Saturday, March 28, 2015

Anniversary Celebration of Jim Thorpe

By Chris Willis
March 28, 2015
Jim Thorpe with Canton Bulldogs. Colorization by John Turney
 Today marks the anniversary of the death of one of football’s truly great legends. On March 28, 1953 Jim Thorpe passed away from a heart attack at the age of 64. Pretty much broke and living in a trailer in Lomita, California, it was a very sad ending for the greatest football player of the first fifty years of the 20th century. But Thorpe was more than a football player. Most fans and historians know that “Old Jim” won two gold medals in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics (IOC originally stripped his medals but reinstated them in 1983), as well as played six years of major league baseball with three different teams (New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds, and Boston Braves) from 1913-1915, 1917-1919. He also traveled around the country playing basketball with the World Famous Indians basketball team during the mid 1920’s.

But it was in professional football that he made his biggest impact. Signing with the Canton Bulldogs in 1915, for a whopping sum of two hundred and fifty dollars a game, he instantly brought star power to a sport that was ready to make the jump to being organized. Then in 1920 he was named the first President of the American Professional Football Association (APFA), the forerunner of the NFL. He was President just for the one year, mainly to use his name to give the fledgling league some credibility and a boost with the newspapers around the country.

He ended up playing eight seasons in the NFL and gave the league continued star presence throughout his time in the league. After retiring he struggled to make a living and support his family. Although he struggled off the field throughout his life his name continued to be associated with greatness in the world of athletics.

Three years before his death Thorpe was honored with the ultimate award. In 1950 the Associated Press (AP) held a poll to honor the Greatest Football Player and Greatest Male Athlete of the first half century. Announced on January 24th the AP voted Thorpe the Greatest Football Player of the first half century, edging out Red Grange the Galloping Ghost.
Jim Thorpe with Rock Island Independents. Colorization by John Turney
Associated Press Voting: Greatest Football Player (1900-1950)

Player, College, Votes

1)      James Thorpe, Carlisle,    170

2)      Red Grange, Illinois,   138

3)      Bronko Nagurski, Minnesota, 38

4)      Ernie Nevers, Stanford, 7

5)      Sammy Baugh, TCU, 7

6)      Don Hutson, Alabama, 6

7)      George Gipp, Notre Dame, 4

8)      Charles Trippi, Georgia, 3   

Two votes each: Sid Luckman, Columbia; Steve Van Buren, LSU; Willie Heston, Michigan; and Chic Harley, Ohio State.

One vote each: Wilbur Henry, Washington & Jefferson; Bennie Oosterbaan, Michigan; Nile Ninnick, Iowa; Glenn Dobbs, Tulsa; Glenn Davis, Army, Clyde Turner, Hardin-Simmons; Doak Walker, SMU; Frankie Albert, Stanford; Doc Blanchard, Army; and Charlie Brickley, Harvard.

A little over two weeks later the results of the more prestigious poll, Greatest Male Athlete of the First Half Century, was announced. Once again Thorpe was on top, besting the likes of Bobby Jones, Jack Dempsey, Ty Cobb, Joe Louis, Red Grange, and Babe Ruth. Previously voted the No. 1 football player over the past fifty years Thorpe became the only male double winner in the AP poll when 252 of the 393 sportswriters and radio broadcasters selected him with this honor. The vote wasn’t even close, as he beat Ruth by 336 points and had 166 more first place votes.

Associated Press Voting: Greatest Male Athlete (1900-1950)

Top 15 Voting

Name, First Place Votes, Total Points

1)      Jim Thorpe (252), 875

2)      Babe Ruth (86),  539

3)      Jack Dempsey (19),  246

4)      Ty Cobb (11),  148

5)      Bobby Jones (2),  88

6)      Joe Louis (5),  73

7)      Red Grange (3),  57

8)      Jesse Owens (0), 54

9)      Lou Gehrig, (4), 34

10)   Bronko Nagurski (1), 26

11)   Jackie Robinson (2),  24

12)   Bob Mathias (0), 13

13)   Walter Johnson (1), 12

14)   Glenn Davis (0), 11

15)   Bill Tilden (0), 9

Fifty years later Thorpe’s name continued to be held in high esteem, just not tops in the voting. In 2000 the Associated Press released a poll voting on the Top 100 Athletes of the 20th Century. The 16-member panel again thought highly of Thorpe placing him third behind Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan.

Associated Press Voting: Top 100 Greatest Athletes of 20th Century (1900-2000)

Top 10, Name, First Place Votes, Total Points

1)      Babe Ruth (5),  1551

2)      Michael Jordan (4),  1524

3)      Jim Thorpe (3), 1471

4)      Muhammad Ali (2),  1462

5)      Wayne Gretzky,  1368

6)      Jim Brown, 1333

7)      Joe Louis (1),  1327

8)      Jesse Owens,  1307

9)      Babe Didrikson Zaharias (1),  1254

10)   Wilt Chamberlain,  1235

Jim Thorpe, about to be hit in the back by George Halas. Colorization by John Turney
For an athlete’s name to hold up for nearly 100 years just shows how special Jim Thorpe was. Although he was much more than a football player, I’ll take some time today to think about “Old” Jim Thorpe and what he has meant to the game of football.


  1. Cool, Chris. I had never seen the voting breakdowns before.
    BTW, the last item should be labeled 1900-2000, not 1900-1950.