Jim Thorpe: Olympian And Baseball Player

Today, we focus on one of the greatest athletes of all time and his stint playing baseball.

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Pregame Pepper

Did you know…

. . . According to his obituary in The New York Times, Jim Thorpe could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat; the 220 in 21.8 seconds; the 440 in 51.8 seconds; the 880 in 1:57, the mile in 4:35; the 120-yard high hurdles in 15 seconds; and the 220-yard low hurdles in 24 seconds. He could long jump 23 feet 6 inches and high-jump 6 feet 5 inches. He could pole vault 11 feet; put the shot 47 feet 9 inches; throw the javelin 163 feet; and throw the discus 136 feet.

. . . In a poll of sports fans published in 2000 by ABC Sports, Jim Thorpe was voted the Greatest Athlete of the Twentieth Century. The field of 15 other top athletes included Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth, Jesse Owens, Wayne Gretzky, Jack Nicklaus, and Michael Jordan.

. . . The Jim Thorpe Area Running Festival is a series of races that started in 2019 in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. It includes a 26.2-mile marathon footrace that features a steady elevation drop from start to finish.


Leading Off

Jim Thorpe: Olympian And Baseball Player 

By Bill Pruden

With the Summer Olympics in full swing and baseball back in the games—the gold medal game is scheduled for Saturday, August 7, the next to last day of competition—it seems fitting to take a quick look at the major league players who have been a part of the Games outside of the official medal seeking baseball teams. Interestingly, it is a short list—a very short list.

Indeed, unlike pro football which boasts over 30 Olympic competitors among its alumni ranks, 15 of whom won gold medals, only three Major League Baseball players have competed in the Olympics in sports other than baseball. One is Eddy Alvarez, a short course speed skater in the 2014 winter games and now in Tokyo where he is not only playing on the U.S. baseball team but was also one of the American flag bearers in the opening ceremonies. Alvarez played in 12 games for the Miami Marlins in the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season. Another was Edmund Minahan, a sprinter in the 1900 games, who pitched twice for the 1907 Cincinnati Reds, compiling an 0-2 record with an ERA of 1.29 in 14 innings.

But what the National Pastime lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality, for the third member of MLB’s Olympic trio is an Olympic icon and arguably the greatest all-around athlete the United States has ever seen, the legendary Jim Thorpe.

Of course, anyone with even a passing knowledge of Thorpe’s Olympic exploits also knows that it was his pre-Olympics semi-pro summer baseball experiences that led to the loss (although ultimately restored) of the gold medals he earned winning the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 games, performances that led host King Gustav V of Sweden to tell him, "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world." 

But while that assessment was only reinforced by Thorpe’s subsequent pro football career, one which arguably made the former college all-American the pro game’s first major star, while also earning him a spot in the Hall of Fame, less well known is the six-season, post-Olympic major league baseball career that Thorpe fashioned. While it was not at the same level as his track and gridiron efforts it nevertheless added substantively to the incomparable resume of the versatile legend.    

Ironically, while it was for only about $60 a month that Thorpe had lost his Olympic eligibility. The three-year, $6,000 contract the 25-year-old Thorpe signed with the New York Giants in February 1913 represented the highest salary ever given a baseball rookie. He also reportedly received a $500 signing bonus, and while his athletic prowess had been proven on a global stage, it is safe to assume that his high profile and likely fan appeal were a part of the equation. This suspicion was reinforced when Giants manager John McGraw admitted that not only had he not seen Thorpe play but that he did not even know if he was right- or left-handed. It was not a particularly auspicious start to what would prove to be a checkered relationship between the talented, if unproven ballplayer, and the dominant manager.  

Despite the fact that he spent parts of six seasons in the National League from 1913 to 1919, it is hard to say how good a baseball player Thorpe was, or perhaps more accurately, could have been. In the beginning, he was used primarily as a pinch hitter and pinch runner, and while it appeared he had trouble hitting breaking pitches, given his limited and sporadic playing time it was hard to really know.

