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Jim Thorpe
Jim Thorpe
1888-1953


Jim Thorpe, the greatest athlete of the century, has been described as being one of the most naturally gifted althletes to have ever lived. In his article "The Natural", Nicholas Lemann tells the story of how Thorpe first got into track and field while attending the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. At the school the students were trained in manual trades and then sent out in the summers to live with and work for farmers in the surrounding area. Thorpe had been in the program for apprentice tailors.

"...in the spring of 1907, Thorpe, dressed in overalls and work boots, is wandering across the Carlisle campus with a group of friends from the tailors program. They pass the field where the varsity track team is practicing the high jump. Thorpe shyly asks if he can have a try at clearing the bar, which is set at five foot nine. The guys on the track team snickering, say, Sure kid, try it. Whiz, over he goes. The next moring, Thorpe is summoned to the office of Pop Warner, Carlisle's human-bulldog track and football coach. "Boy you've just broken the school record!" Warner exclaims....The following summer Thorpe sails for the Olympics in Stockholm. Always reluctant to practice and so naturally gifted that he doesn't have to, he spends the voyage napping in a hammock rather than working out with the team."

In the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm Jim won both the pentathlon and the decathlon.

Reporting for the New York Herald Tribune in 1953, Red Smith wrote that in the pentathlon, Jim had won the broad jump, the 200-meter hurdles, the discus throw, 1,500 meter run and was third in the javelin. In the decathlon he was first in the high hurdles, the shotput, the high jump and the 1,500. He had also been third in the 100 meters, the discus, the pole vault and the broad jump. He also placed fourth in the 400 meters and the javelin.

Leeman wrote that at the closing ceremony, King Gustav V of Sweden said to Thorpe, "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world!" Thorpe replied, "Thanks, King."

He had come back from Stockholm with a reportedly $50,000 worth of trophies. A month after his return the Amateur Athletic Union filed charges of professionalism against him because he had played summer baseball with the Rocky Mount Club in the Eastern Carolina Leagues. Even though it had been for a small amount of money he had been stripped of his medals and his trophies sent back to Stockholm. His medals were returned posthumously on October 13, 1982.

Leeman wrote that Thorpe had only made a few meager dollars playing in the minors and that plenty of other amateur athletes had done the same thing but had escaped punishment because they had used assumed names. "For being guileless, for being an Indian who got above his station. Thorpe was singled out for humiliation. It wasn't until seven decades later--three decades after his death---that the recalcitrant International Olympic Committtee gave in and returned his medals."

Part of the reason that it took so long for Thorpe's medals to be restored was that a man who lost to Thorpe in both the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics, Avery Brundage went on to become the head of the United States Olympic Committee and then the International Olympic Committee for decades. Leeman reported that from these positions Brundage stood firmly in the way of Thorpe's medals being returned. After Brundage's death the AAU and USOC restored Thrope's amateur status and put him back in the offical records.

Jim Thorpe is the only American athlete to have excelled at the amateur level and at the professional level in 3 major sports--track and field, football, and baseball. He has been enshrined in the Helms Professional Football Hall of Fame and the Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

In May 1999, Congressman Paul E. Kanjorski (PA-11) and Congressman Wes Watkins of Oklahoma, a senior Republican representing Thorpe's birthplace, introduced a bipartisan resolution in the United State House of Representatives to name Jim Thorpe "America's Athlete of the Century".

In the resolution it was reported that at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, he was named All American Half-Back in 1911 and 1912.

Jim Thorpe founded professional football, played professional football and was the first elected president of the American Football Association (now the National Football League).

The Congressional Record added that in 1913, Thorpe left amateur athletics and signed a $5,000 contract to play baseball with the New York Giants. He was an outfielder with the Giants, and later with the Cincinnati Reds and Boston Braves, his best season was his last one, when he batted .327 in 60 games for Boston.

When Gerald Eskenazi wrote about the restoration of Thorpe's medal in 1982 for the New York Times he said, "Thorpe's Olympic feats and his subsequent loss of the medals gave a poignant aspect to the larger-than-life heroics that surrounded the legendary American Indian athlete's career. Not only were the medals taken away, but his triumphs were expunged from the official Olympic record books as well.

But he is in the halls of fame of three sports- college football, pro footballs and track and field- and was a major league baseball player. He lived to see the actor Burt Lancaster portray his life in a movie. And a town in Pennsylvania was renamed for Thorpe after his death.

When he entered the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, he was probably this country's most famous college football player, enrolled at the Carlisle School, an Indian trade school in Pennsylvania. By the end of a week's Olympic activity, he had become the world's most acclaimed athlete as well."

Smith wrote that "He was the greatest athlete of his time, maybe the greatest of any time in any land and he needed no gilded geegaws 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...."

In a 1950 poll by the Associated Press, Jim Thorpe was voted the greatest athlete of the half century.

On Feb. 4, 2000 the Yakama Nation Review reported that Jim Thorpe had been voted Athlete of the Century by ABC's Wide World of Sports.

Jim Thorpe of the Thunder Clan of the Sac and Fox Tribe, was born May 22, 1887, on the Sac and Fox Indian Reservation, Prague, Oklahoma.

In writing for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Whit Canning reported that Thorpe was the son of Hiram and Charlotte Thorpe, his Indian - name Wa-Tho-Huk - meant "Bright Path." He wrote that Thorpe had been a twin but that his brother Charlie died of pneumonia when Thorpe was 9. He also lost both of his parents when he was a teenager.

After he played professional ball he "knocked around, becoming an alcoholic, and drifting out of the public eye until it was discovered in the late 1940s that he was destitute. Groups throughout the country then raised thousands of dollars for him. Jim Thorpe died of a heart attack in 1953, but his memory, and his legend, live on," Ira Berkow wrote in the introduction to the New York Times Book of Sports Legends.

Book Sources
SportsCentury
edited by Michael MacCambridge, 1999
Hyperion, New York

New York Times Book of Sports Legends
edited by Joseph J. Vecchione.
Introduction by Ira Berkow 1991
New York Times Company

The Best American Sports Writing of the Century
David Halberstam, Editor
Glenn Stout, Series Editor 1999
Houghton Mifflin Company





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