Jim Thorpe: Greatest American Athlete of the 20th Century

Looking at the record books, Jim Thorpe blows away most if not all modern day athletes in the breadth and depth of his achievements. The greatest athlete of the 20th century set the standard for modern-day athletes and Olympians.

Jim Thorpe: Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century. (Detail of public domain photo appearing in Wikipedia entry on Jim Thorpe)

FORT WORTH, Texas, August 27, 2016 — Team USA made Olympic history in Rio de Janeiro this year with a record take of 121 medals, 46 of them gold. Such is the way of American Olympians. Predecessors Mark Spitz, Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali), Bob Mathias, Johnny Weissmuller, Mia Hamm, Greg Louganis, Wilma Rudolph and Mary Lou Retton set the standard at which Team USA aimed and more than met.

But another American athlete set the standard for them: Jim Thorpe. In 1950 the Associated Press named him the greatest football player and greatest male athlete of the first half of the century, out-sporting the likes of Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Jesse Owens. Fifty years later, the Associated Press named him the third top athlete of the previous century only losing two slots in fifty years. An ABC sport poll named him the greatest athlete of the 20th Century in 2000 as well.

This Native American was born James Francis Thorpe on May 28, 1888,* close to what is now the town of Prague, Oklahoma. His Indian name was Wa-Tho-Huk, meaning Bright Path. His father, Hiram Thorpe, was descended from the last great Sauk and Fox Chief Black Hawk, a noted warrior and athlete. His mother, Mary James was of the Pottawatomie tribe. Both parents had some European heritage as well.

Native American Jim Thorpe - portrait; Carlisle football team; throwing discus in 1912 Olympiad in Stockholm, Sweden
Native American Jim Thorpe – portrait; Carlisle football team; throwing discus in 1912 Olympiad in Stockholm, Sweden. (Photos courtesy of the California Indian Education web site, www.calie.org)

Young Thorpe was a twin, and was understandably close with with his twin brother Charlie. Together they hunted, fished, wrestled and rode horses. The two went to school together until Charlie died unexpectedly at the age of nine. Jim then lost interest in the things he previously enjoyed and frequently ran away from school.

At this point Hiram sent Jim to the Haskell Indian School (now Haskell Indian Nations University) in Lawrence, Kansas. It was there he encountered the game of football for the first time. He liked what he saw so much that he organized football games with the other students. In 1904, he moved East to attend the Carlisle Industrial Indian School in Pennsylvania. This is where he began his athletic career playing football and running track.

He learned and developed quickly, and was named a third-team All American in 1908. In the following two years, he won first-team honors. Thorpe’s coach in Pennsylvania was the iconic Glenn “Pop” Warner who watched the young sensation grow to athletic perfection. Said Warner,

“Thorpe rarely gave more than 50 or 60 percent of himself. But when he went all out well, it was humanly impossible for anyone to be better.”

Thorpe was walking past the track one day while the track team was at practice. None of the students could clear the high bar set at a height of 5’9.” Clad in his work clothes, Thorpe decided to give it a try. He launched himself over a 5’9″ high bar to break the school record—before the rules were revised to allow a running start before the athlete made his jump.

Thorpe was soon the star of the track team. Because of his athletic prowess, according to Biography.com, he also excelled in baseball, hockey, lacrosse and even ballroom dancing, where he won the 1912 Intercollegiate Ballroom Dancing Championship

The New York Times tells a story that best describes Jim’s career as a Carlisle track star,

“In his track days Carlisle was booked to meet the Lafayette team at Easton. A welcoming committee was puzzled when only two Indians got off the train.

“‘Where’s your team?’ they asked.

“‘This is the team,’ replied Thorpe.

“‘Only two of you?’

“‘Only one,’ Jim said with a smile. ‘This fellow’s the manager.’”

Of that tournament, ESPN notes

“….the 5-foot-9 1/2-inch, 144-pound Thorpe almost single-handedly overcame the entire Lafayette track team at a meet in Easton, Pa., winning six events.”

The 1912 Olympics in Stockholm were coming up fast. Pop Warner knew Jim was a natural for the Decathlon and told him so. And he was right. About.com vividly describes Thorpe’s performances in both the Decathlon and Pentathlon,

“At the Olympics, Thorpe’s performance surpassed all expectations. He dominated in both the pentathlon and decathlon, winning gold medals in both events. (He remains the only athlete in history to have done so.) His record-breaking scores handily beat all of his rivals and would remain unbroken for three decades…”

Jim Thorpe: All American - and one of the gold medals he won in the 1912 Olympic Games
Jim Thorpe: All American – and one of the gold medals he won in the 1912 Olympic Games. (Photo courtesy of the California Indian Education web site, www.calie.org)

In the decathlon he won the high jump, the 110-meter hurdles and the 1,500 meters despite competing in a pair of mismatched shoes.

Finishing the three-day event he earned a total of 8,412.95 points (of a possible 10,000.) The score bested the runner-up by nearly 700 points.

Sweden’s King Gustaf V awarded Jim his medals in both the Pentathlon and Decathlon. His Majesty grabbed Jim’s hand and pronounced him to be the greatest athlete in the world. To that Jim replied, “Thanks King.”

