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Baseball and Jim Thorpe

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Jim Thorpe is widely considered as the greatest athlete to ever live.

He is well known for his exploits in the 1912 Olympics and even for his time playing professional football.

But, in this edition of Reading Baseball, Pete Peterson has the story of Thorpe’s lesser known professional baseball career.

Reading Baseball is a series of essays and commentaries by Richard “Pete” Peterson, the author of Growing Up With Clemente and the editor of The St. Louis Baseball Reader, newly released in paperback.

Pete wants to remind listeners a recent health episode has affected his speech, and appreciates your patience as he continues his recovery.
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In the 1913 World Series, played between the Philadelphia As and the New York Giants, each team had a Native American who had excelled in sports at Carlisle Indian Industrial School and gone on to glory on the athletic field against some of the most powerful college teams in the country.

Founded in 1879, Carlisle’s mission was to assimilate Native American children into white society, or as stated in its motto, “Kill the Indian, save the man.” While its motto was a departure from General Sheridan’s view that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” in reality, it was nothing more than a shift in government attitude and policy from destroying Native Americans to eradicating Native American culture.

In 1902, Albert “Chief” Bender, while attending Carlisle, signed a professional baseball contract with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia As. Bender went on to become one of baseball’s greatest pitchers, leading the As to championship seasons in 1910 and 1911. He had his best season in 1913, winning 21 games and led the As to their third championship in four years by winning two games in the 1913 World Series. In 1953, he became the first Native American to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

While the As had “Chief” Bender going into the 1913 World Series, the Giants had their own famous athlete from Carlisle in Jim Thorpe. Just a year earlier, at the 1912 Olympics, Thorpe had won gold medals in the challenging five-event pentathlon and the grueling ten-event decathlon and been roundly declared the greatest athlete in the world. He added to his stature later that fall by becoming an All-American in college football after leading Carlisle to a stunning upset of an Army team that included Dwight Eisenhower.

Unfortunately, just a few months later, The Worchester Telegram reported that Jim Thorpe had violated Olympic rules and was not an amateur athlete because in 1910 and 1911 he had played two summers of professional baseball in the low minor leagues.

Thorpe pleaded, in his own words, that he “was simply an Indian school boy and didn’t know about such things. I did not know I was doing wrong.” He also pointed out that it was common for college athletes to earn a few dollars in the summer by playing semi-pro or minor league baseball, but, unlike Thorpe, they used an assumed name to protect their amateur standing.

In January 1913, after the International Olympic Committee rejected his appeal and demanded the return of his gold medals, Jim Thorpe, with the NFL’s founding a decade away and no opportunity to make money playing professional football, signed a contract to play baseball for John McGraw and the New York Giants. While the Giants went on to win the National League pennant, McGraw, who had a reputation for making life miserable for players he disliked, seldom used the 26-year-old Thorpe, who played in only 19 games that season and sat on the bench for the entire 1913 World Series.

Jim Thorpe stayed with the Giants for several more years, but spent most of his time on the bench. Thorpe finally did get a chance to play regularly when McGraw traded him to the Boston Braves during the 1919 season. He hit .327 for the Braves, but he was released at season’s end. He never played in the major leagues again, though he played minor league and semi-pro baseball until he was in his forties because it was a way to make money.

In his newly released, Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe, David Maraniss, author of critically acclaimed biographies of Vince Lombardi and Roberto Clemente, covers Jim Thorpe’s baseball career in great detail and the impact of the mistreatment of Native Americans on Thorpe’s life and reputation, despite his incredible accomplishments as an athlete.

In 1982, the Olympic International Committee, 70 years after it demanded the return of Thorpe’s gold medals, finally gave his medals, or at least facsimiles of his medals, to his family, and, only recently, over 100 years since Jim Thorpe won his gold medals, restored Thorpe’s records to the 1912 Olympics.

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