The World's Greatest
After Jim Thorpe won two gold medals in the 1912 Olympic, the King of Sweden said, "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world."
Jim replied, "Thanks, King."
Well, Jim was probably a bit nervous. But at least this story was told by one of his Olympic teammates. So it might actually be true.
Of course, there's the party-poopers who say that Jim really just said "Thanks". Sure, that may be more likely, but it's not as good a story.
The life of Jim Thorpe is one that people point to when showing what you can achieve in America. Just have gumption, grit, and drive and you'll succeed.
But the stories - particularly those that were written when sanitizing American history was de rigueur - ignore the less pleasant parts of Jim's life. Nor do they mention that when the Olympic team sailed to Sweden that Jim and his Jewish teammate, Abel Kiviat, were forced to ride in steerage. That is, they were crammed below with the cargo and slept on rough communal beds. The other American team members - including a young George Smith Patton, Jr. - stayed in comfortable cabins.
But once in Stockholm, Jim won both the pentathlon (five separate track and field events in a single day) and decathlon (ten events). The winner is decided by the number of points accumulated from the separate events. Jim won handily, far ahead of the others.
And everyone knows that Jim's Olympic titles were revoked the following year. It seems that during the previous summers he had played semi-pro baseball. Although he only made $2 a game, that was still a violation of the amateur rules that forbade athletes from receiving any sort of payment.
What is not as well known is that it was common for college players - particularly those without rich parents - to hit the semi-pro circuits for the summer. Their coaches were not only aware of such extra-curricular activities, but encouraged it.
When playing professionally, though, most of the college players had used assumed names. But Jim played as Jim Thorpe, thus inadvertently supplying the documentation that he had violated his amateur status. So when a reporter broke the story, the International Olympic Committee revoked Jim's wins. They also demanded - and got - the medals.
Today when dealing with world class athletes, the name "amateur" is more or less a courtesy term which has no meaning. In fact, when one of the last true amateurs represented Britain in the 1988 Winter Olympics, the Olympic Committee was so aghast - and if you're aghast in my house feel free to do what you like - that they changed the rules. Today any contender is required to be ranked in the highest percentages of world class athletes. That means - whether the Olympic Committee admits it or not - they are restricting Olympic athletes to professionals. And you can bet they make more than $2 a game.
But at least, in 1982 Jim got the medals and his titles back, right?
Well, yes, but it wasn't easy. The reinstatement came about through the efforts of Robert Wheeler, who was a publicist for ABC Sports and who as a student had written a master's thesis based on interviews with people who had known Jim personally.
For a long time it looked like making Jim's case would fail as the Olympic Committee fought returning Jim's medals tooth and nail. But after getting continually rebuffed - although the International Committee did give Robert access to their archives - Robert and his wife, Ridlon, heard that the 1912 Rules stated that any contestation of an award must be made within 30 days of the competition. But Jim's medals were rescinded the following year. So if the time constraint was correct, then the Olympic Committee had broken its own rules.
The Committee, though, denied any such rule existed, and alas and alack, they said there had been no written protocol for the 1912 games. To Robert and Ridlon it certainly seemed strange that in the 20th century the International Olympic Committee would still rule by oral tradition, but for the moment they were stymied.
Well, if there ever had been written rules for the 1912 games, there was one place where they could look. That was the Library of Congress. There Ridlon finally found what was probably the last surviving copy. She found it, not properly filed in a folder, but instead it was in the stacks, stuck between two file cabinets.
You may read that although copies of the medals were sent to Jim's family, Jim's accomplishments were not reinstated. So that means that the Olympic Committee still does not recognize Jim as winning the pentathlon and decathlon. Fortunately this belief is not correct.
First, the Olympic Committee has reinstated Jim' titles. It's in the books. The problem, though, was when Jim's gold medals were taken away, they were then given to the runners-up, Ferdinand Bie and Hugo Wieslander.
So what should the Committee do if they decided to return Jim's medals? Go fetch them from the families of Ferdinand and Hugo? Good grief, they had been holding them for the past 80 years.
Well, the Committee decided on a compromise. They gave Jim his medals and titles back. But they let Ferdinand and Hugo keep theirs as well. So if we count who has the gold, Jim, Ferdinand, and Hugo are co-firstplace-winners. On the other hand, going by points you can say Jim was the real winner but that the two second place winners were given gold medals, too.
