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The 20th Century’s Greatest Athlete

By Mike Coppock
9/7/2018 • American History Magazine

While Jim Thorpe triumphed in the world of sports—from football to baseball to track—his fortunes off the field were laced with tragedy.

Former Chicago Bears owner George Halas remembered September 17, 1920, as hot. Very hot. He and the representatives of 11 professional football teams were trying to find a place to sit in the showroom of an auto dealership owned by Ralph Hays in Canton, Ohio. There were not enough chairs to go around, and many of the large men positioned themselves awkwardly on the running boards of new vehicles.

Hays, also owner of the Canton Bulldogs, called the meeting to order. Next to him was a very large man with a face deeply lined by years of outdoor living and adversity—a graduate of the school of hard knocks. Finely toned muscles rippled under the man’s copper complexion, like those of a large cat of prey. His only nonmenacing feature was his smile. Flashed now and then, it was surprisingly warm and inviting.

It was a very short meeting, a mere 10 minutes, but the outcome was the formation of the American Professional Football Association, today’s National Football League (NFL). To give the new league a boost they needed a name, something for the marquee and newspaper headlines. Unanimously, the warriors of the gridiron picked Jim Thorpe, the massive American Indian next to Hays, as the organization’s first president.

While Thorpe’s exact year of birth is disputed, he and his twin brother are believed to have been born in Oklahoma Territory in May 1888. Great-grandsons of Sac and Fox War Chief Black Hawk, Jim was robust and husky; Charles, frail and sickly, died at the age of 8. Like most Indian children, Jim was sent off to school, traveling to Kansas at age 10, only to return two years later when his mother died of blood poisoning. But Jim ran away after a beating from his father, Hiram, a big man who towered over 6 feet and weighed more than 230 pounds. He worked as a ranch hand in Texas for more than a year before returning home.

At 15, Jim Thorpe was sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania to learn the electrician’s trade. The hard frontier life had forged Thorpe’s body into something exceptional. In 1908 he caught the attention of Carlisle’s football coach, Pop Warner, as he bested the school’s track team in high jumps. Warner persuaded Thorpe to try out for football. The young man blew through Warner’s entire defensive line—twice. “His reactions were so fast that sometimes you couldn’t follow him with the naked eye,” the coach said years later of his star athlete. Besides football, Thorpe also took part in baseball, swimming, track and field and gymnastics.

By 1911 Thorpe had evolved into a high-stepping runner difficult to bring down. In one game he scored 17 points in 17 minutes. As a punter, he averaged nearly 70 yards per kick. Carlisle’s 11-1 season included a victory over top-ranked Harvard, and Thorpe was named an All-American. Still, Pop Warner was not happy with his star; Thorpe was undisciplined—he rarely practiced or worked out. But Thorpe was entering his prime. He made the 1912 U.S. Olympic team and his performance in Stockholm was the stuff of legend: He won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon, and set a 200-meter hurdling record that stood for 36 years. At the medal awards ceremony, Sweden’s King Gustav V exclaimed, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world!”

Thorpe followed his Olympic triumph with a stunning 12-1-1 football season in which he scored 25 touchdowns and received his second All-American nod. During a game against Army, he ran 95 yards for a touchdown. In the effort to stop Thorpe, Army halfback Dwight Eisenhower suffered a painful knee injury that ended his football career. “On the football field, there was no one like him in the world,” President Eisenhower recalled many years later.

But in January 1913, everything fell apart. A Worcester, Mass., newspaper broke the story that Thorpe had played professional baseball in the Eastern Carolina League in 1909 and 1910. Many college athletes played for the pros in their off seasons, but to avoid detection, most used fictitious names. Thorpe had not, and his “everyone does it” defense did not sit well with the sporting world. New York sportswriter Damon Runyon pointed out that several Southern newspapers had stated many times during their Olympic coverage that Thorpe had played pro ball and that the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) had ignored the reports. More important, Runyon emphasized, the 30-day protest period for challenging Thorpe’s amateur status for the Olympics had long passed. Still, the AAU approved the International Olympic Committee’s decision to strip Thorpe of his medals.

Thorpe then signed a contract with the New York Giants, baseball’s reigning National League champions, and their nononsense manager John McGraw. The two were poison for each other. Much to McGraw’s aggravation, Thorpe fell into carousing with his teammates. When McGraw used a racial slur, Thorpe chased him across the ballpark. It took the entire team to keep Thorpe from delivering a severe beating to his manager.

