Path Lit By Lightning |The Life of Jim Thorpe
By David Maraniss
Hardcover; photos; 650pgs
Simon & Schuster
Pulitzer Prize winning Journalist David Maraniss’s main arena is political biography (Clinton, Obama, Gore, et.al) and culturally defining eras of post WWII American history- from the‘Red Scare’ of the 50s to civil unrest of the Vietnam War. But without doubt Maraniss brings his full game to his bios of sports legends and is again in top form with ‘Path Lit By Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe.’ The latest in a trilogy- (with Vince Lombardi and Roberto Clemente) about legendary athletes whose achievements went far beyond their fields of play.
There is so much mythology about Jim Thorpe’s truly remarkable life, that the real man and his struggles get lost. Since his Olympic victories at the 1912 Stockholm Games and going on to become a football and baseball headliner on the US semipro teams, he broke records on the field, but set goals for himself that were impossible to achieve in his country.
Thorpe was exploited for all he was worth, and never reaped the rewards he deserved. In fact, he went through periods of near destitute and yet whatever hardship was thrown at him throughout his career, as Maraniss reports, he remained true to himself and rose above everything with dignity. ‘Path Lit by Lightning’ vanquishes all of the myths, good and bad, in Maraniss’s fine-line portrait of the man and his tumultuous times.
As he did with in Rome 1960: The Summer Olympics (with superstar cast of athletes including Mohamed Ali, Wilma Rudolf, et.al.) Maraniss is expert at detailing the political and cultural backdrops of the sports worlds. In Thorpe’s era it is the pervasive layers of prejudice and racism that Indigenous people from the government and the culture that Thorpe, along with millions of others with tribal heritage, had to surmount on a daily basis.
Jim Thorpe was born in 1878, The son of the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma, when Indigenous nations were being driven from their traditional lands by the ‘Dawes Act’ decree and white landgrabbers and businessmen. His father Hiram Thorpe was a hunter and rough riding bootlegger. His life started in hardship and tragedy. His twin brother Charles died when he was 9 and his mother Charlotte, died two years later during childbirth.
His mother told Jim that he was a direct descendent of Chief Black Hawk. Jim ran away but was returned to his father and stepmother who sent him to the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School when he was 16. a former Revolutionary war military barracks now established by Col. Richard Pratt in 1878 as an institution to indoctrinate Native American children with the stated goal to “Kill the Indian and make the man.” Assimilationist and culturalization
Among other indignities the institution would force the students are not what was derisively termed “blanket Indians”- dressing in buckskin, ornamented in tribal beads- as well as forbid them not communicate in the tribal language. Carlisle hid the fact that many escaped at their first opportunity. And the institution covered up the many deaths from diseases that the compound was not prepared for. Seriously ill students were sent back to their native territories to die, but many were buried in a hidden graveyard at Carlisle, denying their relatives a proper tribal burial on their own lands.
‘ Many Indigenous leaders rejected this type of ‘education’ in the words of Sinte Galeska (Chief Spotted Tail) of the Sioux Nation, through an interpreter, told Pratt that “all white people are thieves and liars.” citing being deceived by “the government on the Black Hill treaty. We refuse to send our children because we do not want them to learn such things.”
But many Carlisle students were the sons and daughters of tribal chiefs saw Carlisle and other government boarding schools for ‘Indians’ as their only opportunity to survive in the US after generations had been driven from their lands, and the near total genocide that US government perpetrated against Indigenous Nations.
The students were also forced to go through summers of ‘Outings’ being required to work as domestic servants for further ‘cultural assimilation’ (as Carlisle School phrased it) in neighboring family farms and town homes of white families ‘sponsors’ of Carlisle, the students, at $5 a month. In other words, it was indentured servitude. Thorpe was 19 and in grade seven, when he tried to run, but as a noncitizen ‘ward’ of the state, was tracked down and forced to return.
The first legend of how Thorpe ended up on the Olympic team is walking past the Carlisle Track team, wearing overhauls and casually jumping over the high-bar that was too high for the other athletes, but Thorpe, untrained in the sport, cleared easily. The coach immediately recruited him for the team.
The Carlisle football team played against Yale, Harvard and other elite institutions, even though they racked up impressive wins, they took hits by those institution who claimed they were a rogue team. And as Maraniss tracks, newspapers used racist language covering them.
Thorpe did not want to continue at Carlisle after his five year course, he returned to Oklahoma with plans of playing making money in the minor leagues, with plans to homestead in oil rich country. He was lured back as a ringer for the Carlisle’s football team by Carlisle’s legendary coach Pop Warner and to train with track teammate Lewis Tewanima, a Hopi long-distance runner, for the US Olympic team.
Carlisle’s rout against the U.S. Army team the ‘Indian’ team was symbolically more than just a grudge match, it was historic and Maraniss’s account is one of the many play by play highlights of the book.
The 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Thorpe one of three native nations athletes joining all mens’ American teams. Crossing the Atlantic on the SS Finland, just two weeks after the Titanic sank. Reporters jumped on the story that Thorpe had injured himself training, but it didn’t stop him from winning a medal on the first day of the Stockholm Games.
