Story of the Week



  George Ostfeld asked me a question recently for which I had no logical answer. He asked why I have never written about the guy he feels is the best all-around athlete of the 20th. century, namely Jim Thorpe.


    George then threw me a curveball. Jim Thorpe is the only member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who was ever on a World Series team. I didn’t know that. I checked it out. George was right. I hate George!


    Thorpe actually didn’t play in a World Series. However, in Game 5 of the 1917 Fall Classic, as a New York Giant, he was listed in the lineup card as the starting right fielder, but for his turn at bat in the top of the first inning, he was replaced. It’s still a good trivia question as he was on the Giants roster in that World Series, but be careful how you word it.

    James Francis Thorpe was born on May 28, 1887 in a one-room cabin near Prague, Oklahoma. Although there is much confusion regarding Thorpe's date of birth, this is the date according to his estate. He was born to Hiram Thorpe, a farmer, and Mary James, a Potawatomi Indian and descendent of the last great Sauk and Fox chief Black Hawk, a noted warrior and athlete. Jim was actually born a twin, but his brother Charlie died at the age of nine. His Indian name, Wa-Tho-Huk, translated to "Bright Path", something that Thorpe definitely had ahead of him.

    In 1904, Thorpe started school at Carlisle Industrial Indian School in Pennsylvania. The establishment offered American Indians the opportunity to gain practical training in over 20 trades, in addition to off-campus employment at local farms, homes or industries. Thorpe began his athletic career at Carlisle, both playing football and running track. He was triumphantly selected as a third-team All-American in 1908, and in 1909 and 1910 he made the first team. Iconic football legend Glenn "Pop" Warner coached Thorpe at Carlisle and was able to see the young phenomenon evolve in his pursuant excellence with athletics.


    At the age of 24, Thorpe sailed with the American Olympic team to Antwerp, Belgium for the 1912 Olympic Games. Remarkably, he trained aboard the ship on the journey across sea. He blew away the competition in both the pentathlon and the decathlon, and set records that would stand for decades. King Gustav V presented Thorpe with his gold medals for both accomplishments. Before Thorpe could walk away, the king grabbed his hand and declared that he was the greatest athlete in the world. Thorpe, never a man to stand on ceremony, answered, 'Thanks King.'

    Thorpe's glorious Olympic wins were jeopardized later when it came out that he had played two semi-professional seasons of baseball. The Olympics Committee had strict rules about Olympians receiving monetary compensation for participating in professional athletics. Thorpe, who stated he played for the love of the game and not the money, was put under the microscope. It was decided that his baseball experience adversely affected his amateur status in the track and field events. His name was removed from the record books and his gold medals were taken away.

    Thorpe moved on after the Olympic ordeal and signed to play baseball for the New York Giants. He played outfield with New York for three seasons before relocating and playing with the Cincinnati Reds in 1917. He played 77 games with the Reds before finally returning to the Giants for an additional 26 games. In 1919, he played his final season in major league baseball, ending that career with the Boston Braves.

    During his baseball years, Thorpe was also immersed in professional football. He played for the Canton (Ohio) Bulldogs from 1915 until 1920. In the years following, he organized, coached and played with the Oorang Indians, a professional football team comprised completely of American Indians. Additionally, he was instrumental in forming g the American Professional Football Association, and eventually became the president of the group. Through the years, the association evolved into today's NFL. In all, Thorpe played with six different teams during his career in pro football, ending with a stint with the Chicago Cardinals in 1929.


    Life after professional athletics was exciting for Thorpe. He worked as an extra in movies, served as superintendent of recreation in the Chicago Park System, and was also quite vocal with matters of Indian affairs. He also had stints as a public speaker/lecturer and even led an all-Indian song and dance troupe entitled "The Jim Thorpe Show." The Merchant Marines had the honor of Thorpe's presence as he served with them in later years.

    Thorpe died on March 28, 1953 of a heart attack. The New York Times ran a front page story, remembering the athlete, stating that Thorpe "was a magnificent performer. He had all the strength, speed and coordination of the finest players, plus an incredible stamina. The tragedy of the loss of his Stockholm medals because of thoughtless and unimportant professionalism darkened much of his career and should have been rectified long ago. His memory should be kept for what it deserves, that of the greatest all-round athlete of our time." Thorpe's medals were finally restored to him posthumously in 1982. In addition, and most importantly to his family, his name was put back into the record books.

    In 1950, the nation's press selected Jim Thorpe as the most outstanding athlete of the first half of the 20th century. He was later awarded ABC's Wide World of Sports “Athlete of the Century.” (Although I do believe Jim Thorpe to have been one of our greatest athletes ever, I do not agree with those specific awards as they were worded. One look at this website's home page will tell you my selection for those awards, again, as they were worded.)


Last Week’s Trivia


    Who is the only pitcher to win consecutive MVP Awards? Hal Newhouser did it for Detroit in 1944 and 1945. The great lefty was 29-9 in ’44 with a 2.22 ERA. He was 25-9 in ’45 with a 1.81 ERA. He was just as valuable in 1946 at 26-9 with an ERA of 1.94, but some guy named Williams (I think Ted was his first name), back from the war, won it that year. Newhouser pitched for 17 years in MLB, 15 with Detroit and two with Cleveland, and had a superb 3.06 career ERA.


Trivia Question of the Week


    Both fighters are knocked down at the same time. Both fighters are unable to get up before the count of 10. What’s the ruling? See next week’s Sports Junkie for the answer.