How Jim Thorpe Became America’s First Multi-Sport Star

Decades before Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders played in baseball and football, Jim Thorpe was America’s first multisport athlete. A two-time college football all-American and a founding member of the Professional Football Hall of Fame, Thorpe played six seasons in Major League Baseball and won two Olympic gold medals. The Native American excelled at almost every sport he played, from basketball to lacrosse, while breaking down barriers on and off the field.

Born in 1887 in what is now Oklahoma, Thorpe grew up in the Sac and Fox Nation. The kinetic child developed his strength and stamina on 30-mile hikes with his father to hunt and trap prey.

“I was always of a restless disposition and was never satisfied unless I tried my skills in a match against my playmates or tested my stamina and intelligence against a member of the animal kingdom,” recalls Thorpe.

After the deaths of his twin brother and mother, Thorpe became more rambunctious and skipped school, prompting his father to send him to Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

How Jim Thorpe Became America's First Multi-Sport Star
How Jim Thorpe Became America’s First Multi-Sport Star

Thorpe’s athletic prowess became evident at the government-run boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. One day in 1907 he asked to join some college athletes in the high jump. Although dressed in overalls, a shirt and a pair of borrowed sneakers, Thorpe climbed over a bar an inch higher than him and was then summoned to the office of the legendary trainer of school football and athletics, Glenn “Pop” Warner.

READ MORE: Native Americans: Tribes & Facts

“Did I do something wrong?” Thorpe asked. “My son, you only broke the school record in the high jump. That’s all, ”Warner replied.

The track phenomenon has repeatedly harassed his coach to let him try out the college football team, which faced America’s top college teams. Though he feared hurting his new star, Warner relented. During the football tryout, Warner watched in disbelief as Thorpe eluded more than 30 players during an open-field exercise. Warner challenged Thorpe to start over. He did.

In addition to playing soccer bettor, halfback, defender and kicker, Thorpe has apparently dominated every sport he tried, including basketball, boxing, lacrosse, swimming, hockey, handball and tennis. He even won an interuniversity ballroom dance championship.

Jim Thorpe signs professional baseball contract

Jim Thorpe had a six year career in Major League Baseball.

Jim Thorpe had a six-year career in Major League Baseball with the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Boston Braves.

Bettman Archives via Getty Images

Determined to become a professional athlete, Thorpe left Carlisle and signed a contract to play minor league baseball in 1909 and 1910.

“He was going to have a career in sports, and baseball was the only sport you could play at the time,” says Kate Buford, author of the biography. Native American Son: The Life and Sports Legend of Jim Thorpe. “He left Carlisle with no intention of ever going back, but he wasn’t good enough right now.

In a role reversal, it was now Warner who managed to pressure Thorpe to play football in Carlisle after his failure to make it to the big leagues. Named to Walter Camp’s All-America teams in 1911 and 1912, Thorpe led his team to a 23-2-1 record.

Jim Thorpe’s Olympic gold is tarnished

New York City Mayor William Jay Gaynor shakes hands with athlete Jim Thorpe during the US Olympic Winners Parade. T

New York City Mayor William Jay Gaynor greets Jim Thorpe during a parade for US Olympians.

Bettman Archives via Getty Images

Although Native Americans were denied American citizenship at the time, Thorpe represented his country in athletics at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm. He did not win a medal in the long jump and high jump, but did win gold in the pentathlon after finishing first in the long jump, 200-meter sprint, discus and 1 run. 500 meters.

The following week, Thorpe broke the world record in the decathlon. Despite wearing mismatched shoes after his pair went missing before the race, he set a time of 1,500 meters which would not be exceeded in the event until 1972.

When an amazed Swedish king Gustav V presented his medals to the American, the monarch reportedly said: “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world. Thorpe returned to the United States as a world superstar.

“He was the first internationally renowned athlete,” says Buford. “Every four years we look for another sensation at the Olympics. Well he was the first and he set a phenomenal performance standard.

Months after the 1912 Summer Games, however, a scandal of Olympian proportions erupted when a newspaper reported on Thorpe’s relatively small payouts in the minor leagues. Although the rules were not applied consistently, Thorpe was forced to return his gold medals for breaking the Games ban for professional athletes. (Although replica medals were eventually returned to Thorpe’s family in 1983, the International Olympic Committee has not restored Thorpe’s victories to the official record.)

Thorpe, however, realized his baseball dreams when he made his entry into the major leagues with the New York Giants in 1913. The outfielder struggled to hit curved balls and hit .252 in six seasons in the big boys. leagues.

READ MORE: 8 athletes who excelled in two sports

Jim Thorpe becomes one of the first stars of the NFL

From left to right, actor Burt Lancaster (1913 - 1994), athlete Jim Thorpe (1888 - 1953) and director Michael Curtiz on the set of the biopic 'Jim Thorpe - All-American' in Hollywood on May 23 1951. Lancaster plays Thorpe in the film, which is directed by Curtiz. (Photo by FPG / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

From left to right, actor Burt Lancaster, Thorpe and director Michael Curtiz on the set of “Jim Thorpe — All-American” in 1951. Lancaster played Thorpe.

FPG / Hulton Archives / Getty Images

Throughout his baseball career, Thorpe was a star of two sports. After returning to football with a professional team in Indiana in 1913, Thorpe joined the Canton, Ohio Bulldogs two years later and led the team to three Ohio League championships.

In September 1920, Thorpe attended a meeting at a Canton auto showroom that led to the formation of the American Professional Football Association, later renamed the National Football League. Team representatives unanimously chose Thorpe as the league’s first president, a position he held for a year as he continued to play and coach the Bulldogs.

Over the seven seasons, Thorpe has been one of the youngest NFL’s biggest draws as he played 52 games for the Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, Oorang Indians, Rock Island Independents, Giants of New York and the Chicago Cardinals.

After his playing days, Thorpe moved to California and played mostly minor roles in dozens of films. With the proliferation of westerns, he formed a casting company to pressure movie studios to choose authentic Native Americans.

Although he eventually held odd jobs such as a security guard and ditch digger later in his life, Thorpe has remained at the forefront of sports fans’ memories. “He remained the gold standard in track and field and in football,” said Buford. “Until the 1950s, he was cited by those who played with him and by coaches as the greatest athlete they had ever seen. ”

Indeed, the Associated Press voted him the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century, and his reputation was further enhanced when Burt Lancaster portrayed him in the 1951 film, Jim Thorpe — All American.

Almost a year after Thorpe died of a heart attack in a California trailer park in 1953, his widow buried the sports star in a tiny hamlet in Pennsylvania who agreed to rename himself Jim Thorpe in his honor. .

In addition to a city on the map, Thorpe’s memory lives on. He was named the best athlete of the 20th century by ABC Sports and is ranked only behind Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan in an Associated Press ranking of the 100 best athletes of the last century.

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