Obit of the Day (Historical): Jim Thorpe (1964)
On March 28, 1964 Jim Thorpe passed away of a heart attack. He was living in California, in a trailer park, a shadow of his former self. At the peak of his athletic ability (from 1907 - 1928…which is a heckuva peak), Thorpe played at the highest level in college football, Olympic track and field, baseball, and professional football. A Sac-Fox Indian born in Oklahoma, Thorpe made his name in Carlisle, PA while running track & field for the college-level Indian school (he once represented the school in a meet versus Lafayette - by himself) and then dominating on the gridiron under legendary coach, “Pop” Warner.
Thorpe played four interrupted seasons for the Carlisle Indian School in 1907, 1908, 1911 and 1912. (Thorpe was also old, starting at age 20 in 1907 and 25 in his last season but football was different then.) CIS finished 43-4-2 in his four seasons and Thorpe was named an All-American in his final two seasons.
In 1912, Thorpe headed to Stockholm to compete in the fifth Olympiad in the high jump, pentathalon (five events, but no longer a competition) and decathalon. When receiving his gold medal for the decathalon, King Gustav V said to Thorpe, “You sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” Thorpe, who had little experience dealing with royalty responded, “Thanks, king.” As most know, Thorpe was later stripped of his medals because he played professional baseball prior to 1912. Amateurism was taken seriously in 1912…and non-sensically, since professional baseball has nothing to do with amateur track and field. (Don’t worry, his medals and records were reinstated in 1982…unfortunately sixteen years after his death.) For Thorpe’s statistics (finishes, mainly) in Stockholm, click here.
Age the age of twenty-six, which is ancient for a rookie, Thorpe joined major league baseball as a New York Giant. Based on his age, and with John McGraw as manager, it seems likely that this was partially a publicity stunt for the Giants, and much needed paycheck for Thorpe. He played through the 1919 season, suiting up for the Boston Braves and Cincinnati Reds as well. Although his lifetime numbers are mediocre at best, Thorpe still lasted through a six season career.While also playing football in the fall. Take that Deion Sanders and Brian Jordan.
Thorpe began playing professional football in 1915, before the NFL was founded. He led the Canton Bulldogs to league championships in 1916, 1918, and 1919. He was also part of the Bulldogs when they joined the American Football Professional Association (AFPA) in 1920, the predecessor to the NFL. His prestige was still high enough that he served as president of the fledgling league. During the rest of his career in the NFL, he bounced around to several different teams, including the Oorang Indians, finishing his career in 1928 at the age of forty-one.
We’ve lost a lot of perspective on how great an athlete Thorpe was. In 1950 he was voted the greatest American athlete and greatest football player of the first half of the 20th century by the Associated Press. He was still high on the AP list at the end of the century, finishing third behind Babe Ruth (who hadn’t played an inning since the last poll but jumped Thorpe) and Michael Jordan (who tried, and failed, to succeed at two sports, let alone three). And don’t get OOTD started on how Thorpe finished seventh on ESPN’s Sportscentury list of the greatest athletes of the 20th century.
Thorpe is honored in four halls of fame: College Football (inaugural class, 1951), Pro Football Hall of Fame (inaugural class, 1963), Olympic Hall of Fame (inducted in 1983 - the year his name was cleared), and Track and Field Hall of Fame (1975).
Recently Thorpe’s name reappeared in the news. After his death in 1964, his third wife, Patricia Askew, angered that Oklahoma would not honor her husband made a financial deal with Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, PA to have the towns combine and change their name to Jim Thorpe, PA in exchange for serving as his final resting place. Thorpe’s son, Jack, is now suing to have is body returned to Native American land in Oklahoma believing that Askew acted against Thorpe’s wishes. Great piece in the NY Times on this issue from 2010. (Clicking the link doesn’t count against the paywall, btw.)
(Photograph is the the Library of Congress’ flickr page. Did you know the LOC had a flickr page?)