By Glen Sparks
King Gustav of Sweden stood before the great Jim Thorpe following the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm and said what everyone else was thinking. “You, sir,” his majesty declared, “are the greatest athlete in the world.”
Thorpe, born on May 28, 1887, in the Oklahoma territory, the son of a blacksmith and the grandson of a Chippewa warrior, had just won gold medals in the decathlon and the pentathlon. He finished first in eight of the 15 individual events.
Thorpe to Sweden’s monarch: “Thanks, king.”
A ticket-tape parade down Broadway in New York City followed Thorpe’s triumphal return to the United States. Martin Sheridan, a great Irish-American track star and five-time Olympic gold medalist, declared Thorpe “the greatest athlete who ever lived.”
Sports fans had found a new hero. But, nothing lasts forever. In January of 1913, a story in the Worcester Telegram spoiled the good cheer. Thorpe, the newspaper reported, had played in some professional baseball games in 1909 and 1910. Indeed, he had.
On this date in 1909, Thorpe made his pro debut, taking the mound for Rocky Mount, N.C., of the Eastern Carolina League. A pitcher, Thorpe beat Raleigh 4-2. He violated his amateur status—an Olympic requirement–with that first toss.
Officials from the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) went nuts. They reported The World’s Greatest Athlete to the International Olympic Committee, which ordered Thorpe to give back his medals. Thorpe pleaded his case.
He had only made chump change playing ball, he said, as little as two bucks a game ($51 in 2015 money). He didn’t know any better, he insisted. “I was not very wise in the ways of the world,” Thorpe confessed. It didn’t matter. Thorpe, in the eyes of the IOC, would now be an ex-medal winner. And, that wasn’t all bad. Pro teams began calling.
Football called first. Thorpe had played college ball at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pa., established by the U.S. Army in 1880. He began going to the school at age 16, in 1904.
The young man made quite an impression. He not only competed in baseball, football, track and lacrosse, he also won the 1912 intercollegiate ballroom dancing championship. On the gridiron, Carlisle Coach Pop Warner—yes, that Pop Warner—started Thorpe at defensive back, running back, placekicker and punter.
In 1911, Thorpe led Carlisle football to an 11-1 record. He scored every Carlisle point in an 18-15 win against a stacked Harvard squad.
The following year, Carlisle won the national championship. It even beat a powerful Army team 27-6 thanks in part to a 97-yard touchdown run by Thorpe (just after his 96-yard scoring run had been called back). That season, Thorpe ran for 25 TDs and scored 198 points.
By 1913, the Pine Valley Pros of Indiana were calling. Thorpe played football for two seasons with that club before moving on to the Canton Bulldogs of the Ohio League. Thorpe led the Bulldogs to three titles (1916, 1917 and 1919). He later played in the NFL, from the league’s inaugural year of 1920 through the 1928 campaign.
Baseball was a bit trickier. Thorpe’s big-league career lasted from 1913-1919, mostly for the New York Giants. His old pitching days behind him, Thorpe settled in as an outfielder, usually in reserve. The World’s Greatest Athlete couldn’t hit a curveball. Thorpe batted just .252 in 289 games and hit only seven home runs.
Thorpe spent most of the last few decades of his life in southern California, working at times as a ditch digger for WPA projects and as an extra in the movies. During the closing days of World War II, he served on an ammunition ship with the Merchant Marines. He died March 28, 1953, in Lomita, Calif., south of Los Angeles, at age 65. His death certificate listed him as “athlete.”
In 1983, following a long campaign led by Thorpe’s daughter Grace, the IOC reversed its 1912 decision and re-issued the two gold medals won by “the greatest athlete in the world.”