Interestingly enough, there are no - that's no - films of Jim Thorpe participating in the 1912 Olympics,. There were, though, plenty of clips of other athletes. It's impossible that Jim wasn't caught by the motion picture cameras - there's certainly plenty of still photos of him - and a good guess is that when the international committee took back all of Jim's medals, they clipped out the bits with Jim and threw them - literally - on the cutting room floor.
Why was the Olympic Committee so intransigent? Who knows? Maybe they sincerely thought that since other athletes rigorously maintained their amateur standing that Jim should be held to the same standards. But it is interesting that one of the most adamant resisters on the Committee was one of Jim's own teammates from 1912. And one who didn't do too good in the competitions.
But every cloud has its fleecy lining and when the story got out that Jim had played professionally, he got offers from both professional baseball and football teams. At the time baseball was the major professional sport in America - actually along with boxing and horse racing, about the only professional sport. On the other hand professional football was just getting started and it's always an advantage to be on hand at the beginning.
Rather than make a choice, Jim decided to go both ways. In spring and summer he played baseball for the New York Giants under famed and cantankerous manager, John McGraw. But in the fall he took to the gridiron.
Jim was by no means a superstar in baseball (John found he had trouble hitting a curve ball), and his first few years made you suspect it was his drawing power that kept him on the roster. At first John used him as a pinch hitter and he was hitting less than .200.
Jim also had problems with John's management style and they often were at odds, a state of affairs neither man attempted to hide. It's honest to say John was a bit of a ... well, let's say John liked to be in charge. If John told a player to bunt, by golly, he better bunt.
In fact, there was the story that one player was told to bunt. But as the ball sped toward the plate, he thought it looked so good he could knock it out of the park. He did and John fined him $50 for making the home run that won the game.
But after a couple of years Jim's playing improved considerably. He was batting above .300 and his fielding was much better (his natural speed was a plus there). On the other hand, Jim and John still weren't getting along that well.
Perhaps it was the friction between the two men but in 1917 Jim was loaned to the Cincinnati Reds. On May 2 they got locked with the Cubs into what at the end of 9 innings was a double no-hitter between pitchers Jimmy "Hippo" Vaughn of the Cubs and Fred Toney for the Reds.
But in the top of the 10th the no hitter was broken when the Reds singled. Jim came up as the fifth batter with one out, one man on third, and one on first. Jim, rather than smash a home run, simply hit a slow moving grounder to the left of the mound. Hippo scooped the ball up.
There were two options. One was to get Jim out by throwing to first. Then the first baseman just had to catch the ball and touch base. He wouldn't have to tag Jim. An out at first would also prevent the runner from advancing to home.
The other option would be to throw to the catcher. But at home the catcher has to tag the runner. So the runner could still score, and you'd now have two men on base.
Hippo said that Jim's speed made him doubt that a throw to first would get there in time. So he threw to home.
But the ball hit the catcher's chest protector and bounced off. So the runner scored. Then when Fred came to pitch in the bottom of the 10th, there were no hits, and so he kept his no-hitter. With Jim's RBI and the catcher's error, the Reds won the game.
That, as we say, is the way Jim spent his springs and summers.
And his winters?
It's amazing given that today professional football practically drives the national economy that it really didn't achieve widespread popularity until the 1960's. With far fewer games played than in baseball, there really wasn't much of an incentive for the fledgling networks to arrange broadcasts.
Professional football as we know it got it's start in Pittsburgh. Part of the reason was that Pittsburgh was the home of quite a few millionaires and other affluent men who were willing to bet a bundle on any game that was around. Sandlot football was popular and the sportsmen liked to come out, watch the games, and lay down a bet.
But then the gamblers discovered something very interesting. If you sent in ringers your team had a better chance to win. And if you paid the ringers, they'd be more likely to play for your team. It was only a short step from paying the ringers to having a professional team. True although there is more than one game that lays claim to being the "first professional football game", all were around Pittsburgh.
Then for reasons we won't go into, the center for professional football shifted to Ohio, and Jim played for the Canton Bulldogs. There's the famous story that in 1915, the Bulldogs were playing the Massillon Tigers, another Ohio team. The left end for the Tigers was a 27 year old Knute Rockne who would one day would teach chemistry at Notre Dame and do something else.
