What happened a century ago was a major game changer for a man who made Carlisle world-famous.

Word came out that Jim Thorpe had played professional baseball prior to representing the United States as an amateur athlete in the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm.

The man dubbed “the world’s greatest athlete” by the King of Sweden only months before had fallen from grace, laid low by what The Evening Sentinel believed was a conspiracy. In an article published on Jan. 28, 1913, an unnamed newspaper writer offered a theory on what had happened behind the scenes to bring Thorpe down.

Back then, giving writers bylines was not an accepted newsroom practice and newspapers were not shy at all about mixing facts with commentary in a news story. The major headline that day on the local page was that Thorpe admitted to playing baseball for a salary in 1909 and 1910. The article included the full text of Thorpe’s apology letter to officials of the Amateur Athletic Union of America.

In the letter, Thorpe confirmed that he had accepted money from semi-professional teams in Fayetteville and Rocky Mount, N.C. Thorpe wrote that he had done so out of love for the sport, not the money, without realizing that he had violated the rules which govern amateur sports in America.

Thorpe had learned from other players that it would be better for him not to let anyone know that he was playing semi-pro baseball. That was the reason why he didn’t tell his coach Glenn “Pop” Warner until after the story broke. It was Warner who had registered Thorpe with the AAU.

“I never realized until now what a big mistake I made by keeping it secret,” Thorpe wrote. “I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know all about such things.”

His exposure as a professional athlete prompted the AAU to issue an apology to the International Committee for allowing Thorpe to participate in the summer games. Thorpe had to return his two gold medals along with the Viking Ship trophy and bust of King Gustav he had earned for winning the decathlon and pentathlon.

Conspiracy theory

In the Jan. 28 story, The Sentinel writer was convinced the whole affair was revenge for the harsh words coach Warner had for baseball about a month before the story broke that Thorpe had accepted money to play ball.

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It was reported how, in December 1912, Warner told reporters that baseball was making "bums" of its players. The Sentinel writer speculated that these comments created enemies for Warner among baseball supporters.

"They were not long in finding a method of retribution," the writer said. "There is little doubt that Thorpe owes his suspension to ... the desire on the part of some people to show that ... he (Warner) had a former ball player under him.... It seems very probable that the charges as brought against Thorpe are more of a hit at Warner himself than anything else."

The Sentinel came to the defense of Thorpe in a Jan. 28 column published on the same page as the news story. In it, the writer criticized the AAU for overreacting. The column reads:

"... [I]t should be remembered the charge was a technical one at best, and that the young Indian, like nine-tenths of the people of the country, had no idea that playing summer baseball for a salary would give him the name ‘professional.’ He did not earn his living at baseball although he received pay for his playing. Even now we would say ... in common understanding Thorpe is emphatically not a professional, although the rule of the AAU ... makes him out to be one."

The column writer added that Thorpe had a cleaner record than a lot of college athletes and had refused to commercialize his Olympic success. "Baseball did not figure in any of his contests, and even if he had been a professional and an expert in his game, he is strictly an amateur in the contests in which he competed in Stockholm."

Emotional toll

Tom Benjey of Carlisle is an expert on Indian School football and has written several books about the players. He said that while this admission doomed Thorpe’s amateur career, it was not a total negative for the athlete.

"Thorpe was a hot property, at the peak of his skill and his value," Benjey said. Just weeks before the story broke, Thorpe was named a first team All-American for the second time in football. His coach, "Pop" Warner, had a law degree and was able to negotiate a high-paying five-year contract for Thorpe to play professional baseball with the New York Giants.

What hurt Thorpe was he never got over the loss of his Olympic gold medals, Benjey said. Thorpe’s medals were eventually restored to him posthumously in 1982.

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