Men You Wish You Were: Jim Thorpe, World’s Greatest Athlete

Every month Primer is recognizing a different individual for their accomplishments, cultural significance, and general awesomeness. This month: Jim Thorpe.

A vintage photo of Jim Thorpe“Thanks, King.”

-Jim Thorpe to King Gustav V of Sweden after receiving a special medal from him at the Olympics and being told “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world”.

In 1950, a poll of many of the nation’s sports writers ranked Jacobus Franciscus “Jim” Thorpe as the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century, with Babe Ruth coming in a distant second.  In 1999, Thorpe was leap-frogged by Ruth in a similar poll, ranked 3rd, while Ruth came in 2nd once again.  One journalist quipped, “It’s amazing how much Ruth improved after his death and in front of a bunch of writers that never saw him play.”

Not to put down the greatest baseball player of all time, but Thorpe certainly seems to have seen his legacy somewhat diminish in the last thirty years, by no fault of his own.

He played three professional sports during his active career and won two gold medals in the Pentathlon and Decathlon at the 1912 Olympics.  He is in the Halls of Fame for the NFL, college football, U.S. Olympic teams, and national track and field competitions.

The NFL was still a fledging league at the time Thorpe played (1915-1928), he wasn’t a superstar in baseball or basketball, and he never played on a championship team.  He wasn’t a truly prevalent public figure, like Ruth or other star athletes in the day.  He was never able to make enough playing professional sports to support himself or his family throughout his life and never lived what would be imagined as a “glamorous” lifestyle.  As a Native American, newspapers and promoters often tried to exploit his ethnic background to try and draw spectators.

But his incredible natural athleticism managed to overcome all of these obstacles and, in his day, Thorpe was well known and respected by sports writers for the truly majestic specimen that he was.  Upon returning to the United States after the 1912 Olympics he was honored with a ticker-tape parade down Broadway in New York City.  Thorpe recounted after, “I heard people yelling my name, and I couldn’t realize how one fellow could have so many friends.”

Read more about Thorpe (Like about how he hit three homeruns in three different states in a single game!):

Images from the Official Site of Jim Thorpe
Kevin MacLean

Kevin H. MacLean currently resides in Brooklyn, NY where he enjoys people watching, writing, and dominating all comers in four-square. You can keep tabs on him at his blog