October 20, 2014

Native American Son : The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe

June 26, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

Jim Thorpe Book CoverFinally Jim Thorpe has the authoritative, comprehensive biography he deserves. Winner of the Larry Ritter Award, it is a nifty and compelling read. Kate Buford spent years retracing the life of the sad, peripatetic man, one of the world’s all time great athletes. The reader follows Thorpe from his birth and childhood in Oklahoma in 1888 to his lonely death in California in 1953. It is a tale at once triumphant and tragic.

Despite the fact that Thorpe was actually far more Caucasian than he was Native American, Thorpe consistently identified himself as and threw his lot in with America’s native people. Thorpe was raised in Oklahoma, which was then Indian Territory, in bone crushing poverty. Here he learned to hunt and fish as an aid to survival. The rustic life made him strong if not especially gregarious. Thorpe was an introvert whose innermost thoughts were rarely known, even to his closest intimates and family. This does not make the biographer’s task any easier.

Buford is up to the task however as we get a sense of the man Thorpe was. From the poverty of his childhood, Thorpe was sent as a teen to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Carlisle was not much of a haven for Indians. One of the feelings the reader comes away with is utter shock and disgust at how federal and state governments treated Native Americans throughout the country’s history. At Carlisle, which was one of the BETTER institutions of it type Indians were forbidden to speak their native languages or wear their tribal costumes. Disease was prevalent, the food was bad and students, male and female alike were farmed out to local families as little more than slave labor. Carlisle’s founders hoped through this process to take the “savage” out of the Indian and fit him for a place in white society.

The only bright spots of Thorpe’s time at Carlisle were his encounters with Pop Warner and the meeting of Iva Miller who would eventually become his first wife. Pop Warner comes off in this book as rather different from the folk hero legacy he built for himself. Warner exploited his team of Indians into a very lucrative life for himself. He did not pass this largess onto his charges. He did, however, realize that he had something very special in Jim.

It was at Carlisle where Jim’s athletic feats first began to attract attention, Thorpe was an indifferent student at Carlisle so he spent the summer of 1909 playing minor league baseball in the Carolinas. Despite his continual denials over the coming decades, Pop Warner knew all about Jim’s sojourn around the basepaths and that it could invalidate his amateur status. He chose to overlook it so he could win football games, track meets, and personal glory.

Thorpe’s track ability at Carlisle led to Jim’s being selected to the 1912 Olympic team. The winning of his medals and their subsequent loss would be the defining moments of Jim’s life. Buford demonstrates just what a marvel Jim was at the games. Oddly however she makes no mention of the astonishing irony that Jim Thorpe played baseball in the Olympics! (It was a demonstration sport that year.) Thorpe truly was the “Greatest athlete in the world” at those games.

The loss of his medals just six months later would be seen as a profound injustice by everyone except members of the International and U. S. Olympic Committees

As a defacto professional Jim signed a lucrative contract with the New York Giants in 1913. He would still be playing minor league ball in his 40’s. As a baseball player he showed flashes of brilliance but was rarely able to sustain that brilliance throughout an entire season. Buford’s research reveals the full scope of Thorpe’s baseball career. It is possible that he could have been a great player had he not had the arrogant and belittling John J. McGraw as his initial manager. Jim was a much better player when he was not wearing a Giants uniform. McGraw signed Thorpe largely as a publicity stunt and gave little thought to his baseball tutelage. Their relationship was essentially poisonous. With the Giants he did get to put in an appearance in the World Series (In 1917 not as the book has it in 1913.)

Jim soon found an outlet for his baseball frustrations however with the nascent professional football leagues. It is in recounting the amazing feats of Thorpe on the gridiron that this book really shines. Thorpe was at his happiest, personally and professionally on the football field. Thorpe loved to hit and hit hard. For he and many of the other Indian players of his generation, the gridiron was the one place where Indians could regularly best the white man.

Some of his adventures in the land of pigskin are interesting and surprising such as his organizing and coaching the Oorang Indians, professional sports only all Indian franchise. He also served as the initial president of the NFL. There are very good reasons why Thorpe is such a part of the fabric of Canton, Ohio while he is little more than a cipher at Cooperstown, New York. Buford also uncovers the incredible year where Thorpe played professional baseball, football, and basketball, a feat matched by few.

Thorpe’s life was stable enough, with hints of prosperity when he was playing professionally but once his athletic gifts began to fade Thorpe was less able to adjust to life. His endless life on the road destroyed his first marriage and his second wife entered his life just as his gifts were beginning to ebb.  Like so may jocks Jim had not prepared for the future. He chased dollars in any venue that would pay.  In the end, all he was left was his name. The real shame of it is that had Thorpe won his medals just a decade later he probably would never have had money issues. Buford points out how Red Grange was turned into a cash cow in the 1920’s and how later Olympic athletes were able to turn their gold medals into bankable gold.

Once his skills had faded to the point where even Jim knew it was over he relocated to California. In Hollywood he worked as an actor and an agent for other Native American actors. Consigned almost entirely to bit parts as Indians or cowhands Jim used his skills learned as a boy in Oklahoma to provide trick riding or falling off a horse as though shot for and endless series of B movies. Perhaps his acting acme was in 1935’s “She,” his only substantial role and virtually the only one in which he was not typecast as an Indian.

Hollywood brought out the Indian activist in Jim. He fought for equal pay for Indian actors and promoted the idea that only Native Americans should play Indians in motion pictures. Thorpe was partly successful but he was a bad administrator and all of his initiatives were taken over by others.  Most of the movie work eventually dried up and he sank into dire poverty. This poverty and Jim’s resumption of drinking drove off his second wife. It is sad to learn that Jim was an indifferent, often terrible father to his seven surviving children.

The last act of Jim’s life was saddest and most bizarre of all. Finding himself married for a third time to a woman he barely knew, there would be little peace in his life. Shortly after this marriage he entered the U.S. Merchant Marine and served honorably as a ship’s carpenter. Upon the war’s conclusion he returned to his wife, Patsy, and a never ending quest to cash in on his fame.  There is the high point of his declining years when the Burt Lancaster film “Jim Thorpe : All American” was released in 1951. Buford documents how this film, which made a star of Lancaster, was nearly scuttled by Patsy’s constantly haranguing the studio for cash. One does really get the sense that Patsy married Jim thinking that his fame was her doorway to success.

Jim’ final years are truly sad until his death at age 65 in a borrowed trailer, Eventually his body was transferred to a part of Pennsylvania he had never visited while alive. The byzantine maneuvers that resulted in burial there are a disgusting spectacle in themselves. In the 1980’s his medals, but not his records, were restored by a very antagonistic IOC.

Thoroughly researched with copious footnotes, Native American Son is required reading for any sports fan or those interested in Native American struggles. It comes highly recommended.

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