Thorpe came home to America a hero and was honored by a ticker-tape parade in New York City. That fall he continued playing football for Warner and Carlisle. Their Thanksgiving Day game was complicated by a snowstorm. But even so, Jim ran for three touchdowns and kicked two field goals for his team in their 32-0 win over Brown University. Once again he earned the title of All-American. But his glory days didn’t last long enough.

In January 1913, Worcester (MA) Telegram reporter Roy Johnson discovered that Thorpe had played semi-professional baseball during the summers of 1909 and 1910. Room and board was his pay—not big money. But at that time, the Olympic Games were held strictly for amateurs. Athletes could not earn money for any sport, not just the one that was their specialty.

Jim wasn’t aware of this rule and noted in a letter to the Amateur Athletic Union,

“I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know all about such things. I was not very wise in the ways of the world and did not realize this was wrong.”

The AAU and Olympic Committee subsequently stripped Jim of his amateur status and his medals and struck his historic performance from the record books. After that heartbreaking setback, Thorpe decided to turn professional, withdrawing from Carlisle and signing a contract to play major league baseball.

Jim married his college sweetheart, Iva Miller, in October 1913. Their son, James Jr. was born in 1915. From 1913-1919 he played as an outfielder with the Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Boston Braves.

Football was not out of the picture for him, however. ESPN says that in 1915, Thorpe played for the Canton (Ohio) Bulldogs. Earning $250 per contest, he decided to stay on as the biggest drawing card for a team that would become world champions in 1916, 1917 and 1919. Thorpe proved to be a master at running, passing, tackling, and even kicking, with his punts averaging an incredible 60 yards. From then on his career highlights included:

  • 1920: First president of the American Professional Football Association
  • 1921: Cleveland Indians (football team)
  • 1922-1923: Oorang Indians (team comprised exclusively of Native Americans)
  • 1923-1926: Played for the Rock Island, New York Giants and returned to Canton
  • 1928: Chicago Cardinals

By this time, Thorpe was in his forties and past his prime. After he and Iva had divorced in 1923, he married Freeda Kirkpatrick in 1925. Unfortunately, he had not made plans for life after professional sports, and that eventually took its toll. Alcoholism and his subsequent inability to adjust to employment outside sports reduced Thorpe to virtual poverty, even though he undertook odd jobs to support his seven children from two marriages. His drinking habit eventually led to his second divorce in 1941.

In 1930, Thorpe moved to California. When Los Angeles hosted the Olympics in 1932, he didn’t even have enough money to purchase a ticket. When the press found out and reported his circumstances, Vice President Charles Curtis, part American Indian himself, invited Thorpe to sit with him. During the games the announcer indicated to the crowd that Thorpe was there, and they honored him with a standing ovation.

After that, there was a renewed public interest in in the life and career of Jim Thorpe. Athletic clubs, civic groups, schools and other organizations sent him offers for personal appearances and speeches. Moving back into the public sphere, he notably enjoyed talking with young people. From 1931 to 1950, he also found occasional work in motion pictures playing bit parts, primarily Indian chiefs.

Jim returned to Oklahoma in 1937 to promote the rights of Native Americans, championing the Wheeler Bill and working to get it passed in Congress. At that time, the Federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) oversaw all aspects of life on Indian reservations, and the Wheeler Bill, If passed, would have abolished the bureau, allowing Indians control their own lives on the reservations. While the bill ultimately failed to pass, Thorpe still continued to concern himself with Indian affairs.

In 1945, not long after his third marriage to Patricia Askew, 57 year-old Jim Thorpe joined the U.S. Merchant Marine, serving on a ship that carried much-needed ammunition to the Allied forces. When he returned home, he found work with the Chicago Park District’s recreation department encouraging good health and teaching track skills to young people.

In 1949, the Warner Brothers studios began filming a biopic of Jim Thorpe starring Burt Lancaster in the lead role. Jim served as a technical advisor, but didn’t see a dime of the earnings from the successful film. “Jim Thorpe: All American” hit the theaters in 1951, and was nominated to the American Film Institute’s roster of America’s most inspiring movies in 2006.

Jim Thorpe died in 1953 as the result of a heart attack — but not before the Associated Press (AP) named him the greatest football player of the first half of the twentieth century and the greatest male athlete in that century’s first fifty years. Subsequently, in 1999, AP ranked him third on its list of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. In the following year, an ABC Sports poll proclaimed Jim Thorpe as the greatest athlete of the 20th Century.

Honored with two United States postage stamps
Thorpe was honored with two United States postage stamps. (Photo courtesy of the California Indian Education web site, www.calie.org)

In 1973 the Amateur Athletic Union restored Thorpe’s amateur status, and in 1983 the Olympic Committee restored his place in Olympic history, awarding replacement gold medals to Jim’s surviving children.

Looking at the record books, Jim Thorpe blows away most if not all modern day athletes in the breadth and depth of his achievements. Who else has excelled in so many different sports, including running, jumping, football, lacrosse, boxing, basketball, hockey, archery, marksmanship, canoeing, handball, swimming, skating, track and field and even ballroom dancing? No one comes to mind.


Posthumous honors:

  • The Jim Thorpe Award: presented annually by The Jim Thorpe Association to the best defensive back in college football since 1986.
  • Inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in 1986.
  • Inducted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame in 1972 (inaugural class.)
  • Inducted into the San Pedro [California] Sportswalk to the Waterfront.


*Note: Thorpe’s baptismal certificate lists his birth date as May 22, 1887, but most sources list it as May 28, 1888.


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