In 1910, a 24-year-old Native American played minor league baseball for the Rocky Mount team in the Eastern Carolina League. He was making money between sessions at Carlisle Indian Industrial School. It was something that college athletes did back then – usually under fictitious names. Jim Thorpe used his own name.
Three years later, John McGraw, manager and co-owner of the National League champion New York Giants, signed Thorpe to a big league contract – reportedly at $6,000 the most ever paid to a “rookie”. McGraw felt that people would pay just to see Thorpe batting practice.
How did Jim Thorpe become such a draw?
Well, first of all, under the guidance of his coach, Glenn “Pop” Warner, in Carlisle, he became, it seemed, a one-man athletics team. He excelled in the 100 yard sprint, 120 yard high hurdles, 220 yard low hurdles, 440 and 880 yard runs, long jump, high jump, pole vault, throw weight and disc. On the football field, as a running back, defensive back, dropkicker and punter, he led the Carlisle Indians to national prominence in 1911 and 1912 to the NCAA National Championship, and, between those seasons of football, he won gold medals at the 1912 Olympics in the pentathlon and decathlon.
Jim Thorpe was perhaps the greatest natural athlete of his generation, if not several generations. But the photographs indicate a chiseled, hard-earned frame that many of his athletic contemporaries lacked. Ted Williams may have been the greatest natural hitter of his generation, or generations. “Yes, and I have blisters on my hands to prove it,” said the man who wrote the book on “The Science of Typing.”
Turns out Jim Thorpe couldn’t hit a big league curveball. (Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of his generation, couldn’t hit a curveball at the AA level.) By the time he took the field with the Giants, he was already embroiled in the controversy that deprived him of his Olympic gold medals for playing professional baseball in 1910. The Olympics were for amateur athletes only. Pop Warner reportedly removed the medals from Thorpe’s house.
What ultimately happened to the medals is lost to history. The runners-up in the pentathlon and decathlon were officially declared the winners by the International Olympic Committee. The second in the pentathlon refused to accept the gold medal. The second in the decathlon was ambivalent, and that medal was stolen from a museum decades later.
What happened to the shoes Thorpe wore at the Olympics is also lost to history. Thorpe has dusted off competition in the pentathlon. A week later, he won the opening event of the decathlon, the 110 meters. When Thorpe arrived at the Olympic site the next day, his shoes were missing from his bag. Pop Warner scrambled to get an extra shoe from a teammate and found another in a trash can.
The shoes appear in a photograph of Thorpe in his athletic attire at the Games. The shoes have mismatched laces. He wears mismatched socks. Biographer Robert Wheeler researched the story behind the shoes. Wheeler learned that one shoe was pinching Thorpe’s right foot and the other was too big, so he wore an extra sock on his left foot. That day, Thorpe won the high jump and the 110 meter hurdles.
For the remaining days of competition, Thorpe continued to wear these shoes. On the final day, he placed third in the pole vault, fourth in the javelin and first in the 1,500 meters. Overall, he edged second by 688 points. No decathlete would exceed Thorpe’s points total for four more Olympics. No Olympic decathlete will improve his time in the 1500 meters until 1972.
Thorpe played several seasons in Major League Baseball. After that he served as the first president of the organization that would become the National Football League – at the same time he played in the league playing for the Canton Bulldogs. When the Football Hall of Fame opened in 1963, his name was among the first inductees.
He retired from football in 1928 aged 42 – just in time for the Great Depression. He had a modest home in Southern California. He occasionally had roles or appeared as an extra in films. He sometimes made ends meet as a doorman or as a construction worker. He became an alcoholic. He has been married three times. He had eight children. He served in the Merchant Navy at the end of World War II. He lived long enough to see Burt Lancaster play him in the movies. He died in 1953. His remains were interred, controversially, in a town in Pennsylvania that was renamed in his memory.
In 1983, the International Olympic Committee – following a public relations campaign led by Robert Wheeler and his wife Florence Ridion, and under pressure from members of the American Congress – launched new medals and declared Jim Thorpe winner of the 1912 Olympics. pentathlon and decathlon. The medals were given to members of the Thorpe family. But the IOC, in its records, technically only made Thorpe the co-winner of those events. The “asterisk” continued to irritate those who cared about the issue.
This year, on the day that coincided with the 110th anniversary of his victory in the decathlon, the IOC scrapped qualification and declared Jim Thorpe the sole winner of the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon. The IOC apparently bestowed the honor of l announcement to Bright Path Strong, an organization that had renewed a petition to the IOC to right this wrong. “Bright Path” is the English translation of Jim Thorpe’s Aboriginal name.