The Early Baseball Career of Jim Thorpe
Jim Thorpe, the product of an Irish father and Sac and Fox mother, was born in Indian Territory by the town of Prague, Oklahoma on May 22, 1887, a year and six days before the normally reported date. As a teenager, he entered the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania near Harrisburg.
Generally acknowledged as one of the, if not the, greatest all-around athlete of the 20th century, Thorpe began making a name for himself in 1902 at age 15, as did the Carlisle sports program under legendary coach Pop Warner. By the end of the decade, Thorpe was nationally known for his skills on the gridiron and in track and field. In 1912, Carlisle won the national collegiate championship in football.
Baseball, though present and respected, was a secondary sport under Coach Warner. Thorpe, growing to be 6’1” and 185 pounds, pitched for the college club and played most of the other positions as well.
Thorpe played for the Carlisle nine into early June in 1909. On Wednesday the 16th in Raleigh, he made his professional debut with the Rocky Mount Railroaders of the Class-D Eastern (North) Carolina League. The ECL was a six-team league with a 90-game schedule which began in mid May. That season, Rocky Mount fielded its first pro club in more than a decade.
Playing every position but catcher and second base for Rocky Mount, Thorpe was paid between $15 and $20 a week. Thorpe, age 22, and fellow Carlisle men Jesse Youngdeer and Joe Libby joined Rocky Mount at the same time. Libby was the baseball captain for Carlisle.
Philadelphia Inquirer 2/27/1909
According to the Raleigh News and Observer, Thorpe proved “very effective” on the mound in his debut, pitching the entire game and winning 4-2 and ceding only 5 hits.
Charlotte Observer 6/17/1909
Thorpe’s main catcher was Joe Walsh, a product of Villanova University, who would play five games with the New York Highlanders from 1910-11.
On the 19th, Thorpe tossed a 1-0 shutout at home over Wilson, allowing four hits. The Charlotte Observer exclaimed:
Thorpe, the Carlisle Indian pitcher, for the second time this week proved his effectiveness and, while he gave up four hits, he was not to be touched when a hit was needed for run-getting.
Thorpe, a popular player, was called Chief or Big Chief in Rocky Mount, a common nickname for Native Americans during the era.
On July 2, he tossed a 2-hit, 6-3 victory over Goldsboro. He lost 1-0 to Wilson at home on the 24th, conceding four hits. On August 7, Thorpe pitched both games of a doubleheader in Rocky Mount versus Goldsboro. He lost the first game 4-2 but ran away with an 8-0 victory in the second, a five-inning contest. According to the Charlotte Observer:
Thorpe pitched both game for locals and would have won both with proper support. The first game was lost on errors and passed balls…In the second game Thorpe held the Giants at his mercy. He allowed them only three clean hits.
At the end of the month, August 25, a drunken Thorpe and teammate Marvin O’Gara ran afoul of the law.
Charlotte Observer 8/28/1909
Rocky Mount was a poor team in 1909, the worst in the league. They finished with a 27-61 record, over 22 games out of first and 15 games behind the fifth-place Goldsboro. Likewise, Thorpe had a losing record on the mound. In 44 games, he posted a 9-10 record with a .254 batting average.
Reserved the previous November, Thorpe returned to Rocky Mount in 1910, arriving on May 1. In 29 games for the club re posted a 10-10 record. His record belies his true effectiveness; he regularly kept Rocky Mount in a position to win their contests. Thorpe was charged with the loss in more than a few close games (all complete games):
- May 28, 1-0
- June 1, 2-1
- June 6, 2-0
- June 8, 2-1
- June 29, 3-2
- July 23, 4-3
He later claimed that he injured his arm during the preseason.
On May 28, Thorpe loss to the league champion Fayetteville Highlanders 1-0, ceding only 3 hits and striking out 5. The Greensboro Daily Times commented:
[Bill} Luyster was pitted against Thorpe, and both got off nicely. The Indian was wild at times, but he was equally as invincible in yielding hits.
On June 11, Thorpe won 3-2 over Raleigh and by the same score on the 25th over Wilson, fanning six in the latter contest.