Thorpe won two Olympic Gold Medals in the Decathlon and Pentathlon, came back home and was the star football player for the Carlisle School. The most celebrated athlete in the world and he was not an American citizen. Stories were spun about him in the press, most laced with racist tropes, many outright fictions about his behavior off the field, he wanted to be away from the spotlight. The press was making an issue that he had been paid seasonal player in NC minor league baseball two years before.
Pop Warner and other officials denied that they were aware of Thorpe, like many other students were earning money during the summer playing summer minor-league professional sports for extra money. But instead of backing him up,
Thorpe took the fall and was summarily stripped of his Olympic Medals. IOC official Avery Brundage made the permanent decision that Thorpe had to forfeit the medals because he played and was paid as a semipro baseball two years before. Even as everyone from President Dwight Eisenhower, and a host of other Olympians lobbied Brundage to return the medals to Thorpe, he would refuse, even as he would hypocritically praise Thorpe as the greatest athlete ever.
Thorpe was contrite, unnecessarily, but accepted it with grace. Meanwhile baseball teams were scouting him. And even though baseball was his weakest sport, teams knew he would be a huge draw. Thorpe went with the Giants. He had just married Avi, and they were off on an overseas tour to Japan, the Philippines, and Australia.
Pro football was in its infancy and completely deregulated, the safety of the players was rarely a consideration, it was a true blood sport. Collegiate football was more of the money game and taken more seriously, but still the rules were all over the place. Thorpe was voted in as the league’s first president for the inaugural pro season, but by the following year, it was decided that a businessman should take charge or the organization.
The Carlisle athletes were in the ‘bush’ and semipro teams, the press continuing to cover them as undisciplined , hard drinking, carousing ‘Injuns’ among other racial tropes, Maraniss writing “The pervasive view of the debilitated Indian athletes failed to consider the corrosive effects of a dominant culture that left them straddling two worlds, constantly fighting against the odds, romanticized, and dehumanized at the same time.”
Thorpe was in his mid-30s and still bouncing between football and baseball. Wowing the crowds in spurts but dealing with injuries and money pressures. Iva stood by him, but she was fed up with his long stretches away from the family and especially his drinking. His press got nastier and always laced with racist tropes. Every season, he vowed to quit the games, but money concerns lured him in. He still drew crowds.
Iva and Jim decided to separate. Jim stayed on the road, Iva and their three daughters went back to Oklahoma. And a year later she got full custody of the children in their divorce settlement. Jim was then
trying to make smart career moves off the field starting with landing small parts in the movies and as an ‘Injun’ consultant. But he got mostly work as an ‘extra’ on scale pay gigs.
He married Freeda (Libby), but he remained on the road trying to hustle jobs as player-coach. Maraniss has 2 chapters of Thorpe’s love letter to Freeda in the book, which strike as filler and seem out of balance, since. Maraniss he doesn’t delve very deeply into either marriage very deeply. Like his father Hiram, he was on the road a lot of the time. When Iva filed for divorce after 11 years of marriage, she and their daughters hadn’t seen Jim in over a year.
Thorpe and Freeda had three sons and they were making the best of things in California; Jim was getting gig work as an extra and also advocating for Native Americans to be better represented in pictures. Eventually the marriage broke apart, their sons sent off to boarding schools.
Thorpe’s 3rd marriage was equally disastrous in different ways, as he was on an endless road to “keep hustling” for jobs in his field and eventually, anywhere he could get work. Patsy Thorpe driving him with one scheme after another in various business that would capitalize on his celebrity. They ended up broke and he suffered two heart attacks in their years together.
The 1932 L.A. Olympic officials did not invite Thorpe to the opening ceremony until a government official intervened. Thorpe took it all in stride, but he was lobbying once again to have his medals restored.
He became a spokesman for the cause of his people at schools, sports, and civic organizations, reminding his audiences:
“Indians, you know, are misnamed. We aren’t Indians we are Red Men, and we settled this country long before the white people ever came to these shores why then should we be deprived of citizenship until we can qualify with a written examination none of you here is a government ward you are citizens because that heritage has been passed on to you, but red men are wards of the government.”
The IOC restored Thorpe’s standing as an Olympic champion, but only with a symbolic ceremony in returning his medals had presented them to his children, 30 years after his death. Officially he was named as co-winner with the 2nd place athletes, who all along refused the medals from the start, wanting Thorpe to remain the gold medalist in his events.
But as Maraniss movingly details, the Thorpe’s ultimate victory lap was the achievements of his seven children writing”
“For all of Jim’s troubles– his struggles with alcohol, his nomadic lifestyle, his Sisyphean cycle of finding and losing jobs, his bad luck and mistreatment, his dysfunctional marriages, his time away from his sons and daughters when they were young– the Thorpe family did not wither but thrived from one generation to the next, producing military officers, government workers, college graduates, and Native American activists.”
The scope of this biography, in its meticulous research and rigorous prose style should make Maraniss a contender for a third Pulitzer, meanwhile it’s definitely a must- read sports bio-histories of this or any other championship season.