Jim Thorpe's life brings together a twisted strand of American myths.
Still acclaimed as the country's greatest athlete, the Native American Thorpe's greatest triumph, winning the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Olympics, was unjustly stolen from him. Applauded for his sports prowess,Thorpe suffered from exploitation and the racism of pernicious Indian stereotypes.
For years, he was one of those essential famous Americans whose story was taught to schoolchildren, along with Ben Franklin, George Washington, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and a few others. Thorpe's fame has faded in recent years, but his name remains legendary.
Noted biographer and journalist David Maraniss's "Path Lit by Lightning, a Life of Jim Thorpe" will generate renewed attention to Thorpe's life. With deep research and engrossing writing, Maraniss examines Thorpe's legacy in the broader context of American society. From Thorpe's experiences, he looks at American injustice against Indians, early 20th century sports and journalism, Hollywood and the costs of fame.
Along with college football and Olympics mastery, Thorpe was also a National Football League pioneer, and had a brief career in the Major Leagues. Maraniss entertainingly recounts Thorpe's days with the Canton Bulldogs, one of the first NFL teams. Named the first president of the fledgling league, Thorpe give the NFL and its predecessor initial credibility.
Thorpe's baseball career is also examined, including a fascinating worldwide tour he made with John McGraw's New York Giants. His major league career unfairly thwarted, Thorpe played for a number of years for minor league teams.
Maraniss' biographies of Barack Obama, Vince Lombardi and Roberto Clemente presented careers of continued triumph. In contrast, Thorpe suffered years of downfalls after his early successes. The author mostly succeeds in upholding the interest in Thorpe's last 30 years of disappointment.
Battling chronic alcoholism, Thorpe drifted from job to job, and unsuccessful sports promotion schemes. He was cheated by promoters, and often gave away money he couldn't afford. Married three times, Thorpe also was a neglectful husband and father, often traveling with sports teams or other promotional ventures.
Thorpe also attempted a career in Hollywood, but was reduced to bit roles, including an appearance in James Cagney's "White Heat." With his enduring fame, he spoke out for Indian rights in the film industry.
Maraniss gives a full account of the production of "Jim Thorpe: All-American," an inaccurate and melodramatic film starring Burt Lancaster as Thorpe. Thorpe's paltry payment for the film is one of the many injustices Thorpe suffered through the years.
Born in Oklahoma to the Sac and Fox Nation, Thorpe was one of the Native Americans sent to the Carlisle Industrial Indian School in Carlisle, Pa., whose goal was to "kill the Indian and save the man," or eliminate all vestiges of Indian culture and replace them with white civilization. Under the guidance of famed coach Pop Warner, Thorpe gained fame as a football dynamo for the Carlisle Indians, who played against Harvard, Yale, Penn and other leading college football powers of the day.
Starring as a defensive and offensive halfback, Thorpe also punted and drop-kicked field goals and extra points. Also a prolific passer, he could boot the ball 80 yards and score field goals from long distances. He was named a first team All-American by Walter Camp in 1911 and 1912. Famous sportswriter Grantland Rice in the 1950s called Thorpe the all-time greatest football player.
Under Warner, he also excelled in track and field at Carlisle. Thorpe qualified for the 1912 U.S. Olympics team in the pentathlon and decathlon. Warner was the coach of the team that traveled to Stockholm, Sweden for the Games. In a stunning dominant performance, Thorpe won both multi-event competitions, receiving special trophies from the king of Sweden and the emperor of Russia along with the two gold medals.
After the Olympic performance, Thorpe returned home to great acclaim, including a ticker tape parade in New York City. Heading back to the gridiron that fall, he led Carlisle to victory over Army at West Point in one of the greatest all-time college games. Maraniss makes a point of mentioning that the West Point stadium lies in the shadow of Custer's tomb. Dwight Eisenhower played for the Army squad, and remembered Thrope's prowess throughout his life. Thorpe and his Carlisle teammates celebrated the win as revenge for the U.S. Army's destruction of Indian tribes.
In 1913, newspaper reports disclosed that Thorpe had received payment for playing semipro baseball in 1910 and 1911 in North Carolina. Declared a professional in violation of the Olympics' then strict amateurism rules, Thorpe was stripped of his medals and trophies, beginning a controversy that generated heated debate for years.
Maraniss presents convincing evidence that Warner and Carlisle President Moses Friedman knew about Thorpe playing for Rocky Mount and Wilmington in the league, which went defunct after several years. College athletes playing minor league baseball was an accepted practice. But Thorpe unlike the others didn't use an assumed name.
Warner denied knowing about Thorpe playing in the minor league, and condescendingly blamed Thorpe for the transgression. James Sullivan, the head of the American Amateur Union, also refused to defend him.
Thorpe lost his medals and trophies although the rules for the Stockholm Olympics stipulated that any charges of professionalism had to be made within 60 days. The newspaper reports about Thorpe's minor league play arose 180 days after the Olympics ended.
But the International Olympics Committee decided to strip Thorpe of his medals and trophies, a decision that Sullivan refused to challenge. Sullivan ordered that the medals and trophies be quickly sent to the IOC, which also removed Thorpe from the record book. Maraniss gives an inadequate explanation of why Sullivan took such hasty action, and how the AAU could take ownership of what might be considered Thorpe's personal property.
Longtime American Olympics Committee and International Olympics Committee head Avery Brundage for years refused to restore Thorpe's victories. Castigated by Maraniss as a Nazi sympathizer who supported the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Brundage competed in the 1912 decathlon, withdrawing after a few events. The book indicates that Brundage might have been moved by resentment over Thorpe's success.
After years of protest by Thorpe's family, and Rice and other sportswriters, the IOC in 1982 partially restored Thorpe's triumphs, declaring him a co-champion with the runners-up. His family received replicas of his medals, which were somehow lost over the years. Maraniss doesn't say, but the trophies, a sculpture and a sterling silver Viking ship, presumably remain at the Olympics headquarters in Switzerland.
Just before the publication of Maraniss' book, the IOC announced the full restoration of Thorpe's victories.
Thorpe's greatness transcended a few medals, even in his most desperate days. Maraniss portrays a resilient man who never lost his champion's heart.