Jim Thorpe was a hell of an athlete. He won two Olympic gold meals, played college and professional football, pro baseball and basketball.
But I want to talk about his bones today.
More on that wild controversy in a bit.
First, know that in 1912, King Gustav V of Sweden declared Thorpe the “the greatest athlete in the world” after he won the pentathlon and decathlon at the Stockholm Olympics. Thorpe was later stripped of the medals and his Olympic accomplishment scrubbed from the record books after he admitted he got paid $2 a game to play minor league baseball in the Eastern Carolina League in 1910 and 1911.
“I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know all about such things,” Thorpe wrote to officials. “In fact, I did not know that I was doing wrong, because I was doing what I knew several other college men had done, except that they did not use their own names.”
I’ve always admired how candid and authentic Thorpe was in the face of that accusation. He played baseball for the Giants, Reds and Braves. He also, suited up for six different NFL teams and didn’t retire until he was 41. Essentially, Jim Thorpe was Bo Jackson long before Nike’s marketing arm made “Bo Knows” a thing.
This week, the International Olympic Committee reinstated Thorpe as the sole winner of the 1912 Olympic pentathlon and decathlon in Stockholm — 110 years after it stripped him of the accomplishment.
In August of 2001, I was a sports columnist working at The Fresno Bee when I was dispatched to Boulder, Colo. to cover the Fresno State vs. Colorado football game.
The contest was marketed as the inaugural “Jim Thorpe Classic.” The game aired on ESPN. I was delighted to cover it because I’d grown up reading about Thorpe’s amazing accomplishments.
I arrived at a media day event for both teams and walked Folsom Field, among the players. I asked more than a dozen of them, “Who is Jim Thorpe?”
They stared blankly at me.
A few of them surmised he must have been a football player because we happened to be having this conversation on a football field. The long snapper for one of the teams insisted Thorpe was a golfer on the PGA Tour. Almost none of the college players playing in the “Jim Thorpe Classic” knew much of anything about Jim Thorpe himself. I wrote a column about the absurdity of that.
But what I remember most about that day was what I learned about Thorpe’s death and his bones. He suffered a heart attack and died while eating dinner in his trailer at a park in Lomita, Calif. in 1953.
He was 64.
Everyone assumed Thorpe, who was Native American, would be buried in Oklahoma, where he was born in a single-room cabin in 1887. But his third wife, Patricia, struck a deal with two tiny Pennsylvania towns on the LeHigh River — Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk.
Those two towns agreed to merge and become Jim Thorpe, Pa. Nevermind that Thorpe himself had never even set foot in what is now that city. The marketing folks wanted his name on their new city. They even raised a granite tomb and memorial in his honor.
Thorpe’s children were irate. They claimed they weren’t consulted. They asked the city to return their father’s remains, then later, sued. Jack Thorpe, one of the children, said at the time, “It’s a great honor to have a town named after your father. We want them to succeed, but they don’t need my father’s bones to do it.”
The city leaders of Jim Thorpe, Pa. refused to return Thorpe’s body. They argued that a deal was, in fact, a deal. They believed that having Jim Thorpe’s remains as a tourist attraction turned two dying coal-mining towns into a popular bed-and-breakfast tourist spot, complete with antique shopping malls.
The Thorpe children were divided, too. One son argued, “Dad never had his tribal burial rites.” Another, his youngest daughter, said, “It would cause too much trouble to move the body now.”
Everyone lawyered up. And the case dragged on for decades. It eventually landed in the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in 2015 that Thorpe’s remains should stay in Pennsylvania.
They remain there today.
I’m glad the IOC restored Thorpe’s name and accomplishments to the record books. Amateurism is dead. Professional athletes were long ago allowed into the Olympics. College athletes are now leaning into a new world that features a line of collectives and agencies eager to help them land lucrative endorsement deals. It always felt silly to me that Thorpe was stripped of the medals for playing a sport — baseball — that had little to do with his track and field accomplishments.
His children are gone now. That youngest daughter was 79 when I wrote about the fierce battle over her father’s bones in 2001. The Supreme Court ruled and everyone went about their business. But I felt like sharing some of Jim Thorpe’s story with you today.
It sure would be nice if ESPN brought back the “Jim Thorpe Classic.” Use it to create scholarships for Native American college students. Celebrate the guy again. Maybe hearing his name on a football game would prompt some elementary school kid to want to know more about him.
It’s great that Jim Thorpe is finally recognized again as an Olympic champion in two events. He won the competitions. But the bigger victory would be everyone knowing the answer to the question I asked all those years ago.
You know, “Who is Jim Thorpe?”
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John: Great article on Jim Thorpe. I have to take issue however with one thing you said ("Those two towns agreed to merge and become Jim Thorpe, Pa. Nevermind that Thorpe himself had never even set foot in the region.")
On the contrary, John! Jim Thorpe gives us a clue in his comment about just being "an Indian school boy." Thorpe was probably the most distinguished alumnus of the Carlisle (PA) Indian School. The school is now long gone, but the the US Army War College now occupies the lovely campus, where there is a very nice statue of Jim Thorpe.
I know that because my son, an Oregon National Guard officer, spent a year at Carlisle, courtesy of the Army, where he got an MA in Strategic Studies. I had the privilege of visiting my son and his family there on several occasions while he was in residence, and I walked their dog many times past the statue of the great Jim Thorpe!
Carlisle is about 100 miles from Jim Thorpe, PA and a little bit west of Harrisburg on the Susquehanna River. Jim Thorpe's football career started playing for the Carlisle Indians. His coach at Carlisle was the famous Pop Warner and the Carlisle Indians went 11-1 against Ivy League opponents one year Thorpe was there. They were most famous for upsetting Harvard at home!
A lot of real interesting American sports history there John! Thorpe's legend is even bigger than your article would suggest!! But you're still my favorite sports writer! Good job in general, by the way!!
Great story, and I love the Fresno and Fresno Bee origins. We have Fresno Bee and Charlie Waters in common, JC. Soon after you started there, Charlie called from Fresno (I was in L.A.) to rave about this sports guy he had hired. He's destined for great things, he said. Years later when we worked in same city again, he told me over lunch that he considered John Canzano as maybe his best hire ever.