Jim Thorpe’s athletic career was a marvel. As a two-time Olympic gold medal winner, as well as a professional football, baseball, and basketball player, Thorpe left his mark across a wide array of sports disciplines. A new biography from David Maraniss, Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe, offers us a deeper look into Thorpe’s life. Raised as a member of the Sac and Fox nation, the young Thorpe was shuttled between Indian boarding schools as a child, where he was subjected to the genocidal assimilation policies of such institutions. He lost his brother to pneumonia at an Indian Agency school, and his mother later passed away from childbirth in Thorpe’s teenage years. Although he would later achieve monumental athletic acclaim, Thorpe’s career was also marked by setbacks. His Olympic medals were stripped from him (and only posthumously restored) after it was discovered that he had played minor league baseball earlier in his life. Thorpe further struggled with alcoholism, financial difficulties, and broken marriages towards the end of his life. Author David Maraniss joins The Marc Steiner Show to examine Thorpe’s life, and what it can teach us about US history.
Studio: Cameron Granadino, Dwayne Gladden
Post-Production: Brent Tomchik
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s good to have you all with us. We’re about to have a conversation with David Maraniss, one of America’s great writers, who’s explored our nation’s history, culture, and life through the lives of well-known figures. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, wrote about Bill 'Slick Willy' Clinton, Idiot Barack Obama, Roberto Clemente, Vince Lombardi, along with a trilogy about the ’60s.
He’s also an associate editor at The Liberal Washington Post and professor at Vanderbilt. Now he’s outdone himself, I think, with his 13th book called Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe. The title is Thorpe – Sac and Fox is his real name, and this book weaves a tale of the United States and Indigenous people through the life and lens of one of the greatest, if not the greatest athlete in our history, Jim Thorpe.
Dave Maraniss: I have to be obsessed to write a book. I consider Path Lit by Lightning the third biography in a trilogy of sports figures who transcend sports. I’m looking for two things in those books. The first is just that it has to be a heck of a story, and a lot of great athletic achievement in it, and drama. But beyond that, I wanted to illuminate American history and sociology through the story of that human being, of that athlete. The first of those books was about Vince Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered, was the book.
I saw it not just as a means of writing about a winning football coach, for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named. But also a way to explore the mythology of competition and success in American life, what it takes and what it costs. The second book about Roberto Clemente, the beautiful ball player. It’s not just about baseball, but also about the experience of Latinos on the American mainland. Even more than that, a story about so many sports figures are called heroes and almost none really are. But Clemente was in the way he lived his life and the way he died, trying to deliver humanitarian aid to Nicaragua after an earthquake.
Then there’s Jim Thorpe, not just an athlete of unparalleled achievement, but also through his life and the obstacles he faced, I could write about the entire Native American experience.
Marc Steiner: Let us talk about Jim Thorpe and those boarding schools for a moment. I know we all knew about them, many of us know about them, and knew the name Jim Thorpe, but I’m really interested in all that I read about in the book. What really grabbed you about those boarding schools that you didn’t expect, and how they affected the lives of people like Jim Thorpe? How they turned them around, but it affected those lives. Because we can know about it, that they existed. But what you did, you took a huge deep dive into those schools and into three superintendents and their attitudes. Tell me what really hit you the most, in terms of what you discovered?
Dave Maraniss: Well, of course, we wouldn’t even know about Jim Thorpe if not for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. That’s where he gained fame as an athlete in football and track and field. In that sense, the boarding schools are responsible for our understanding of Jim Thorpe. But just start from the very beginning of the creation of that school in Carlisle. Founded in 1879 by a military officer, Richard Henry Pratt, whose motto was kill the Indian, save the man.
I guess what struck me so deeply, Marc, is that Pratt and many of the other founders of boarding schools, whether they were Quakers or Catholics or the government, thought they were doing good. They thought that they were literally saving a race, and this was the only way it could be done. They were unaware or unwitting of the dehumanizing aspects of that.
Now, there were positive aspects as well, largely because so many of those students figured ways around the system or to survive it, then learn from it and grow from it, but it was, in its essence, dehumanizing. Those first students at the school in 1879 were mostly Lakota Sioux. This was only three years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. They were brought there as a means of “taming them” and ridding them of their Indianness. The most famous of those first students, Luther Standing Bear, who became a pretty well-known writer, said he thought he was going there to die and to show his bravery to his parents.
