When collectors discuss the storied names of early football players, Jim Thorpe is one that quickly is at the forefront. Thorpe is certainly one of the key figures that was instrumental in growing that sport. But in addition to a storied football career and Olympic career that saw him win gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon in 1912, Thorpe was also a baseball player.
Thorpe didn’t just play baseball recreationally — he was a real professional player in the major leagues. That tidbit tends to surprise many collectors that may have been unaware of the fact that he played for the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds, and Boston Braves. A career .252 hitter, Thorpe entered the pros in 1913 but didn’t excel in the majors. However, as a gold medalist that starred in football, that he hung around for seven years in the major leagues is yet more evidence that he is one of the greatest athletes of all time. Thorpe’s modest career totals included scoring 91 runs, accumulating 176 hits, an slugging seven home runs while striking out 122 times.
Thorpe did not appear on many baseball cards during his playing days for a variety of reasons. For one thing, much of his career was during World War I when few baseball cards were issued. And as stated, Thorpe was not a star on the diamond, which certainly limited his influence and ability to appear in many sets. Still, he’s found on a handful of cards and demand for them is extremely high.
Here’s a look at some of the baseball cards of Thorpe that were released during his playing days.
1916 Mendelsohn M101-5
One of Thorpe’s more popular baseball cards is his card found in the M101-5 Mendelsohn set. But while it’s found in that popular set, it’s hardly an easy card to find. In fact, it’s one of those card that many collectors have never even seen.
Thorpe is pictured on it as a right fielder with the New York Giants. As No. 176 in the set, he’s shown wielding a bat on the front of the white-bordered card with a real black and white image.
M101-4 and M101-5 cards are very popular with collectors. Many different advertisers used them so, similar to strip cards and some tobacco cards, they can be found with a variety of back advertisements. But they are not terribly common and all of the cards in the sets, including Thorpe’s, are somewhat tough to locate.
While most collectors will point to the Babe Ruth rookie cards or the Shoeless Joe Jackson card in the Mendelsohn sets (Ruth’s, after all, is one of the most valuable baseball cards in existence), Thorpe’s card shouldn’t be forgotten as it’s one of the most valuable cards in the entire M101-5 release. That fact might surprise some but, with so few cards, his M101-5 card always commands significant interest in auctions. Even in mid-grade condition, it sells for five figures.
By the 1920s, Thorpe was still continuing his baseball career. But his final time in the majors was in the 1919 season and after that, Thorpe was relegated to the minor leagues. Surprisingly, that 1919 year was one of his better seasons, as he batted a career high .327, splitting time with the Braves and Giants.
That made for a very unique card as Thorpe is found in the 1922 Zee-Nut set. Zee-Nuts were a long running series that featured only minor league players over several decades. Many of the players are unknowns but the sets are known for featuring early minor league cards of some big names.
Thorpe was included in the 1922 Zee-Nut set as a member of Portland. However, since it’s a post-major league career card, it’s actually one of his final cards and not a rookie issue by any definition. It’s also one of the few cards that depicts Thorpe as a fielder and, like others in the set, is set against a plain white background with Thorpe’s name and team on the front of the blank-backed issue.
Still, even though it’s one of Thorpe’s final cards, it’s also incredibly valuable. Like the others here, it’s a very difficult card to find and is hardly ever auctioned or sold. A PSA 5 sold last year for more than $44,000 in a Heritage auction.
1915 W-UNC Strip Card
When it comes to the rarest Jim Thorpe baseball card, this one’s got a possible claim to that title.
This unique card is not even fully known to experienced collectors. It’s such a mystery, in fact, that it was not even classified in Jefferson Burdick’s American Card Catalog and, without a formal designation, bears the W-UNC name (given to strip cards that were not formally cataloged). The short, obscure set has a basic look with white borders, and includes a variety of baseball stars.
The card features Thorpe mid-swing with a black and white image. While it is extremely difficult to find, collectors may at least recognize the image on the front. That picture was also used on the early pre-war Police Gazette supplement on which Thorpe appears. How rare is the blank-backed uncataloged card? When it sold for nearly $24,000 in a 2015 Heritage auction, it was listed as the only known example.
E270 Colgan’s Chips
Speaking of ultra-rare Jim Thorpe cards, put this one in that category, too.
This card is so tough that its existence was not even known to many collectors for a while. Thorpe had been rumored to be in the E270 Colgan’s Chips set but few had seen it. But the card did in fact surface and was sold at auction in 2007.
The Colgan’s Chips cards were early candy cards. They were disc-shaped to fit into the circular canisters in which they were distributed. Thorpe’s card includes a portrait of the legendary athlete, picturing him as a member of the Giants. The cards are thin and often found with heavy creases or tears as a result.
How many of these cards exist is up for interpretation. But the card is so rarely seen that even finding rough estimates of its value are incredibly difficult.