[Center inset quote reads]"Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world."
King Gustav V of Sweden
Legend has made a tragic figure of Jim Thorpe, blighted by his Olympic heartbreak, but in fact, after the initial shock had passed, he went on to flourish in professional sports.
After declining a $50,000 offer to become a boxer (Jack Dempsey said, "Jim would have been a great fighter. He was the greatest of all athletes. He could have excelled at anything."), he signed a $6000 contract to play baseball with the National League champion New York Giants and a $250 per game contract with the soon-to-be world champion Canton Bulldogs football team. These two signings occurred in the same year—1913. When Jim hung up his spikes and cleats for the last time in 1929, he had played professional baseball and football, concurrently, for 17 consecutive years.
New York Giants manager John J. McGraw knew Jim's baseball experience at the Major League level was nonexistent but saw a substantial profit to be made. "If he can only hit in batting practice," said McGraw, "the fans that will pay to see him will more than make up for his salary."
Indeed, his hitting was not limited to batting practice. He finished his big league career in Cincinnati where he averaged .327. He hit
with power, was a sure-handed outfielder with a strong arm and was one of the fastest men in the game.
Jim's professional football years were marked with spectacular success. For the next seven years he captained the Canton Bulldogs to six titles. His undefeated 1916 squad piled up 257 points in ten games while holding their opponents to seven. This team, one of the greatest ever assembled, had five All-Americans warming the bench.
His sportsmanship and competitiveness are best illustrated by the reflections of football legends George Halas and Knute Rockne.
"I caught a pass in one game," remembered Halas, "and was tackled from behind. I was still trying to crawl a few more yards on my hands and knees. Jim came up and could have thrown his knees into my head and shoulders or ribs but, instead of that, he just sat astride me and bore me to the ground."
He said, "If you're a horse, I'll ride you."
"I was playing end when Jim ran a sweep in my direction," recalled Rockne. "I was there to meet him and nail him for a loss."
Jim said: "You mustn't do that Rock. These fans paid to see Old Jim run. Be a good boy and let Old Jim run." The next time Jim came at me there was another collision but this time I went down and Jim ran fifty yards for a touchdown. I was still groggy when Jim returned to see how I was feeling. Handing me a wet towel, Jim smiled and said, "That's a good boy, Rock. You let Old Jim run."
The following year he drop kicked an 81-yard field goal and in another game punted the ball 100 yards on the fly twice and between 80 and 90 yards three times.
Professional football crowds were sparse. Sparse in all places but one—the one where Jim happened to be performing. He was the star attraction wherever he played; attendance averaged 1,200 without him and 8,000 with him.
Jim believed this game would someday draw like professional baseball and helped organize the American Professional Football Association in 1919 and its successor, the National Football League in 1920. In both instances, the name all the owners wanted on the masthead as president was Jim Thorpe.
He was an ardent sportsman who never quit training, playing baseball in the spring and summer, football in the fall and winter. On his days off, he was very devoted to his three daughters and four sons. Like their father, they had diverse interests and excellent coordination. Activities included hunting, fishing, baseball, bowling, swimming, dancing, and cooking!
His children remember his laugh and his smile, "the most beautiful and widest" they had ever seen and his personal integrity. "He never uttered a bad word about anyone. He didn't think badly or talk badly about anyone, nor did he swear. The four letter words were foreign to his lips. His posture was always erect and his manner mild. He exuded manliness and warmth.
Just remember you're a Thorpe, we can remember him saying many times. We were proud of him and proud to be with him. We loved him very much."
All quotations from: Jim Thorpe, World's Greatest Athlete by Robert W. Wheeler, University of Oklahoma Press.
[Photo captions, clockwise from top left, read]
· With Chicago Park District youngsters, 1948, Thorpe promoted his philosophy that sports improves health and will keep children out of trouble.
· Thorpe punting the ball for the New York Giants, 1925.
· Thorpe in the uniform of the New York Giants, 1913.
· Jim Thorpe getting a hit for the New York Giants, 1917.
· Jim Thorpe holding James, Jr. 1917
· With "Major Oorang" his [A]iredale, Thorpe enjoyed many a hunting trip, 1927.
Renovation Project Completed By The Students Of The
Carbon County Area Vocational Technical School,