Jim Thorpe – Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century (1888-1953)
No greater athlete has ever run, leaped, hit, caught, and tackled his way into history than this greathearted son of Oklahoma. Born in Prague, Oklahoma of Sac and Fox, Irish, Potawatomi, and French blood, James Francis Thorpe led one of the great early college football teams to national renown, won both the Pentathlon and Decathlon at the 1912 Olympics, and was posthumously named the greatest athlete of the 20th Century in the most widely-regarded such poll, conducted by ABC Sports.
Jim Thorpe’s matriculation to the Carlisle (PA) Indian School, formed in 1879 by U. S. cavalry officer Richard Henry Pratt to help assimilate Natives into American culture, catapulted him to national athletic acclaim. His kicking, punting, and electrifying halfback play propelled Carlisle to epic football victories over national powerhouses of the era such as Harvard and Army, whose fullback was future President Dwight Eisenhower. Thorpe gained first team All-American honors in his final two seasons.
One of the (Wade) Burleson Chapters of our OKLAHOMA GOLD! podcasts chronicles these events and how they led directly to the birth of the National Football League. Listen HERE!
His most enduring and historic feat came during the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, where he won both the Pentathlon and Decathlon, whose five- and ten-event, respectively, competitions generally indicate an Olympics’ greatest all around athlete. Sadly, Thorpe was stripped of these accomplishments after a newspaper reporter revealed that the Oklahoman, unaware of its effect on his amateur status, had earlier played semi-professional baseball.
He rebounded to play seven seasons of major league baseball for the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds, and Boston Braves. He hit .327 in his final year with Boston. During some of the same years, then several more, he played pro football. When the top teams formed the American Professional Football Association in 1920, Thorpe was named the first president of the league, which was renamed the National Football League in 1922, as it remains today, a full century later.
In his “spare time,” he also barnstormed as a professional basketball player on a team featuring an all-Indian roster. He played professional sports until he was forty-one years old. From there, Thorpe struggled to build a career. He worked jobs ranging from ditch digger to small roles in Hollywood films, but alcoholism, the nemesis of so many, not least among Native tribes, bedeviled him.
Meanwhile, he sired eight children through three marriages. Despite his personal struggles, his generous character and accomplishments inspired countless American Indians for decades as they faced their own difficulties in a society where they often faced disrespect and even discrimination. A ballyhooed motion picture, Jim Thorpe: All-American, starring Burt Lancaster in the title role, came out two years before Thorpe’s death. That death came upon his third heart attack, after years of ill health and poverty.
In 1963, Thorpe was one of the first seventeen players inducted into the charter class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The century-ending ABC Sports poll tallied an enormous, worldwide online vote of sports fans. That vote declared him, over other legends such as Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens, and Jack Nicklaus, as the Greatest Athlete of the Twentieth Century.
Ultimate vindication had come for Jim Thorpe in 1982, when the International Olympic Committee ruled after a lengthy investigation that his long-ago disqualification had occurred later than the thirty-day time period allowed by Olympics rules for such a finding. He was reinstated as an Olympic champion.