World-class athlete Jim Thorpe was born in a one-room cabin near Prague in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, on May 28, 1888. Thorpe’s versatile talents earned him the distinction of being chosen, in 1950, the greatest football player and the greatest American athlete of the first half of the twentieth century by American sports writers and broadcasters.
Thorpe excelled at every sport he played. The great-great-grandson of an Indian warrior and athlete, Chief Black Hawk, Thorpe’s heritage was Irish and five-eighths Indian (Sauk, Fox, and Pottowatomie). He attended Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, and the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.
Thorpe took leave of the school in 1909 to play baseball in Rocky Mount and Fayetteville, North Carolina — a fact which later cost him two Olympic gold medals. Back at Carlisle, in 1911, Thorpe played football, baseball, and basketball and trained for the 1912 Olympics in track. Thorpe won the gold medal in both the decathlon and pentathlon events at the Stockholm Olympics, but was stripped of his medals when a reporter revealed he had played semi-professional baseball. It was not until after his death that Thorpe’s amateur status was restored, and his name reentered in the Olympic record book.
Back at Carlisle, Thorpe repeated his 1911 accomplishment, being voted a first-string All-American halfback. During his last college season, Thorpe scored 198 points — including 22 of 27 winning points against Army, a team which included Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Once out of school, Thorpe was signed by John McGraw to play with the National League Champion New York Giants, which included Rube Marquard, Buck Herzog, Fred Snodgrass, Christy Mathewson, “Chief” Meyers, Larry Doyle, and Fred Merkel. From 1913 to 1929, Thorpe played professionally, for many years switching according to the season from baseball to football.
Thorpe was the first president of the new American Professional Football Association, later the NFL. His name and skill on the field gave credibility to the sport, which he played professionally until he was forty-one years old. For two of those years, he coached and played for the Oorang Indians, an all-Native-American franchise out of La Rue, Ohio.
As his professional sports career drew to a close, the Depression proved a particularly difficult time for Thorpe. He held a variety of jobs but was too poor to buy a ticket to the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles; when he was invited to sit in the presidential box, a crowd of 105,000 stood to cheer him.
- Early Baseball Pictures, 1860s-1920s, a feature in the collection By Popular Demand: Jackie Robinson and Other Baseball Highlights, 1860s-1960s, includes several photographs of National League teams from Thorpe’s era.
- Baseball Cards also has images of many of baseball’s earliest players including many of Thorpe’s contemporaries.
- See more photographs of the early days of collegiate football. Search on football in Panoramic Photographs. The collection also includes a series of photographs of Indian schools from the turn of the century.
- Read recollections of people who attended these institutions. Search on Indian school in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Of particular interest is “Henry Mitchell, Indian Canoe Maker,” which includes a recollection of life at Carlisle Institute a few years prior to Thorpe’s studies there.
- Search Today in History on terms such as sport, athlete, football, or baseball to learn more about other greats in the sports world including Althea Gibson, J. Frank Duryea, Alonzo Stagg, and Jackie Robinson.