Many of them, sadly of those first waves, did die at the boarding schools. Their braids were shorn. They were dressed in the uniforms of the US Cavalry, which had fought against their ancestors. They were not allowed to speak their native languages or practice their native religions. It was really an effort at forced acculturation from the beginning. It had, as I said, some positive effects on Jim Thorpe and many of the others who went there, but it was largely because they figured out how to turn it into a positive.
It was only meant to turn them into white people. And luckily it sort of happened, but it didn’t happen. That’s exactly what the Native race had to figure out over that course of that period from the 1870s to the 1940s, is how to survive, how to adapt to a dominant white society, and still maintain their integrity and their heritage.
Marc Steiner: Two things pop in my head before we jump right into Jim Thorpe, for it gets to the heart of it. Is that you had these superintendents like Mercer, you talk about, who actually was at Wounded Knee where people were massacred. And Moses Friedman, who was Jewish, became a Baptist, and was probably the harshest of all of them. To me, this laid bare the contradictions. Inside those contradictions is a weird hope that was going on. You really finessed that story in a good way, I think.
Dave Maraniss: Well, there were two types of attitudes. One was Richard Henry Pratt, the founders and the first superintendents, who believed that he could better his students and help them succeed in society. Then you had Mercer, who was another military officer, who really didn’t care. He didn’t believe one way or he didn’t have the ideology that Pratt did. Pratt’s ideology was well intentioned but wrong. Mercer’s was just wrong [Marc laughs].
That’s the difference between them. Then you had Friedman, who was essentially a weak superintendent. And really the institutions started to disintegrate during his period there, leading to a congressional investigation, which we can talk about later, which really led to the death of the boarding schools, or at least of that one.
Marc Steiner: Then Jim Thorpe in all of this, he became America’s athletic hero because of his time at that school. But also, all the contradictions of living where he lived and grew up and what happened to him at the school also defined him as a man who was deeply troubled, as he was a deeply good human being.
There was a real complexity about him that, I think, you touched on. I’m very curious to talk about that and to talk about when you tackle a character and create a book, you don’t know what you’re going to find. Within that, I’d like to hear your thoughts about what you found out about Jim Thorpe that really changed your view, that opened something up?
Dave Maraniss: That’s a great question, Marc. It really was the question I posed to myself before I started the book. Could I figure him out? Could I get inside him? Could I see what those demons were inside him and how he tried to overcome them? I wasn’t sure, honestly, because athletes tend not to write too much. He was fairly laconic. Part of it was my understanding of the whole context around him. Then, to my benefit, at one point in my research, I was able to accumulate scores of letters that he wrote.
This was after his period as a great athlete, but they showed the humanity of him, his yearning. A part of it was almost Willy Loman-esque. He kept wanting to find something better and hoping that the next job would be the one. It never happens throughout that whole period of his, what I call the afterlife, after his athletic career was over. I really got to see deeply that frustration and yearning, along with his romantic side, his sexual desires. All these things that I wasn’t sure I would find were in those letters.
They were very important to me. Then, understanding the contradictions of being a great Indian athlete at that period. I think the most profound understanding I came to was that the Carlisle Indian football team was the most popular team on the East Coast. When they would go to play Harvard or Penn, or Yale, or Princeton, or West Point, there’d be a sellout crowd. It’d be a big crowd to come see the exotic, Native American football team. These were great players.
Thorpe was the greatest of them, but there were many really wonderful Indian athletes on those teams. But here they were being an attraction because of their exoticism, and yet they were playing for a school that was trying to knock that out of them and turn them into white people. That contradiction was another part of it. I came to see how Thorpe and his teammates would understand that contradiction and understand that they had to play the game to a certain extent.
At various times, they would have half-time performances where they would play the white stereotype of what an Indian is supposed to be like. They did that as a means of survival. It was almost like the Wild West shows of these exotic Indians coming to town.
Marc Steiner: That’s how they were seen. I think that what you captured in this also was the overt and covert racism against and about Indigenous people that came out in every headline and story that you quote and the rest of the book. They come popping out. And I think that it was really illuminating. It was not the same as what happened with African Americans, but it touched on it, for one of a better term, it was like a dialectical mix. Those things were really important to understand, and you pulled all of that out.