Greensboro Daily News 6/12/1910
Greensboro Daily News 6/26/1910
On July 20, Thorpe shut out Wilmington 2-0. Three days later, he tossed a doubleheader against the same club, losing the first contest 4-3 and winning the second 1-0.
On August 13, Thorpe was traded along with outfielder Schuman to Fayetteville for pitcher Pete Boyle and outfielder Oswald Peartree. Thorpe wasn’t needed on the mound in Fayetteville; he manned first base. In 16 games he hit a modest .250.
Fayetteville included 20-year-old Erskine Mayer who would pitch for two major league pennant winners later in the decade: 1915 Phillies; 1919 White Sox. Mayer went 15-2 for Fayetteville in 1910.
Thorpe reportedly had an iffy relationship with Fayetteville manager Charlie Clancy; the animosity would surface rather dramatically a couple of years later.
Fayetteville won the tight-knit ECL pennant with a 47-37 record, including a 4-game-to-1 victory over Rocky Mount in the playoffs.
Thorpe returned home to Oklahoma in 1911. In the spring he signed with the semi-pro Anadarko Champions. He was released in July for financial reasons.
Thorpe was named to the All-American football team in 1911 and 1912. Thorpe and Carlisle were the talk of the nation in 1912. The college won the national championship. (In a game versus Army, future U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower was injured trying to tackle Thorpe.)
Thorpe dazzled the world at the Stockholm, Sweden Olympics that summer. Spurring his legend, he captured the pentathlon and decathlon. In September he also captured the All-Around Championship sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union.
Rumors that Thorpe had previously played professional baseball had been ongoing. The Worcester Telegram broke the story on January 22, 1913. By this time, Thorpe had returned to Carlisle.
On a tip by Jesse Burkett, a local, a reporter was led to Thorpe’s former manager Charlie Clancy. He ran at the mouth to the reporter confirming the professional baseball story and for extra measure throwing in quite a few negative remarks about Thorpe: he had a “yellow streak;” couldn’t hit a curve ball; faked injuries; too much a drunk to make a good player.
Clancy mixed up the old team that Thorpe played with – thus allowing Thorpe a little room to say that he didn’t play for that team an initially deny the story. Clancy later retracted his statements to another reporter and even wrote Pop Warner denying the whole thing but it was too late. The reporter had already found a picture of Thorpe from in 1910 in a Reach Guide.
Philadelphia Inquirer 1/23/1913
Note the implication at the end of the article. Clancy, perhaps spitefully, relayed some old stories about Thorpe’s drinking escapades to the reporter. (How a sot could have racked up the accomplishments of 1912, Clancy failed to comprehend.) Two days later, the matter was formally addressed by the AAU.
Boston Journal 1/25/1913
Thorpe could have played in the ECL under an assumed name like many others did during the era. But he didn’t and never really hid his experience. His stats were readily found in the Spalding Guide. When called before the AAU, Thorpe owned up to his professional past.
New York Times 1/28/1913
He was consequently, striped of his medals. With the Carlisle man now a confirmed professional, major league baseball clubs immediately made their pitch for Thorpe’s services. Serious bidders included the New York Giants, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Browns. (Various minor league teams made claim to the Olympian – but none held up.) Within a week , John McGraw of the Giants inked the celebrity to a undisclosed contract. (Reports put it at a three-year deal at $6000 per, plus a $500 signing bonus and $2500 for Warner.)
Baltimore Sun, 1908, 1911
Boston Journal, 25 January 1913
Kate Buford. Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.
Charlotte Observer, North Carolina, 1909-1910
Cleveland Plain Dealer, 29 March 1953
Greensboro Daily News, North Carolina, 1910
Harrisburg Patriot, Pennsylvania, 27 February 1909
New York Times, 1909, 1913
Philadelphia Inquirer, 1909, 1913
Seattle Times, 26 February 1909
Leverett T. Smith, “Minor League Baseball in Rocky Mount”
Sporting Life, 1909
Springfield Republican, Massachusetts, 25 January 1913
The Sporting News, 1913
Washington Post, 1911, 1913