‘Everybody knew Jim Thorpe’: biographer David Maraniss on a pioneering athlete

·11-min read

As Olympic comebacks go, it is hard to top. Last month, Jim Thorpe was reinstated as sole gold medalist in the pentathlon and decathlon in the Stockholm games, more than a century after he won them.

Thorpe, a Native American, starred in 1912 only to be stripped of his titles for breaking strict amateurism rules. His family and other campaigners long believed the decision unjust and racist. In 1982, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) declared Thorpe joint winner of both events but did not restore his Olympic records. Finally, on the 110th anniversary of Thorpe winning the decathlon, it recognised him as the outright winner of both events.

The account of how Thorpe was robbed makes for a central chapter in Path Lit by Lightning, David Maraniss’s new biography of the man who – gifted at athletics, baseball, football, ice skating and even ballroom dancing – was voted the Associated Press Athlete of the Half-Century in 1950.

Maraniss, a Pulitzer-winning journalist and author, recounts how Thorpe returned from Stockholm to a ticker-tape parade in New York, only to have his medals taken away when it emerged he had been paid $25 a week to play minor league baseball.

Maraniss points out that hundreds of college athletes played summer baseball but most – including the future president Dwight Eisenhower – did so under pseudonyms. Thorpe used his real name, which appeared in newspapers in North Carolina. When the scandal broke, coaches and officials lied to save their skins. Compounding the unfairness, the complaint about Thorpe came after the IOC’s own 30-day deadline.

The impact on Thorpe was devastating.

“He was a pretty stoic figure, but I would say that losing the medals and then losing his first son, his namesake [who died of infantile paralysis aged three], were the two most heartbreaking moments of his life,” Maraniss says, in the back garden of his home in north-west Washington.

“In one sense he remained the revered, great athlete but still he was screwed and he thought that it was part of being an Indian – that’s why it happened. So it definitely had a profound effect on him. As he grew older, I think it became more and more important to him to try to get restoration of those medals. It didn’t happen in his lifetime.”

Jim Thorpe in baseball uniform.
Jim Thorpe in baseball uniform. Photograph: AP

Now 73, an associate editor at the Washington Post and distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University, Maraniss is perfectly placed to take the measure of politics in sport and the sport of politics. He has written biographies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the Puerto Rican baseball great Roberto Clemente and the revered football coach Vince Lombardi. What’s the difference between writing a political or sporting life?

“I try to use the same methodology for all of my books, so the differences aren’t so much between a president and a sporting figure but between somebody who’s alive and somebody who’s dead. Clinton and Obama were both alive when I was writing about them so that created different problems and made me look at them in a different way.

I view it the same way, a way to write about history through the life story of someone that I’m interested in. And of course, politicians and athletes both have lives that are built upon competition, wins and losses, trying to figure out how to survive. All of those elements are the same.”

Thorpe fitted the bill. Maraniss would put him on a “Mount Rushmore” of American athletes alongside Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King and Babe Ruth, Willie Mays or Hank Aaron.

“Here was a chance to write not just about the phenomenal athletic experience but to use his life to write about the Native American experience because from the time of his birth through his death was really the central period of America trying to drain the Indians of their ‘Indianness’.

“He went through that whole period and was in the boarding schools, which have become, again, so much in the news. I guess my motivation was that I saw in Thorpe everything I look for in a book: a dramatic story plus a way to illuminate the history through that biography.”

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Thorpe’s Native American name, Wa-Tho-Huk, means “Bright Path”. A member of the Sac and Fox Nation, he was born in Oklahoma in 1887. He was sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, which opened in 1879 with a mission to “kill the Indian, save the man”.

Related: My relatives went to a Catholic school for Native children. It was a place of horrors | Nick Estes

Maraniss says: It was the flagship school of the whole government’s attempts to assimilate Indians and basically drain them of all their culture, language, dress, everything – make them as white as they could. They cut their hair, put them in military uniforms, did not allow them to speak their Native languages and Christianised them. In every possible way, they tried to make them part of the mainstream white culture.

“It was a situation where the people who ran it had what they thought were good intentions – the only way we can really keep them alive is to drain them of their ‘Indianness’ as opposed to the genocide that preceded it. Many of the proponents of those Indian schools considered themselves progressives; they thought they were advanced on racial issues and this was their effort.

“It was completely misguided and it was cruel. Many of the Indians were essentially captured and sent to these schools, including Carlisle, against their will. One of the first group of students were Sioux Indians only a few years after the Battle of Little Bighorn and they were sent as adolescents to the school and many thought they were being sent there to die.”

Hundreds did die, due to mistreatment and lack of medical care. But Thorpe thrived.

“That’s part of the paradox. He wouldn’t be known today if he hadn’t gone there. He wouldn’t have been an all-American football player if not for Carlisle. He wouldn’t have gone to an Olympics if not for Carlisle. So in that sense, his fame rests on Carlisle. He managed to survive without losing his sense of identity.

