In the 52 years since Jim Thorpe’s
death, he’s been celebrated as an Olympic champion and Pro Football Hall of Famer. In fact, a statue in his likeness
stands just inside the entrance of the shrine in Canton, OH. What is often forgotten
however is that the man who was named the Greatest Athlete of the first half of the 20th Century, also spent six seasons in
Major League Baseball.
James Francis Thorpe was born
on May 28, 1888 in Sac-and-Fox Indian Territory in what would become the state of Oklahoma 19 years later. He was also given the Native American name Wa-Tho-Huk, which means “Bright Path.”
While in school, the young
Jim Thorpe excelled in every athletic endeavor he tried. His first experience
with professional baseball came in the summers of 1909 and 1910, in which he played minor league baseball in the Eastern Carolina
League for salaries ranging from $2 per game to $35 per week. It was a decision
that would come back to haunt him for years to come.
During the summer of 1912,
Thorpe competed in the Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden and captured the gold medal in the pentathlon and decathlon. Sweden’s king, Gustav V, proclaimed him “the greatest athlete in the world.” He returned to a ticker tape in New York City – Thorpe was a national hero.
After being named a collegiate
All-American in football at Carlisle University for the second time, Worcester (Mass.) Telegram reporter Roy Johnson discovered
Thorpe’s pay for play minor league baseball past. In January 1913, he was
stripped of his gold medals.
That spring the New York
Giants signed the fallen hero, reportedly more as gate attraction than as a viable player.
Thorpe hit just .143 with 1 HR in 19 games in 1913 and played football for the Canton Bulldogs in the off-season, which
he did throughout his baseball career. Thorpe remained with the Giants through 1915 as a seldom used, reserve outfielder,
garnering just 83 at bats in two seasons.
After sitting out the 1916
baseball season, Thorpe was sold to Cincinnati in April of 1917. He played in
77 games for the Reds, hitting.247 before being sold back to the Giants in August. Thorpe
would establish career highs with 103 games, 308 at bats, 4 homeruns, and 10 triples that season. He would also appear in one game during the Giants World Series loss to the White Sox.
Thorpe returned to the
Giants in 1918, played in 58 games and hit .248, but his easy going attitude and drinking habit was wearing thin with manager
John McGraw. In May of 1919, after appearing in only 2 games with New York that
season, Thorpe was dealt to the Boston Braves.
At age 31, Thorpe saved his
best for last, hitting .327 in 160 at bats in his final big league season. In
his baseball career, Thorpe hit .252 with 176 hits, 7 homeruns and 82 RBI in 289 games.
The multi-talented athlete continued to play football deep into the 1920s before retiring in 1928. His post athletic life would be a struggle.
Since Thorpe’s athletic
fame never brought him great fortune, he spent the remainder of his life as a drifter.
The former hero spent his days working such odd jobs as painter, bouncer, and ditch digger.
Thorpe did undergo somewhat
of a renaissance in the early 1950s when he was named the top athlete of the first half of the century, beating out Babe Ruth,
among others. In 1951, a movie based on his life starring Burt Lancaster was
released, providing one last moment in the sun.
On March 28, 1953, Jim Thorpe
died of a heart attack in a trailer park in Lomita, CA. He was 64. Thorpe’s
widow, his third wife, Patricia sold his remains to the cities of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, PA. The two towns combined to form Jim Thorpe, PA, where his body remains to this day.
Jim Thorpe’s story did
not end there however. On October 13, 1982, the International Olympic committee agreed to restore his gold medals, 70 years
after he had first won them.
-David Zingler, April