At the same time, Thorpe’s marriage was falling apart and his 3-year-old son James Jr. died of infantile paralysis. McGraw was yanking him like a yo-yo, sending him down to the minor leagues and then recalling him to New York only to send him down again. At the beginning of the 1919 season, Thorpe decided he was done with baseball. Standing at the plate and smiling at McGraw, Thorpe deliberately struck out. McGraw shredded his $5,000- a-year contract.

Thorpe, however, was not done with football. Even during his baseball career, he also played professional football in Ohio. In 1915 he was hired by the Canton Bulldogs at $500 a game. He was still with the Bulldogs as a player and manager when the American Professional Football Association made him the league’s first president in 1920, an honor that came without a salary. By the time Thorpe retired from the game in 1928, he had played on more than 14 professional teams, including his own Oorang Indians made up of mostly American Indian players.

Without sports, Thorpe drifted. He had seven children from two failed marriages to support, and jobs were scarce as the Great Depression deepened. While painting gas stations and trucks in the Los Angeles area, he sold the rights to his life story to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for $1,500. He was laying building foundations for $4 a day when he was hired by Universal Studios to play an Indian chief in a Western. MGM hired him to be in a baseball picture, and Warner-First National Studios employed him as an extra. By the late 1930s, Thorpe had appeared in Randolph Scott’s She, James Stewart’s You Can’t Take It With You, Spencer Tracy’s Northwest Passage and Errol Flynn’s The Green Light.

But there never was enough money. When it was made public that Thorpe could not afford to attend the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, Vice President Charles Curtis, himself part Osage Indian, had the star athlete sit with him in the presidential box during the games. When Thorpe’s name came up consistently among sportswriters as the premier all-American football player, he was hired for a cross-country speaking circuit. Dressed in a gaudy Indian costume that included a feather headdress, Thorpe gave his opinions of various athletes, his own record and American Indian culture to high school and college groups.

Despite his age and having already suffered a heart attack, Thorpe served for a time with the Merchant Marines during World War II. After the war, it was back to a series of unrelated jobs for a paycheck. In 1950, when the Associated Press voted Thorpe the “Greatest Athlete of the First Half of the Century,” film producer Jack Warner hired him as a technical adviser to work with star Burt Lancaster on the biographical film Jim Thorpe—All American. At the time, Thorpe was promoting a pro wrestler named Sunny War Cloud. When the film was released the following year, he was managing an American Indian song-and-dance tour called The Jim Thorpe Show. The tour ended when Thorpe suffered his second heart attack.

Thorpe’s fatal heart attack came in 1953 at his home in a Lomita, Calif., trailer court. Plans were launched for his burial in Shawnee, Okla., and a Jim Thorpe Commission lobbied for state funds to build a memorial. President Eisenhower, Thorpe’s former football rival, sent a personal endorsement to Oklahoma Governor Johnston Murray. But Murray vetoed a bill passed by the legislature allocating $25,000 for a memorial.

Then Thorpe’s widow, Patricia, heard about Mauch Chunk, a depressed coal mining town in northeastern Pennsylvania. The local newspaper editor, Joseph Boyle, had asked every household to donate a nickel a week to a fund that would be used to attract new businesses to the area. Patricia approached Boyle with a unique concept: If the citizens renamed their town for her husband, they could bury his body there.

Boyle and others saw it has an opportunity to unite Mauch Chunk and neighboring East Mauch Chunk into one community under a new name. Boyle also speculated that a new hospital named for Thorpe and the NFL’s Pro Football Hall of Fame would be built in the area. The name change was approved by popular vote, and Thorpe’s remains were sent to Pennsylvania. The hospital never materialized and the Hall of Fame went to Canton. The new community of Jim Thorpe raised $10,000 to build a memorial for its namesake who had never even visited the town. It was dedicated in 1957. For a time in 2001, Thorpe’s surviving children argued publicly about whether their father’s remains should be returned to Oklahoma, but nothing ever came of the plan.

When Thorpe’s second wife, Freeda, died in March 2007, she left a collection of 28 letters from Thorpe written between 1924 and 1926, the early years of their relationship. In his late 30s at the time, Thorpe recounts tough times on the road as a semi-pro baseball and football player rapidly nearing the end of his career. Sotheby’s auctioned the letters in June for $78,000. Their contents will be published in a new biography of Jim Thorpe by Kate Buford slated for 2008.

 

Originally published in the December 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here

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