In one account we read that Jim was old and past his prime. So Knute kept knocking Jim flat, stopping him from carrying the ball anywhere.
Now 1915 was only three years after Jim won the Olympics. He was scarcely past his prime and in fact was only a year older than Knute. But Knute kept tackling Jim. Each time he got up, Jim would say, "Rock, don't do that. The people here want to see Old Jim run." But after Knute kept knocking him down, Jim finally decided enough was enough.
For the next play, Jim told the blocker to let Knute by. Knute headed straight for Jim and was immediately flattened. Jim bounded for a touchdown. As the trainers and his team members were picking Knute up, Jim walked up and said, "That's a good boy, Rock. You just let Old Jim run."
Both Knute and Jim told the story and so possibly something like that did happen. On the other hand, one writer checked out the game stats for 1915 and found Jim didn't score any touchdowns during the Bulldogs/Tigers games. But it's a good story, nonetheless.
Jim was born in Indian Territory - now the State of Oklahoma - on May 28, 1887 (Jim once said it was 1888 but 1887 is the date most biographers accept). Times could be tough. Jim's twin brother died when he was eight, his mother when he was 11, and his father when he was 16. Jim first attended the Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kansas, and then was sent to the United States Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Carlisle taught classes from elementary level up through college.
Jim was a good student. One report card shows him with a B+ average. And this was well before the grade inflation set in.
But it was at sports that Jim excelled. Not only in football and baseball, but also basketball, track, bowling, golf, and - get this - ballroom dancing.
The coach at Carlisle was Glenn Scobey Warner, known as "Pop". He suggested that Jim try out for the 1912 Olympics. Jim qualified easily for both the pentathlon and decathlon.
A lot of the stories state that Jim was lazy, he didn't train, he drank whiskey during the athletic competitions, and he lazed around in a hammock. These tales, though, were discounted by his teammates. They said that he not only trained but probably did more than he should have. Jim and the others even ran laps around the deck of the ship on the way to Stockholm.
Jim's performance stands up well in the modern era. For instance, in the Decathlon, he ran the metric mile (1500 meters) in 4 minutes 40.1 seconds. No decathlon competitor beat that until 1972.
We mentioned that one of Jim's Olympic team members was a young George Patton, later known as the flamboyant World War II general, "Old Blood 'n' Guts". George participated in the Modern Pentathlon - which was separate from the track and field pentathlon that Jim competed in. The Modern Pentathlon has five categories: running, swimming, horse riding, fencing, and shooting. George won no medals although he claimed he should have won the shooting competition. It was just that some of his bullets passed through the holes left by previous competitors. The judges said George just missed the target.
One of Jim's more unexpected opponents - at least to modern readers - was Dwight David Eisenhower. Yes, the 34th President of the United States. Of course, they competed long before the Americans liked Ike.
As a cadet at West Point, Ike did more than play golf and learn to paint (both of which he was pretty good at). He was a first rate football player and West Point would play against Carlisle. Ike said the Carlisle team itself was not particularly difficult to play, but it was Jim that was hard to beat. One thing to remember about Jim is that virtually everyone who competed against him said he was the best athlete they ever knew. And no one who knew him has ever said Jim was over-rated.
An Unexpected Opponent
Jim not only played professionally but he also coached. In 1915, after the season with the Giants was done, he was offered a job as assistant at Indiana University. The job, though, only lasted one year. The Hoosiers didn't do too well either. Part of the problem, we read, was Jim himself had some difficulty explaining how to do what came naturally to him to kids who didn't have his talent. But it also seems Jim liked playing and wanted to return to it.
But athletes, like everyone else, do get older. By 1925 Jim was moving toward 40 and had ended up his baseball career playing for various minor league teams. But then George Halas of the Chicago Bears had signed a kid from Illinois names Harold Edward Grange. Harold - better known as "Red" - had been such a sensation that George set up a series of exhibition matches - called "barnstorming" in the patois of the time - with various local teams.
Jim put together a professional team in Florida so they could play against Red. Unfortunately, it couldn't complete with the Bears and they lost their game. Jim's team soon disbanded.
