Lehigh River & Canal at Jim Thorpe, PA

Chapter 8 – Jim Thorpe, All American

Who was Jim Thorpe?

Jim Thorpe is considered to be the greatest athlete of the twentieth century. In the 1912 Olympics, he won both the decathlon and the pentathlon. He played professional baseball with the New York Giants, the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Braves. In football, he was a three time All-American and leader of a national championship team, a professional football player and the first president of what is now the National Football League.

Describe Jim Thorpe’s early life.

Jim Thorpe was born on May 28, 1888 in what is now the state of Oklahoma. At that time, it was called Indian Territory. He was born in a log cabin along the North Canadian River, outside of Prague. He was a twin. His twin brother, Charles, died in his teens.

His American name was James Francis Thorpe. He was a member of the Sac and Fox tribe. His native name was Wa-Tho-Huck, meaning Bright Path. His father Hiram Thorpe was mixed Sac and Fox and Irish. His mother, Charlotte View Thorpe was a mixture of Potawatomie and French.

How did he become an athlete?

Jim Thorpe Canton BulldogsIn 1904, Jim Thorpe was sent to the Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The coach at Carlisle was Glen Scobie “Pop” Warner.

One day, Jim was watching the high jump squad practice. When the bar reached 5′ 9″ and no one could clear it, Jim asked for a turn. Without having ever high jumped previously, he easily cleared the bar. The next day, Coach Warner asked him to be on the football team.

Jim Thorpe was a nearly unstoppable halfback. “Pop” Warner’s Indian team became national champions and gained respect by defeating teams such as Harvard and Army. In the 1912 Carlisle-Army game, it was a halfback battle between Jim Thorpe and Dwight Eisenhower.

“Pop” Warner trained Jim Thorpe in track and field. In 1912, they went to Stockholm and Jim Thorpe won gold medals in the decathlon and the pentathlon. He broke several world records and set an all time high in the decathlon with 8,412.96 points. King Gustave V of Sweden called him “The greatest athlete in the world.”

Who was “Pop” Warner?

“Pop” Warner created modern football. On the field, he was a successful coach and was the created of the first football playbook. He was able to attract the public’s interest to football. He was the first coach to hire a publicity agent and together they helped develop the popularity of the sports page. Through aggressive marketing techniques, he was able to often have gate receipts of up to $8,000 (about $250,000 in current dollars).

Why did Jim Thorpe lose his medals?

While Jim Thorpe was at Carlisle, he took a leave and played baseball for Rocky Mount and Fayetteville in the Eastern Carolina League. Playing in the tobacco league, he earned about $15 a week. He was not aware that Olympic athletes were forbidden from receiving money for sports activities. In an interview after winning the Olympics, he told this story to a reporter. When the story ran, the Olympic committee asked that the medals be returned.

After his death in January 1982, the Olympic committee voted to return Jim Thorpe’s gold medals. In January 1983, replicas of his two gold medals were presented posthumously to his family .

Jim Thorpe’s final resting place is along Route 903 on the east side of Jim Thorpe. He rests in a park like area beneath a 20 ton red granite monument.

What about Jim Thorpe’s professional career?

Jim Thorpe played professional baseball as an outfielder from 1913 to 1919. He played for the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Boston Braves. He had a lifetime batting average of .252 in 289 games and a .327 batting average in his final year.

In 1915, Jim Thorpe became a coach and player for the Canton, Ohio Bulldogs. In 1920, he became president of the American Professional Football Association. He continued to play football through 1929 with the Oorang Indians, Rock Island Independents, the New York Giants (football), St. Petersburg, Portsmouth (Ohio), Hammond (Indiana) and the Chicago Cardinals.

He retired from professional sports at the age of 41. He worked as a laborer and a stunt man. He managed a girl’s softball team and coached the Israeli National Soccer team on tour in the U.S.

Jim Thorpe’s most famous football game was against Harvard in 1911. Carlisle beat Harvard 18 – 15. Jim Thorpe scored a touchdown and kicked field goals of 23, 43, 37 and 48 yards. His 1912 achievement of 25 touchdowns and 198 points was long standing unbroken record.

Jim Thorpe is in both the college and professional football Halls of Fame. In 1950, in a poll of professional sportswriters and broadcasters, Jim Thorpe was voted the Greatest Athlete in Sports. Thorpe received three times as many votes as second place winner, Babe Ruth.

Additional information about Jim Thorpe and Old Mauch Chunk may be found at the Mauch Chunk Museum, 41 West Broadway, Jim Thorpe, PA 18229.

© Al Zagofsky 1997