Famous For Something Else: Rethinking Jim Thorpe’s Baseball Career

It’s sometimes said that Jim Thorpe, for all his great talent, couldn’t hit a curveball, and that baseball was his worst sport.

Well, maybe, but then you look at his statistics. Take a look:

Year Age Tm Lg G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ Pos
1913 26 NYG NL 19 36 35 6 5 0 0 1 2 2 1 9 .143 .167 .229 .395 12 /O
1914 27 NYG NL 30 31 31 5 6 1 0 0 2 1 0 4 .194 .194 .226 .419 27 /O
1915 28 NYG NL 17 54 52 8 12 3 1 0 1 4 2 16 .231 .259 .327 .586 81 O
1917 30 TOT NL 103 404 308 41 73 5 10 4 40 12 14 45 .237 .275 .357 .632 96 O97/8
1917 30 NYG NL 4 69 2 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .500 .500 .500 1.000 211 9/78
1917 30 CIN NL 77 269 251 29 62 2 8 4 36 11 6 35 .247 .267 .367 .634 97 O97
1917 30 NYG NL 22 66 55 10 10 3 2 0 4 1 8 10 .182 .297 .309 .606 88 O
1918 31 NYG NL 58 119 113 15 28 4 4 1 11 3 4 18 .248 .286 .381 .666 103 O7/98
1919 32 TOT NL 62 172 159 16 52 7 3 1 26 7 6 30 .327 .359 .428 .787 142 O78/93
1919 32 NYG NL 2 4 3 0 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 .333 .333 .333 .667 101 /O87
1919 32 BSN NL 60 168 156 16 51 7 3 1 25 7 6 30 .327 .360 .429 .789 143 O78/93
6 Yrs 289 816 698 91 176 20 18 7 82 29 27 122 .252 .286 .362 .648 99
162 Game Avg. 162 457 391 51 99 11 10 4 46 16 15 68 .252 .286 .362 .648 99
NYG (6 yrs) 152 379 291 46 63 11 7 2 21 11 15 57 .216 .262 .323 .585 78
BSN (1 yr) 60 168 156 16 51 7 3 1 25 7 6 30 .327 .360 .429 .789 143
CIN (1 yr) 77 269 251 29 62 2 8 4 36 11 6 35 .247 .267 .367 .634 97
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/8/2013.

As you can see, early in his career, Thorpe was dreadful in his limited time playing baseball. But as time went on, he got better. By his final season in the big leagues, 1919, he was hitting a good .327/.359/.428 and his OPS was .787, which is above average. Hardly a world-beater, but definitely not the failure many make his baseball career out to be.

But, wait, what did he do in the minor leagues?

Year Age Tm Lg Lev G AB H 2B 3B HR BA SLG TB
1909 22 Rocky Mount ECAR D 44 138 35 4 0 1 .254 .304 42
1910 23 2 Teams 1 Lg D 45 128 31 2 2 0 .242 .289 37
1910 23 Rocky Mount,Fayetteville ECAR D 45 128 31 2 2 0 .242 .289 37
1910 23 Rocky Mount ECAR D 29 76 18 2 1 0 .237 .289 22
1910 23 Fayetteville ECAR D 16 52 13 0 1 0 .250 .288 15
1915 28 2 Teams 1 Lg AA 96 370 112 13 7 2 .303 .392 145
1915 28 Newark/Harrisburg,Jersey City IL AA 96 370 112 13 7 2 .303 .392 145
1915 28 Jersey City IL AA
1915 28 Newark/Harrisburg IL AA
1916 29 Milwaukee AA AA 143 573 157 25 14 10 .274 .419 240
1920 33 Akron IL AA 128 522 188 28 15 16 .360 .563 294
1921 34 Toledo AA AA 133 505 181 36 13 9 .358 .535 270
1922 35 3 Teams 2 Lgs AA-A 131 501 168 26 15 10 .335 .507 254
1922 35 Portland PCL AA 35 120 37 3 2 1 .308 .392 47
1922 35 Hartford EL A
1922 35 Hartford,Fitchburg/Worcester EL A 96 381 131 23 13 9 .344 .543 207
1922 35 Fitchburg/Worcester EL A
7 Seasons 720 2737 872 134 66 48 .319 .468 1282
AA (5 seasons) AA 535 2090 675 105 51 38 .323 .477 996
D (2 seasons) D 89 266 66 6 2 1 .248 .297 79
A (1 season) A 96 381 131 23 13 9 .344 .543 207
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/8/2013

These minor league stats, as incomplete as they are, seem to suggest that Thorpe definitely had a talent at baseball- perhaps not against MLB pitching, but certainly good enough to wreck havoc upon lower levels. But, take a look at those years after his 1919 season- the one season where he hit pretty well in MLB. He kept hitting above .300- at times well above it, and in pretty good leagues like the International League and American Association.

So, what happened? Why didn’t he return to the big leagues after 1919? SABR’s BioProject suggests it was because he started to focus more on professional football- he was the first commissioner of what would one day become the NFL, for example. We’ll never know what he might have accomplished in any one sport if he had focused solely on it- but Thorpe was too great an athlete to be held to just one. Or two. Or three…

And that is and was a good thing.

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2 thoughts on “Famous For Something Else: Rethinking Jim Thorpe’s Baseball Career

  1. Jim Thorpe was, quite likely, the greatest athlete that can be found in the last 150 years or so. I know nothing of athletes from the historic Roman Empire, but, it is probable that Thorpe would have easily held his own against any Gladiator. So, one could substantially suppose, that Jim Thorpe would be among the finest ‘all around’ athletes to be found in the last 1,000 years !

  2. Pingback: For Super Bowl Weekend: “Famous For Something Else” Football Players | The Baseball Continuum

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