Jacobus Franciscus "Jim" Thorpe [Sac and Fox (Sauk): Wa-Tho-Huk, translated to Bright Path], (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.
Thorpe was the NFL's first star and played major league baseball, too. The breadth of his athletic achievements astonishes us today.
That he was also a descendant of Chief Black Hawk, born just as the U.S.' war of conquest over native peoples was concluding, made Thorpe a symbol, too, for fundamental cultural shifts. The fact that he was stripped of his gold medals for having played professional baseball before the Olympics, in contravention of the then-prevailing rules of "amateurism," adds poignancy to Thorpe's story. Thorpe's career as a "Hollywood Indian" adds yet another layer of perverse complexity to an already opaque tale.
Star athlete on the team
Carlisle Indian Industrial School Team
Thorpe began his athletic career at Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1907 where he played baseball, football, and was a member of the track team. He excelled in football and under the tutelage of Glen Scobey “Pop” Warner, Thorpe became a star on the Carlisle team. Before long the small school was winning against the likes of Harvard and Yale.
Carlisle Indian Industrial School Team
Cumberland County Historical Society
In the early 1900s, games between the Carlisle Indian School and the nation's top collegiate football teams usually ended in a Carlisle victory. Indeed, between 1894 and the school's closure in 1918, the Carlisle Indians compiled are better winning percentage (.647) than any college team. Guided by Coach Glenn Scobey "pop" Warner and star halfback Jim Thorpe (seated third from the right), Carlisle went 11-1 in 1911, and on November 11 scored one of the most stunning upsets in football history when they beat powerhouse Harvard 18-15.
In 1912, Thorpe went to Stockholm as a member of the American Olympic track team. There he smashed previously held records, winning gold medals for the pentathlon and decathlon. He came home with $50,000 in trophies, including a chalice in the shape of a Viking ship presented to him by the Czar of Russia. Sadly, within a month, the Olympic Committee stripped him of his hard won medals, as it was learned that he had been paid a small sum for playing summer baseball - Jim Thorpe, they decided, was no amateur athlete.
This hardly meant an end to his sports career - quite the opposite, in fact. In 1913, he signed a contract to play baseball with the New York Giants, and went on to also play for the Chicago Cardinals and Canton (Ohio) Bulldogs. In 1920, he was elected president of the American Professional Football Association, the forerunner of today’s NFL.
Clearly, this guy was a big deal.
NFL's first star
Jim Thorpe with Indiana punters
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. Miller filed for divorce from Thorpe in 1925, claiming desertion.
In 1926, Thorpe married Freeda V. Kirkpatrick (b.September 19, 1905, d. March 2, 2007). She was working for the manager of the baseball team for which he was playing at the time. They had four sons: Carl, William, Richard and John "Jack". William, Richard and Jack survived their mother, who divorced their father in 1941 after 15 years of marriage. Lastly, Thorpe married Patricia Askew, who was with him when he died.
Thorpe never played for an NFL championship team. He retired from professional football at age 41, having played 52 NFL games for six teams from 1920 to 1928.
After his athletic career, Thorpe struggled to provide for his family. He found it difficult to work a non-sports job and never held a job for an extended period of time. During the Great Depression in particular, Thorpe had various jobs, among others as an extra for several movies, usually playing an American Indian chief in Westerns. He also worked as a construction worker, a doorman (bouncer), a security guard, and a ditch digger, and he briefly joined the United States Merchant Marine in 1945. Thorpe was a chronic alcoholic during his later life.
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, "We'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."
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 (1927–28) 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.