“I write in the book – and I really came to believe this as I was finishing the book – there are so many points, especially in the last chapter of his life, where it’s tragic in it. So is it a tragedy? I decided, no, it’s really a story of perseverance.”

Jim Thorpe of the Carlisle Indian School gets off a kick during warm-ups in a picture from 1912.
Jim Thorpe of the Carlisle Indian School gets off a kick during warm-ups in a picture from 1912. Photograph: AP

How did Thorpe come view to his own cultural heritage, long before the phrase “identity politics” was coined? When he won his Olympic golds in 1912, he was the first Native American to do so – but was not considered an official US citizen.

“He didn’t like reservations but he was very proud of being Indian. There’s always a debate within the Native American community about reservations and sovereignty. He was constantly fighting for Indian rights in his own way when he was in Hollywood. He was particularly strong in organising the Indians out there to be represented in the movies with integrity but also to play Indians as opposed to white people or somebody else made to look like an Indian.

“He gave a lot of speeches in his older years about what it was like to be an Indian and he fought for citizenship, he fought for the sovereignty payments, essentially reparations. He wasn’t what you would call a political activist but he was constantly pushing for Indian rights.

At the 1912 Olympics, Thorpe won the pentathlon after finishing first in four of the five disciplines, winning the 1500m by nearly five seconds. In the decathlon he set a world record of 8,412 points, winning the high jump in mismatched shoes and the 100m in 11.2 seconds in heavy rain. At the closing ceremony, King Gustav V of Sweden told him: “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.”

After his suspension as an amateur, married and in need of a wage, Thorpe signed with the New York Giants baseball team. In 1913, he embarked on a world tour.

Maraniss notes:People in Japan and China and Australia and France and England, everybody knew Jim Thorpe. He was probably the best-known athlete in the world.”

Thorpe was also a football star at the Carlisle school and played professionally between 1915 and 1928. In 1968, he was inducted into the inaugural class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But as Maraniss writes, he struggled with alcohol, broken marriages and the need for money.

“Athletes die young whether they die or not, right? Thorpe actually persisted longer than most but he didn’t have much to fall back on. He wanted to be a coach. He never got a real shot to do that.

“He was always looking for something and going from job to job in the last 30 years of his life. There is one point in the early ’30s where photographers found him working with a pick and shovel in Los Angeles, working on a hospital construction. He would be a greeter in bars.”

Thorpe had bit parts in 70 films.

“It’s hard to find him, it’s just fleeting for most of them. Sometimes the advertisements would say ‘with Jim Thorpe’ and you’d see him for, like, five seconds. Very rarely did he have any speaking parts. In some of them it was a white screenwriter’s version of what an Indian would say.”

This culminated in Jim Thorpe – All-American, a 1951 biopic starring Burt Lancaster and directed by Michael Curtiz of Casablanca fame, which made less money for Thorpe than it might have done. Maraniss has seen it several times.

“My basic conclusion is that it’s told through [Carlisle football coach] Pop Warner’s hypocritical perspective. That’s its major flaw. ‘If only Jim had not worried about being an Indian, if only he had assimilated more, if only he’d listened to Pop Warner he would have been a success.’ It eliminates all the other structural stuff that he had to deal with throughout his life. Clearly, it’s viewed from a white lens.”

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Thorpe died of a heart attack in a trailer home in 1953. There was another twist to come. Instead of burial in his home state, Oklahoma, as his will requested, his third wife effectively auctioned off his body to two struggling towns in north-eastern Pennsylvania that were willing to change their name to Jim Thorpe. He remains there today.

Thorpe sets a fast pace during a ‘junior Olympics’ event on Chicago’s south side, in June 1948.
Thorpe sets a fast pace during a ‘junior Olympics’ event on Chicago’s south side, in June 1948. Photograph: AP

Maraniss explains: “She comes up with this ingenious, manipulative plot to convince them to change their names and they’ll get the mausoleum. They bought into it and he’s still up there, a place he’d never been in his whole life. It couldn’t be more random than Jim Thorpe, Pa.

“I was there on a rainy day, so it seemed especially gloomy. Other people have gone other times and it’s in the eye of the beholder to some extent. Muhammad Ali visited there when he was training up in Deer Lake and wanted to pay homage to Jim Thorpe. He was moved by it but ended up thinking: poor Jim Thorpe.”

Related: Jim Thorpe sleeps on – for now – in town where everyone knows his name

Legal challenges from Thorpe’s family and Native American groups have failed. Maraniss says: “I consider it an insult to the Sac and Fox Nation that he’s not in his homeland where he said he wanted to be.”

Thorpe’s monuments now include his reinstated Olympic gold medals and Maraniss’s biography. The author, a genial midwesterner, has succeeded in using the story to hold up a mirror to the nation, warts and all.

“It says a lot of bad things about America but it’s part of American history. I try to deal with it honestly. This country tried to wipe out the Indians and they didn’t succeed, and society and life tried to wipe out Jim Thorpe but he survived.

“There are many levels of this story in terms of the Indian schools, the way that white society treated him throughout his life, but in the end it’s a story of survival. Both the man and the myth survived.”