Monday, January 3, 2011

Jim Thorpe: The All-American Athlete


You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world. I would consider it an honor to shake your hand.
King Gustav V at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm

I have always liked sport and only played or run races for the fun of the thing. 
Jim Thorpe 

Jim was very proud of the great things he'd done. A very proud man....Very late one night Jim came in and woke me up. ... He was crying, and tears were rolling down his cheeks. `You know, Chief,' he said, `the King of Sweden gave me those trophies, he gave them to me. But they took them away from me. They're mine, Chief; I won them fair and square.' It broke his heart and he never really recovered."
Chief Meyers, Thorpe's roommate and catcher for the New York Giants 

Jim Thorpe: Playing football for Carlisle Indian Industrial School, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, about 1909. Although half Caucasian, Thorpe was raised as a Native American. At the school, he was coached by Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, one of the most influential coaches of early American football history.
Source: Wikipedia  

Jim Thorpe might well have been the greatest athlete of the 20th century. But you rarely hear his name anymore. Time goes by and the memories dim. But his accomplishments, in many sports and in the 1912 Summer Olympics bear remembering, if only to give some idea of how great an athlete Jim Thorpe was in the annals of sport.

Thorpe stood six-foot-one and weighed about two hundred pounds, which made him ideal for many sports. His list of accomplishments are many and varied, including winning the gold medals in both the decathlon and pentathlon during the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden.

Professionally, Thorpe played football for the Canton Bulldogs, Tampa Cardinals and the Chicago Cardinals, among others; and baseball for the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Boston Braves. His career batting average was .252 and he hit 7 home runs.

Thorpe said he preferred football of all the sports he played. He was an excellent halfback, and was named All American twice, in 1911 and 1912. He was also named The Legend on the all-time National Football League team.

Given such accomplishments, it is not surprising  that in 1950 an Associated Press poll of almost 400 sportswriters and broadcasters voted Thorpe as the most outstanding athlete of the first half of the 20th Century. And between 1996 and 2001, he was continuously awarded ABC's Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Century award. 

That's a lot of accolades for one man. 

Jim Thorpe at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, where he won gold medals in both the decathlon and pentathlon
Source: Wikipedia
James Francis Thorpe was born in Indian Territory on May 28, 1888, in a one-room cabin near Prague, Oklahoma. Jim had a twin brother, Charlie, who died at the age of nine of pneumonia. His ancestry was mixed, says Wikipedia:
His father, Hiram Thorpe, had an Irish Sac and Fox Indian mother. His mother, Charlotte Vieux, had a French father and a Potawatomi mother, a descendant of Chief Louis Vieux.
Thorpe was raised as a Sac and Fox, and his native name was Wa-Tho-Huk, translated as "path lighted by 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 light brightening the path to the cabin where he was born.
Thorpe attended the Sac and Fox Indian Agency School in Stroud, Oklahoma, with his twin brother Charlie until Charlie's untimely death when he was nine. In 1904, when he was sixteen, Thorpe enrolled at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. At Carlisle, Thorpe's natural athletic abilities gained the attention of Glenn Scobey "Pop" Warner, one of the most influential coaches of early American football history.

No doubt, he was a natural athlete, recounts the World Encyclopedia of Biography:
Thorpe had matured to almost six feet in height and 185 pounds and led Carlisle to outstanding football seasons in 1911 and 1912. In 1911, against Harvard University's undefeated team led by the renowned coach Percy Houghton, Thorpe kicked four field goals—two over 40 yards—and the game ended in a stunning 18-15 victory.
Carlisle lost only two games in 1911 and 1912, against Penn State and Syracuse University, but conquered such teams as the U.S. Army, Georgetown University, Harvard, and the University of Pittsburgh.
In his last year he scored twenty-five touchdowns and 198 points, and for the second year in a row he was named All-American by football pioneer Walter Camp (1859–1925).
Then there was the Summer Olympics of 1912. He earned a place on the American team after doing well at the trials at Celtic Park in New York. He didn't disappoint. After winning two gold medals at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Thorpe came home to a ticker-tape parade on Broadway in New York City and a meeting with President William Howard Taft. Thorpe would later say that the Olympic accomplishment was one of the proudest moments of his life. 

But things would unravel, when a story was published in an American newspaper in January 1913 that Thorpe had broken strict rules of amateurism, when he was paid a paltry sum to play baseball. As Wikipedia puts it: "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 ($47 in current dollar terms) a game and as much as $35 ($822 in current dollar terms) a week."

This was a common practice of college athletes, but they often did so by using aliases. Thorpe did not, admitted that he was paid, and suffered the consequences. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and the American Olympic Committee declared Thorpe a professional. Thorpe had to return the medals won at the Olympics, and his name was erased from the record books. 

This was a miscarriage of fair play, the spirit of the Olympic Games and the rules of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The rules clearly stated that any objection had to be filed within 30 days after the medals were awarded. In Thorpe's case, the complaint was made in 1913—six months after the games ended. Some people speculate that racism might have played a part in the IOC's decision. But who can be sure?
Even so, there was little that Thorpe could do, other than continue playing sports. Given that he was deemed a professional Thorpe played professional sports, both baseball and football. He played baseball until 1922, and football (52 NFL games for six teams from 1920 to 1928), retiring when he was 41.

Thorpe was married three times, and had eight children. His most recent wife, Patricia Askew, was with him when he died. Life after professional sports was a difficult adjustment for Thorpe, as it is with many athletes. During the Great Depression, Thorpe held several jobs, including a construction worker, doorman and an extra in the movies, typically playing an American Indian chief. But money was continually a problem. By the 1950s, Thorpe had no money left.

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 Patricia wept and pleaded 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."

Such speaks volumes of the man. Thorpe died of heart failure in Lomita, California, on March 28, 1953. He was 64. Thorpe is buried in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, a town created after his death. But family members wanted Thorpe's remains buried on native soil, says "In June 2010, Thorpe's son, Jack, filed a federal lawsuit against the borough of Jim Thorpe, seeking to have his father's remains returned to his homeland and re-interred near other family members in Oklahoma."

After his death, in 1963, Thorpe became one of the first inductees in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. But there was the important matter of restoring his Olympic accomplishments, for which he was most proud. It happened, but not without resistance. It took considerable lobbying and efforts, including that of the U.S. Congress, to  persuade the International Olympic Committe to rescind its original measure. (A letter that U.S. President Gerald Ford had written earlier fell on deaf ears.)

Almost twenty years after his death, Jim Thorpe's name in the record books was re-instated. In a ceremony on January 18, 1983, the IOC presented two of Thorpe's children, Gale and Bill, with commemorative medals. (Thorpe's original medals were held by museums but were stolen and were never recovered.)

Such is fair and just, although an act greatly delayed. The final word, however, goes to one of the greatest sports columnists, Red Smith, who wrote in the New York Herald Tribune, on March 29, 1953, the day after Thorpe's death: 
He (Jim Thorpe) was the greatest athlete of his time, maybe the greatest of any time in any land and he needed no gilded geegaws [a showy trinket] to prove it. The proof is in the records and the memories of the men who knew him and watched him and played with him - especially those who tried to play football against him.

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