How Jim fared in his last years is a matter of debate. You usually read that he was a chronic alcoholic and estranged from his children of his first two marriages. He had to work at menial unskilled jobs and if he was lucky he might get the occasional work as a low-paid movie extra. Finally he died flat broke in a trailer home.
Other biographers find this account is actually just perpetuating the "Indian" stereotypes. Yes, Jim did drink, they say, but not to excess. Although there were times he was low on cash, he was never destitute and at times was well paid. And Jim's living in a trailer was his choice because didn't like being tied down to a single spot.
So what is the truth?
Jim certainly liked to drink with his friends and he was once fined $50 for DUI (then called "drunk driving"). He also got into a brawl in a bar and the story made the newspapers. His second wife Freeda said she worried about Jim's drinking and didn't understand why he drank so much. And then there is the story that Jim woke up one morning to find himself next to a woman he knew but not that well. When he asked what she was doing here she said,"Don't you remember? We got married yesterday." So definitely there were times when Jim drank more than was good for him.
On the other hand, comparing Jim's drinking to either the norm of his times and that of - quote - "modern Americans" - unquote - is difficult. Patterns of alcohol consumption in the United States is quite strange and truth to tell, the various sources don't always agree. But it does appear that in 1933 with the repeal of prohibition, alcohol consumption per capita rose to a peak around 1980 and then began dropping back down towards the levels before 1960.
Jim's first marriage to Iva Miller ended in 1925 after 12 years. It was, as they say, a reasonably amicable separation in which they decided that they were not really compatible. Iva did not make the decision lightly and things were delayed when she started having second thoughts.
In 1926 Jim married his second wife Freeda who was 18 years his junior. That marriage ended after 15 years and the reason given was for cruelty. This, though, was really a formulaic cause that should not be taken literally. In fact, Freeda admitted Jim never was physically violent but as we mentioned above, she said she troubled by his drinking. Another problem, it seems, was he was absent for long periods, often due to lecture tours.
As for Jim living in poverty, it is true he wasn't always rolling in dough. There is a famous photograph of Jim wielding a shovel but that job was relatively short lived. He got a longer term job as a security guard and during the war, he worked in the defense industry - which actually paid well. He would also give talks for which he could receive $500 per appearance. And in 1951, he was paid $15,000 when Hollywood made "The Jim Thrope Story" starring Burt Lancaster.
Some have thought of Patsy as a manipulator mostly interested in exploiting Jim's fame for her own benefit. But you can just as easily see her as an astute business manager who made sure Jim got just compensation and who prevented him from being exploited.
And, yes, Jim did die of a heart attack in his trailer home on March 28, 1953. The circumstances are much less clear than you read in some of Jim's biographies, particularly those intended for the kiddies.
The usual story is that Jim and Patty were sitting at the supper table when Jim was stricken. Help was summoned and he was revived and spoke briefly with the people around him. But then he lost consciousness and died.
This, though, some say is a sanitized version of the event. The more sordid tale is that Patsy wasn't even living with Jim and that she had had taken an apartment for herself. She wouldn't even claim the body and the funeral director refused to do anything since Patsy had refused to provide any payment. Finally some of Jim's friends put up the money so Jim could be embalmed.
And this is where the last controversy begins.
The Sac and Fox tradition is to hold a funeral vigil in the presence of the deceased. On April 12, 1953, Jim's vigil was underway at a farmhouse near Prague, Oklahoma.
Then suddenly Patsy showed up with two Oklahoma Highway Patrolman. They took the casket and whisked it away.
What, we ask, was going on?
Once more the - quote - "story" - unquote - is that Patsy had decided there should be a memorial to Jim. That made sense but memorials cost money. So she had approached the Oklahoma legislators who agreed to provide funds. The bill passed and everything seemed fine with everyone.
But the Governor vetoed the bill, either because he balked at the price or he simply thought the state shouldn't provide funds for private memorials. After all, when Will Rogers died in 1935, his memorial and tomb at Claremore - actually a very nice place to visit - was funded by private donations.
It was Privately Funded.
So Patsy began to look around for locations that would be willing to fund and maintain a memorial. Finally she read that two small towns in Pennsylvania, Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, were planning to merge. Since they would need a new name, she suggested they change their name to honor her husband and build a memorial. Do that and she would let them bury Jim there. The town agreed and Jim is now buried in, yes, Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.
