Review by Budd Bailey
Those who are driving along Interstate 476 in Eastern Pennsylvania for the first time might be a little surprised to see an exit sign that reads “Jim Thorpe.” After all, the famous athlete never set foot in this part of the state in the time he was alive. The mystery becomes a little deeper when those cars drive into town and find a little park that hosts Thorpe’s grave. Here? Really?
There’s a story behind it, of course – one of many that surrounds one of America’s greatest all-around athletes. Now David Maraniss explains all of them in massive detail in his book, “Path Lit by Lightning.”
Most sports fans know at least the basic details of Thorpe’s athletic life. He was born in what is now Oklahoma as part of the Sac and Fox Nation in 1887. Thorpe eventually landed at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, which was designed to “Americanize” some of the young members of the Native population. His athletic abilities were noticed along the way there, and he quickly became something of a one-man program.
Thorpe had first caught the eye of Pop Warner, a legendary football coach, through track. But it was tough to keep someone of his ability off the football team. Sure enough, he soon moved up to a starting job in the backfield and became an All-American. It’s really tough to explain how Carlisle became a college football powerhouse to a modern audience. It wasn’t really a college in the traditional sense – more of an institution designed to reprogram the Native population into becoming “Americanized,” and the admission rules were a little, um, arbitrary. But Warner was ambitious enough to build up a program that was more than competitive with the nation’s best college teams around 1910. A highlight came when Carlisle went to West Point and knocked off Army – a small payback for the way that the real Army had massacred Native populations over the years.
Thorpe hadn’t forgotten his track and field talents, and entered the Olympics in Stockholm in 1912 as a participant in the pentathlon and the decathlon. He won both events, earning recognition as the world’s greatest athlete. But later it was revealed that Thorpe had played professional baseball during the summer of 1910 in North Carolina, and his medals were taken away. That sparked an argument that lasted literally decades, and it could be argued that matters still were never made right in this area.
Thorpe turned up on the roster of baseball’s New York Giants in 1913, and was good enough to make the team but not good enough to play much. Jim also was around in the days when pro football was in its formative years. He was named the head of the league in 1920 that eventually became the National Football League for a while, although it was something of a figurehead position. Thorpe took part in athletics as long as he could, and then more or less living off his reputation for the rest of his life. He had a couple of strikes against him along the way – a lack of money management skills, and occasional issues with alcohol consumption. Thorpe wasn’t too good at family matters either, going through three wives and several children along the way.
Maraniss, one of the nation’s top authors, has several top biographies to his credit on subjects ranging from Roberto Clemente to Vince Lombardi. Here he puts his usual exhaustive research effort into tracking down the details of Thorpe’s whole life. That’s not easy, considering how Jim and his families tended to bounce around the country in a futile search for some sort of stability. At times it’s difficult to believe that Mariniss found so much information about someone who was prominent about 110 years ago, and whose origins weren’t exactly documented thoroughly at the time.
Maraniss examines the details of Thorpe’s journey through a definite prism. He puts him in his time and place when the Natives were treated horribly by almost any standard. Reading newspaper stories about Jim’s athletic days are worth a cringe or six with their use of stereotypes. In other words, Carlisle didn’t just beat football opponents, they scalped them. Indeed, the story reads something like many boxing biographies at times. A talented if somewhat uneducated athlete is used by others for financial gain. Then when his athletic usefulness has been chewed up, the athlete is discarded.
Two of the major villains in that area are Warner and Avery Brundage. When the news broke nationally that Thorpe had played pro baseball and lost his Olympic medals, Warner essentially threw him under the bus by saying he had it coming. That’s in spite of the fact that Warner knew about the baseball episode beforehand. He tried to make it look as if he was Thorpe’s lifelong benefactor (particularly in the movie version of Thorpe’s life), but really was just another guy out for himself. Brundage never really considered reopening the Thorpe case when he was head of the International Olympic Committee, even though there was a rule on the books that said complaints about eligibility had to be filed within 30 days of the competition. Brundage may have been a little jealous of Thorpe’s Olympic acclaim, since he did little as part of the American team in 1912. History has not been kind to Brundage in other ways, due to his embrace of the Nazi government at the 1936 Games, and his handling of the terrorist episode in Munich in 1972. Replicas of Thorpe’s medals were given to his descendants in 1983, although Jim was only declared a co-champion at the time. The fight continues.
As for the burial, Thorpe’s third wife worked out a deal with the citizens of a Pennsylvania town that they would rename the town for him if his body was brought to it. Descendants again have fought that decision for years, saying that Thorpe himself wanted to be buried in his native Oklahoma. But court cases that even reached the Supreme Court haven’t changed anything, and Jim remains in Jim Thorpe.
Reading this book is not exactly a casual commitment. It takes quite a while to go through the nearly 700 pages contained between the covers. (OK, about 100 pages of that are notes. But still.) The amount of research is shown on almost every page. For example, it’s one thing to print a few of Jim’s love letters to one of his eventual wives. It’s another to print so many of them.
That level of effort certainly makes “Path Lit by Lightning” the definitive biography of Thorpe. He’s still the standard when it comes to all-around athletic ability, paving the way for such athletes as Bo Jackson decades later. Maraniss deserves credit for reintroducing Thorpe into our sports conversation; maybe we’ll all learn some lessons from his story.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)