Decades before Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders starred in baseball and football, Jim Thorpe was America’s original multi-sport athlete. A two-time college football All-American and charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Thorpe played six seasons of Major League Baseball and won two Olympic gold medals. The Native American excelled at nearly every sport he tried—from basketball to lacrosse—while breaking down barriers on and off the field.
Born in 1887 in present-day Oklahoma, Thorpe grew up in the Sac and Fox Nation. The kinetic child developed strength and endurance on 30-mile treks with his father to hunt and trap prey.
“I was always of a restless disposition and never was content unless I was trying my skill in some game against my fellow playmates or testing my endurance and wits against some member of the animal kingdom,” Thorpe recalled.
Following the deaths of his twin brother and mother, Thorpe grew more rambunctious and skipped school, causing his father to send him to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
Thorpe’s athletic prowess became evident at the government-run boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. One day in 1907 he asked to join varsity track athletes practicing the high jump. Although dressed in overalls, a dress shirt and a pair of borrowed gym shoes, Thorpe soared over a bar an inch taller than himself and was subsequently summoned to the office of the school’s legendary football and track coach, Glenn “Pop” Warner.
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“Have I done anything wrong?” asked Thorpe. “Son, you’ve only broken the school record in the high jump. That’s all." Warner replied.
The track phenom repeatedly pestered his coach to let him try out for the varsity football team, which competed against America’s top collegiate squads. Although he feared injury to his new star, Warner relented. At the football tryout, Warner watched in disbelief as Thorpe eluded more than 30 players in an open-field drill. Warner challenged Thorpe to do it again. He did.
In addition to playing punter, halfback, defender and kicker in football, Thorpe seemingly dominated every sport he tried, including basketball, boxing, lacrosse, swimming, hockey, handball and tennis. He even won an intercollegiate ballroom dancing championship.
Jim Thorpe Signs Pro Baseball Contract
Determined to become a professional athlete, Thorpe left Carlisle and signed a contract to play minor league baseball in 1909 and 1910.
“He was going to have a career in sports, and baseball was the only sport in which you could at the time,” says Kate Buford, author of the biography Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe. “He left Carlisle never intending to go back, but he wasn’t good enough—yet.”
In a role reversal, it was now Warner who successfully pressured Thorpe to play football at Carlisle following his failure to make the big leagues. Named to Walter Camp’s All-America teams in 1911 and 1912, Thorpe led his team to a 23-2-1 record.
Jim Thorpe's Olympic Gold Becomes Tarnished
Although Native Americans were denied U.S. citizenship at the time, Thorpe represented his country in track and field at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm. He failed to medal in the long jump and high jump, but he won gold in the pentathlon after placing first in the long jump, 200-meter sprint, discus and 1,500-meter run.
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The following week, Thorpe smashed the world record in the decathlon. Despite wearing mismatched shoes after his pair went missing before the race, he set a 1,500-meter time that would not be surpassed in the event until 1972.
When an awestruck Swedish King Gustav V presented the American with his medals, the monarch reportedly said, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world." Thorpe returned to the United States as a global superstar.
“He was the earliest international celebrity athlete,” Buford says. “Every four years we look for another sensation at the Olympics. Well, he was the first, and he set a standard of performance that was phenomenal.”
Months after the 1912 Summer Games, however, a scandal of Olympian proportions arose when a newspaper reported on Thorpe’s relatively miniscule minor league baseball payments. Although the rules were not uniformly enforced, Thorpe was forced to return his gold medals for violating the Games’ prohibition of professional athletes. (Although replica medals were eventually returned to Thorpe’s family in 1983, the International Olympic Committee did not reinstate Thorpe’s victories in the official record.)
Thorpe fulfilled his baseball dreams, however, when he broke into the major leagues with the New York Giants in 1913. The outfielder struggled with hitting curveballs and batted .252 in six big-league seasons.
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Jim Thorpe Becomes One of the NFL’s First Stars
Throughout his baseball career, Thorpe was a two-sport star. After returning to football with a professional team in Indiana in 1913, Thorpe joined the Canton (Ohio) Bulldogs two years later and led the team to three Ohio League championships.
In September 1920, Thorpe attended a meeting in a Canton automobile showroom that led to the formation of the American Professional Football Association, later rebranded as the National Football League. Team representatives unanimously selected Thorpe as the league’s first president, a position he held for a year as he continued to play and coach the Bulldogs.
Over the course of seven seasons, Thorpe was one of the biggest draws of the fledgling NFL as he played 52 games for the Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, Oorang Indians, Rock Island Independents, New York Giants and Chicago Cardinals.
Following his playing days, Thorpe moved to California and played mostly minor roles in dozens of movies. With the proliferation of Westerns, he formed a casting company to pressure movie studios to cast authentic Native Americans.
Although he eventually worked odd jobs such as security guard and ditch digger later in life, Thorpe stayed in the forefront of sports fans’ memories. “He remained the gold standard in track and field and football,” Buford says. “Well into the 1950s, he’s cited by those who played with him and coaches as the greatest athlete they had ever seen.”
Indeed, the Associated Press voted him the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century, and his reputation received a further boost when Burt Lancaster portrayed him in the 1951 film, Jim Thorpe—All American.
Nearly a year after Thorpe died from a heart attack in a California trailer park in 1953, his widow buried the sports star in a small Pennsylvania hamlet that agreed to rename itself Jim Thorpe in his honor.
In addition to a town on the map, Thorpe’s memory endures. He was named the premier athlete of the 20th century by ABC Sports and ranked behind only Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan in an Associated Press ranking of the top 100 athletes of the last century.