This is more or less what happened but the actual situation was more complex. A number of towns - including Anadarko, Oklahoma - had said they would set up a memorial for Jim. A number of private individuals also said they would help raise funding. There was an Oklahoma commission formed that was raising $100,000 for a bronze statue to be cast and placed over his grave. But for whatever reason, Patsy struck the deal with the citizens of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk.
The rest of the family was not pleased. Jim, they said, has expressly stated he wished to be buried in Oklahoma. But there wasn't much they could do. Legally Patsy was next of kin, and it was her prerogative to decide what to do with the body. So things continued for nearly 40 years.
Then in 1990 the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed. Before then it was common for archeologists to dig up native graves and put their bones in museums. Such practices had long been objectionable to many in the tribes. After all, some of the graves were no older than those of white American pioneers. And no one was digging them up so we could - quote - "see how the white man really lived" - unquote.
The new law changed all that. The graves of Native Americans were to be respected and the bones or other remains held in museums had to be returned to the tribes for proper internment. So there was now a new case for returning Jim to Oklahoma.
The family's argument, then, was that given the circumstances of Jim's burial - that the memorial was chosen specifically to bring in tourists to the town - his gravesite was in effect a museum. So the family maintained they had the right to claim the body and have it reburied in a regular cemetery in his native state.
At first, a judge agreed. Yes, he said, such memorials were in fact museums. Jim should be returned to Oklahoma.
Naturally, the town fathers of Jim Thorpe objected. Patsy had been the next of kin and had every right to decide how and where she wanted her husband buried. And the grave site - for which they had put up funds to build and maintain when Oklahoma would not - was not a museum.
In a country with a judiciary based on laws not men, the rulings certainly seem to flip-flop as if they were based on men. And on appeal the judges ruled in favor of the town. After all, calling a tail a leg does not mean a cat really has five legs. Therefore calling a burial site a museum does not make it a museum. To do so is "absurd", the judges ruled, and Jim should stay in Pennsylvania.
And what will happen now?
Well, the matter is probably settled at least for the nonce. In 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States refused to take the case, meaning the last appellate court ruling stands. Jim's family has vowed to continue to pursue the case, but with what is now essentially an adverse high court ruling, it's not clear what can be done. So for at least the foreseeable future, Jim Thorpe will stay in Jim Thorpe.
Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe, Kate Buford, Knopf, 2010
"Jim Thorpe's Olympic Medals are Restored", Gerald Eskenazi, The New York Times, October 14, 1982.
Jim Thorpe: A Biography, William A. Cook
The True and False Stories of Jim Thorpe, 'World°«s Greatest Athlete'", Mary Sanchez, Kansas City Star, October 24, 2015.
"Why Are Jim Thorpe's Olympic Records Still Not Recognized?", Sally Johnson, Smithsonian, July 2012.
Thunder and Lightning", Jay Jennings, The New York Times, December 9, 2010
"Jim Thorpe's days in the South Bay", Sam Gnerre, South Bay Daily Breeze, March 8, 2014
"Fight for Jim Thorpe's Remains Continues 62 Years Later", Erik Brady, USA Today, August 8, 2015.
"Battle Over Athlete Jim Thorpe°¶s Burial Site Continues", Neely Tucker, Washington Post, March 15, 2012
Battle For the Bones: Thorpe v. Borough of Jim Thorpe
Jim Thorpe: World's Greatest Athlete", Robert W. Wheeler, Lecture, National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C., August 12, 2012.
"Supreme Court Declines to Hear Jim Thorpe Appeal", John Branchoct, The New York Times, October 5, 2015.
"The Spirit Of A Legend", Kurt Streeter, ESPN, 07/28/16 | ESPN.comJuly 28, 2016.
"Baseball's Only Double No-Hitter", Miss Cellania, Neat-O-Rama, September 4, 2013.
"Surveillance Report #97", Robin LaVallee, Heather LeMay, and Hsiao-ye Yi, National Institute of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, July 2013
"Jim Thorpe Laid to Rest", The Ogden Standard-Examiner, Tuesday, April 14, 1953, p. 10, April 14, 1953.