placed only 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.
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 local favorite Hugo Wieslander was expected. Thorpe, however, also easily defeated Wieslander, finishing nearly 700 points ahead of him. He placed in the top four of all ten events. Overall, Thorpe won eight of the two competitions' 15 individual 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 Czar Nicholas II of Russia for the pentathlon. Legend has it that, when awarding Thorpe his prize, King Gustav 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 compete in the Olympics.
In late January 1913, U.S. newspapers published stories announcing that Thorpe had played professional baseball. It is not entirely certain which newspaper first published 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 professional baseball in the Eastern Carolina League for Rocky Mount, North Carolina in 1909 and 1910, receiving meager pay; reportedly as little as $2 a game and as much as $35 a week. College players, in fact, regularly spent summers playing professionally, but most, as opposed to Thorpe, used aliases.
Although the public did not seem to care much about Thorpe's past, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), and especially its secretary James E. Sullivan, took the case very seriously. Thorpe wrote a letter to Sullivan, in which he admitted playing 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. The AAU decided to retroactively withdraw Thorpe's amateur status and asked the IOC to do the same. Later that year, the IOC unanimously decided to strip Thorpe of his Olympic titles, medals and awards, and declared him a professional.
While Thorpe had played for money, his disqualification was not within the rules in place at the time. 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 professional clubs.
Declared a rare free agent in the era of the reserve clause Jim Thorpe had his pick of teams to play for. He turned down 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 unquestioned star of the world tour. Everywhere the teams went Thorpe brought them publicity and increased the tour's box office everywhere. Among the highlights were a meeting with the Pope, the last khedive of Egypt, and playing before 20,000 in London with King George V in attendance. While in Rome Thorpe was filmed wrestling with another baseball player on the floor of the Coliseum. Unfortunately every square inch of the film has been lost to time.
Baseball, football, and basketball
Thorpe signed with the New York Giants (baseball) in 1913 and played sporadically there as an outfielder for three seasons. After missing the 1916 season completely, he came back to play for the Giants in 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 in the 10th inning. 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 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. Back in 1915, Thorpe had signed with the Canton Bulldogs. They paid him $250 a game, a tremendous wage at the time. Before Thorpe's signing Canton was averaging 1,200 fans a game; 8,000 showed up for his debut against Massillon. The team won titles in 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. In 1920, the Bulldogs were one of the fourteen 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 La Rue, Ohio (Marion County, Ohio) Oorang Indians, an all Native American team. Although the team went 3–6 in 1922, and 1–10 in 1923, Thorpe played well and was selected to the Green Bay Press Gazette's first All-NFL team in 1923 (the Gazette's team would later be formalized by the NFL as the league's official All-NFL team in 1931).
Thorpe never played on an NFL championship team. He retired from pro football at the age of 41, having played 52 NFL games for six teams from 1920 to 1928.
Thorpe continued to be active in sports. By 1926 he was the primary draw for the "World Famous Indians" in LaRue which sponsored traveling football, baseball, and basketball teams. A ticket discovered in an old book recently brought to light his career in basketball. "Jim Thorpe and His World-Famous Indians" barnstormed for at least two years (1927–1928) in parts of New York, Pennsylvania, and Marion, Ohio. Although images of Thorpe in his WFI basketball uniform were printed on postcards and published in newspapers, this period of his life was not well-documented, and until 2005 most of Thorpe's biographers were unaware of his basketball career.
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 chronic alcoholic in his later years. Miller filed for divorce from Thorpe in 1925, claiming desertion.
Thorpe remarried in 1926 to Freeda Kirkpatrick (1906? – 2007), who was working for the manager of the baseball team he was playing on at the time. They had four sons: 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 kept a job for an extended period of time; during the Great Depression in particular, Thorpe held various jobs. 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, security guard, ditch digger, and briefly joined the United States Merchant Marine in 1945.
By the 1950s, Thorpe had no money left, and when he was hospitalized for lip cancer in 1950, he was admitted as a charity case. At a press conference announcing the procedure Thorpe's wife wept and plead for help saying "[w]e're broke...Jim has nothing but his name and his memories. He has spent money on his own people and has given it away. He has often been exploited."In early 1953, Thorpe suffered his third heart attack while eating dinner with his third wife, Patricia Askew, in his trailer home in Lomita, California. Artificial respiration briefly revived Thorpe and he was able to speak to those around him, but he lost consciousness shortly afterwards, and died on March 28, 1953.
Thorpe's accomplishments occurred during a period of racism and racial inequality in the United States. It has been often suggested that his medals were stripped due to his ethnicity, and although this has never been proven, public outcry at the time largely reflected this view. He also won his gold medals before Native Americans were recognized as citizens; American Indians were granted dual citizenship in 1924 and it was not until the passing of a 1954 Civil Rights Bill, one year after Thorpe's death, that Native Americans were granted the right to vote.
While at Carlisle in particular, Thorpe's ethnicity was openly used as a marketing tool. For many, he embodied the racial stereotype of Native Americans as fierce savage warriors. A photograph of Thorpe and the 1911 football team emphasized the purposeful racial split between the competing athletes. The inscription on the football reads, "1911, Indians 18, Harvard 15." Additionally, the school often categorized sporting competitions as conflicts pitting Indians against whites. Newspaper headings such as “Indians Scalp Army 27-6” or “Jim Thorpe on Rampage” characterized the Indian-ness of Carlisle's football team. His first appearance in The New York Times ran with the headline "Indian Thorpe in Olympiad.; Redskin from Carlisle Will Strive for Place on American Team"; his accomplishments were described in a similar racial context by other newspapers and sportswriters throughout his life.
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), despite the fact that Thorpe had never set foot in the city. Thorpe's monument, featuring the quote from Gustav V, can still be found there.
Thorpe also received great acclaim from the press. In 1950, an Associated Press poll of nearly 400 sportswriters and broadcasters voted Thorpe the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century. In 1999, the Associated Press placed him third on their list of athletes of the century list behind Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan, and ESPN ranked him seventh on their list of North American athletes of the century. In addition, on May 27, 1999 the United States House of Representatives passed resolution 198 designating Thorpe as "America's athlete of the century".
Thorpe was named the "greatest American football player" of the first half of the century by the Associated Press in 1950, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. He is often said to be the first player inducted, although the first person inducted was Chicago Bears founder, owner, coach and player George Halas. He is memorialized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame rotunda with the larger-than-life Jim Thorpe Statue, as well as being a member of the college football, U.S. Olympic, and national track and field halls of fame. In 1986 an award was established in his name by the Jim Thorpe Association. The Jim Thorpe Award is awarded annually to the best defensive back in college football.
Thorpe was memorialized in the 1951 film Jim Thorpe -- All-American starring Burt Lancaster and directed by Casablanca's Michael Curtiz. Although Thorpe was listed as a consultant in the credits, he did not earn any money for the movie, as he had already sold the film rights to MGM in 1931 (for $1,500). The movie — titled Man of Bronze when released in the UK — included archival footage of the 1912 and 1932 Olympics, as well as a banquet in which Thorpe was honored. Thorpe was seen in some long shots in the film.
Over the years, several attempts were made to reinstate Thorpe's Olympic titles. US Olympic officials, such as former teammate Avery Brundage, rebuked several attempts with Brundage once saying, "ignorance is no excuse." Most persistent was that of 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 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.