Thorpe saw only limited playing time in 1913, appearing in only 19 games and getting 35 at-bats. While he was a part of the Giants off-season World Tour in 1913-1914, Thorpe and McGraw clashed, and when the new season started he again played sporadically, appearing in only 30 games, and hitting .194 in only 31 at-bats. While Thorpe appeared in 17 games with the Giants in 1915, hitting .231 in 52 at-bats, he spent most of the season in the Eastern League, splitting time between Harrisburg and Jersey City. There he hit a combined .303 while also stealing 22 bases. However, it was not enough to earn him another shot with the Giants. Instead, he spent 1916 in Milwaukee in the American Association when in his longest and most complete professional season he hit .274 in 143 games, collecting 157 hits, including 25 doubles, 14 triples, and 10 home runs.

Brought back to the Giants in 1917, he appeared in four games before he was "loaned" to the Cincinnati Reds who were managed by McGraw’s one-time star hurler, Christy Mathewson. There, Thorpe played 77 games and in 251 at-bats, compiled a .247 average, hammered out 62 hits including 8 triples, and drove in 36 runs. He was eventually sent back to the Giants where he played in 22 games, but struggled at the plate, hitting only .182 to finish with a combined .237 average in 103 games. It marked the only major league season in which he played in over 100 games.  

The Giants winning the 1917 National League pennant also presented Thorpe with his only chance to play in the World Series. And yet for a man who had shined on the world’s largest athletic stage, his brief brush with baseball’s showcase event was, in its own way a fitting, if not ironic, representation of his baseball career. Inserted into the starting line-up and slated to hit sixth for the Giants in Game Five of their series with the Chicago White Sox, after the Giants scored a first-inning run, and with runners on first and second and two out against White Sox ace, right-hander Eddie Cicotte, McGraw, by now knowing that Thorpe both hit and threw right-handed, opted to have lefthanded hitter Dave Robertson pinch-hit. Robertson singled in a run and then replaced Thorpe in right field. The on-deck circle was as close as Jim Thorpe got to playing in the World Series.

The frustration continued into 1918, another season of limited duty in which Thorpe appeared in only 58 games. Having appeared in only two games and amidst complaints about his lack of playing time, in May 1919, the Giants traded Thorpe to the Boston Braves. There, in 60 games, the now 32-year-old Thorpe hit a career-best .327, driving in 25 runs and stealing seven bases. It was the final season in a major league career that saw him compile a .252 batting average across 289 games in parts of six seasons. It was also a career, that especially given all he achieved in other athletic arenas left people wondering about “what might have been” had he ever had the chance to play regularly. On the other hand, Thorpe’s career may also have been the embodiment of Ted Williams’ often-repeated observation that “the hardest single thing to do in sports is to hit a baseball.”  

With sports being central to Thorpe’s very being, after his final big-league season he still rattled around in the minor leagues, playing for the Toledo Mud Hens, the Fitchburg/Worcester Boosters, the Hartford Senators, and the Portland Beavers over the course of the next few seasons. And while there is no statistical evidence to bear it out, given the state of record-keeping at the time, not to mention the reality of Jim Thorpe, one cannot totally discount the reports that he continued to play into his early 40s.  

Meanwhile, with the emergence of pro football in the latter part of the 1910s, beginning in 1917 Thorpe burnished his legend. Building upon his collegiate exploits, he starred for the Canton Bulldogs from 1917-1922 in the fall, while playing baseball in the spring and summer during those same years. And in fact, in 1920, when the National Football League was officially organized, the league’s charter members named Thorpe the league president. His exploits and reputation were critical to moving the pro game forward, setting it on a path whose modern status could never have been imagined.

And yet like so much of Jim Thorpe’s life and career, his impact on that game was unparalleled. In the end, while baseball may not have represented Thorpe at his athletic best, it was, in many ways—good and bad—an important part of the life and career of America’s greatest all-around athlete, while his multi-faceted connection to baseball remains an important part of the game’s history. 

Bill Pruden is a high school history and government teacher who has been a baseball fan for six decades. He has been writing about baseball—primarily through SABR sponsored platforms, but also in some historical reference works—for about a decade.  His email address is courtwatchernc@aol.com.


Extra Innings

"I heard people yelling my name, and I couldn't realize how one fellow could have so many friends."
- Jim Thorpe, on his return home to the United States following the 1912 Olympic Games