Jim Thorpe was the greatest all-around athlete of the Deadball Era. In addition to playing major-league baseball for six seasons, the 6'1", 185 lb. Thorpe was an Olympic champion in the pentathlon and decathlon and the greatest American football player in history according to a 1977 Sport magazine poll. One sportswriter called him the "most marvelous creation fashioned in human likeness that has ever inhabited the earth," but others described him as simple-minded, lazy, averse to training, and unable to hold his liquor. Thorpe's disappointing baseball career--he played in 289 National League games and hit only .252 with seven home runs and 29 stolen bases--demonstrated what multi-sport athletes like Michael Jordan have since discovered: that mere possession of superb natural tools doesn't guarantee success on the diamond. "I can't seem to hit curves," Jim admitted. "I believe I could hit .300 otherwise."
Grandson of the famed Chippewa warrior Black Hawk, James Francis Thorpe was born on May 28, 1887, on the Sac and Fox Indian reservation near Prague, in the Oklahoma territory. His father, Hiram, was a blacksmith who married at least five Native American women and fathered more than 20 children. Because of his early athletic prowess, Jim received the Indian name Wa-tho-huck ("Path Lit by Lightning") from his mother, Charlotte, but he became a disciplinary problem after his twin brother, Charles, died at age nine. Jim's truancy finally angered his father so much that he sent Jim to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania in 1904. A vocational institution operated by the federal government to teach Indians industrial skills and integrate them into society, Carlisle was, according to one of its former athletes, "nothing but an eighth-grade school, but they called us a college."
In the fall of 1907, legendary Carlisle coach Glenn "Pop" Warner convinced Thorpe to try out for the football team. Jim excelled as a halfback, punter, and kicker, but in 1909 he withdrew from Carlisle (one of several times he left the institution) and worked on a farm in North Carolina. During the summers of 1910-11 he accepted $60 per month to play baseball for Rocky Mount and Fayetteville of the Eastern Carolina League. Encouraged by Warner--and with an eye toward the 1912 Olympics--Thorpe returned to Carlisle in 1911-12. He was sensational on the gridiron against major collegiate foes, and Walter Camp selected him for the All-America football team in both years.
With his triumphs at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912, Jim Thorpe's fame spread worldwide. "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world," declared Sweden's King Gustav. After the Games, however, Thorpe was forced to return his medals and trophies when the Amateur Athletic Union discovered that he had played minor-league baseball. It was a crushing blow that Jim never overcame. "I did not play for money," he wrote in a letter to the AAU president. "I was not very wise in the ways of the world and did not realize this was wrong. I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian School Boy and did not know that I was doing wrong because I was doing what many other college men had done, except they did not use their own names."
Stripped of his amateur status, Thorpe signed a three-year contract in February 1913 for the staggering sum of $6,000 per season--the most ever paid to a major-league rookie--to play baseball for the New York Giants, who beat out five other clubs in signing the "red-skinned marvel." The agreement included a $500 signing bonus, and Warner received $2,500 for steering Jim to the Giants. "There can be no denying that he is a great prospect," wrote one observer, "and many critics would not be surprised if, under [John] McGraw's careful tutelage, he developed into another Ty Cobb." At the signing ceremony, however, the Giants manager admitted that he had never seen Thorpe in action; he didn't know what position he played or even whether he hit right- or left-handed (Thorpe was right-handed).
At spring training in Marlin Springs, Texas, Thorpe got off to a rocky start by showing up late for an exhibition game. He received time at first base and the outfield, and it soon became evident that he had difficulty with breaking pitches. During the season Thorpe was used primarily as a pinch hitter and pinch runner, compiling only 35 at-bats in 19 games and hitting .143 with two stolen bases. "I felt like a sitting hen, not a ballplayer," he said. It wasn't a happy time. His roommate, Chief Meyers, remembered a night when Jim came in late and woke him up. "He was crying, and tears were rolling down his cheeks," Meyers recalled. "'You known, Chief,' he said, 'the King of Sweden gave me those trophies, he gave them to me. But they took them away from me, even though the guy who finished second refused to take them.'"
On the 1913-14 World Tour, Thorpe brought along his first wife (he eventually had three), but McGraw viewed his behavior as inappropriate for a married man and lectured him on the dangers of drinking and playing cards. After playing most of the 1914 season in the American Association with Milwaukee, he spent most of 1915 in the Eastern League, hitting a combined .303 with 22 steals for Harrisburg and Jersey City; while with the latter club he was sued for his involvement in a saloon brawl, but the former club released him because he had a "disturbing influence on the team." Thorpe was back in Milwaukee in 1916. In the press McGraw insisted that although Jim was still raw, he was a fast learner with excellent instincts and would eventually become a star. Privately, however, Mac was beginning to have his doubts.
In 1917 McGraw loaned Thorpe to the Cincinnati Reds, then managed by Christy Mathewson. "Jim would take only two strides to my three," said teammate Edd Roush. "I'd run just as hard as I could, and he'd keep up with me just trotting along." Recalled from the Reds on August 1, Thorpe appeared in 26 more games for the Giants and ended his only big-league season in which he appeared in over 100 games with a composite average of .237. But in 1918 he appeared in only 58 games all year, and the following season he had appeared in just two as of May 21. After Jim complained about his lack of playing time, the Giants traded him to the Boston Braves for washed-up pitcher Pat Ragan. Thorpe hit .327 in 60 games for the Braves, by far his best major-league performance, but 1919 proved to be his last season in the majors.
Over the next three years Jim Thorpe played baseball for several minor-league clubs, putting up respectable statistics but focusing most of his energies on professional football, which he had been playing during the off-season since he founded the famous Canton Bulldogs in 1915. Jim had trouble adjusting to life after his career in professional sports. In 1928 he was playing semipro baseball at his home reservation in Oklahoma when he unsuccessfully sought a job with Waterbury of the Eastern League. Two years later, Jim traveled to Southern California as master of ceremonies for C. C. Pyle's cross-country marathon. He settled there, working as a ditch digger on a WPA project and as an extra in motion pictures (including the James Cagney classic White Heat). Though past the age of enlistment, Thorpe joined the merchant marine in 1945 and served on an ammunition ship. Burt Lancaster played him in the 1951 movie Jim Thorpe, All-American. Thorpe tried to develop a nightclub act in the early 1950s. After he underwent an operation for lip cancer in November 1951, newspapers reported that he was penniless.
Jim Thorpe was 65 years old when he died of a heart attack in his trailer home in Lomita, California, on March 28, 1953. Though he'd been operating a nearby bar, his death certificate listed his occupation simply as "Athlete." Jim's third wife had his body interred in Shawnee, Oklahoma, before she moved it to Tulsa. In 1957 the body was transferred once again to Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania. Hoping to transform themselves into a tourist center, the towns merged and renamed themselves Jim Thorpe in his honor. In 1953 the Associated Press selected Thorpe as the greatest American athlete of the first half of the 20th century. He is a member of the Pro Football, College Football, and National Track and Field Halls of Fame. After a long campaign led by Thorpe's daughter Grace, the International Olympic Committee reversed its 1912 decision on Thorpe's eligibility in 1983, reissuing his gold medals and adding his name to its list of Olympic champions.
Note: A slightly different version of this biography appeared in Tom Simon, ed., Deadball Stars of the National League (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, Inc., 2004).
For this biography, the author used a number of contemporary sources, especially those found in the subject's file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.