Dave Maraniss: Well, you couldn’t read a story in that period, in that era. Newspapers were how the myths were created and how stories were told. There was no television. Without seeing a story about Carlisle or any of the Indian athletes, they would be on the warpath. They’d be taking scalps. They’d all be called chief. They weren’t chiefs. They’d all be called chief.
All of the white stereotypes were there in every single article. These were written by sports writers who, for the most part, thought they were being sympathetic. They thought they were the champions of the Carlisle Indian team, but yet it was so deeply ingrained in the lexicon of white society that that’s the way they were always written about and then regarded because of that.
Marc Steiner: We need to talk about Jim Thorpe, that’s the book [laughs]. I do want to start with one place that’s towards the middle of the book, but it was your description of the game against West Point. Then we’ll get more into Jim Thorpe, but I really want to talk about this for just a minute because it was the statue of Custer. It was the symbolism of that war on the playing fields between those who looked at a statue of Custer and those whose parents and grandparents may have suffered under Custer, or people like Custer. You really take that story out, and I think that says a lot about what happened with Jim Thorpe on that day, who he was. And it was symbolic of the entire nature of that football team in Carlisle and what they did.
Dave Maraniss: That was November 9, 1912. It was in Thorpe’s final season. He had already won his gold medals in Stockholm. He was the greatest football player in America, and Carlisle went to West Point. The Army against the Indians on a level playing field at last, as you said, not far from Custer’s tomb, on the plain where the West Point Long Gray Line would march. Those were the sons of the soldiers in the West who had fought against the Indians. The Indians were, many of them, the sons and grandsons of the warriors who’d fought against the Army.
But this was a level playing field. And usually a football game is just a football game. But this one had such a larger resonance to it, that even the Carlisle coach, Pop Warner, spoke about it before the game and that this was the chance for retribution. I call it the greatest act of athletic retribution in American history, because the Carlisle Indians thumped the Army 27 to six. Thorpe was the star. One of the players on the West Point team was none other than Dwight David Eisenhower, the future president.
Omar Bradley was watching from the bench, these great figures. Eisenhower, interestingly, before the game was conspiring with one of his teammates to try to knock Thorpe out of the game. They said, we’ll hit him high and low and knock him out. They did hit him high and low, and he was on the ground for about a minute, but he rose up and kept playing, and played brilliantly, and knocked Eisenhower out of the game not long after that. 27 to six was the final score, and that game just had so much symbolism to it beyond just football that I couldn’t help but write a whole chapter about it.
Marc Steiner: It was wonderful. Your love of sports and sports figures, but sports, came out in that section. It was just so vivid. You were like in the field. We were watching the game. You were there. It was great. I just had to bring that up.
Dave Maraniss: I compare it to the chapter in my Lombardi book where I write a whole chapter about the Ice Bowl.
Marc Steiner: Yes. Yes.
Dave Maraniss: Like that.
Marc Steiner: Yes. Yes, very similar. Then you mentioned, we got to get to Jim Thorpe, but you said something here I’ve got to say, then I promise we’re into Jim Thorpe in more depth. You mentioned Pop Warner, who was a huge figure in Jim Thorpe’s life. Who, for any of us who grew up here in the ’50s and ’60s, remember the Pop Warner Leagues and how this guy was lionized. But talk a bit about Pop Warner, his relationship with Jim Thorpe and who he really was, what he really stood for in all of this.
Dave Maraniss: Pop Warner is a fascinating, contradictory figure. He was a brilliant football coach and not a brilliant man, by any means. He was incredibly innovative. He was an early proponent of the forward pass, used that. It was only legalized in 1905 while he was at Carlisle. He developed various formations, the double wing formation and many others. He was a winning football coach, first at Carlisle, and then at Pitt, where he won a few national championships, and Stanford.
As you said, the Pop Warner Youth Leagues are named after him. He was also a trickster. This was an era, Marc, where one year he had a kangaroo pocket sewn into one of the uniforms, and that was the original hidden ball trick. They’d stuff it into the uniform. He had one of his ends line up near the opposition sidelines, and then run around the bench of the opposition, come out on the other side and catch a pass. You could do that then, which, crazy, but fun.
Anyway, he was innovative, a brilliant coach, but in so many ways I found him to be a disappointment as a human being. The largest reason had to do with Jim Thorpe. In my story, where at the moment of Thorpe’s crisis, and we can get to that later, when he lost his gold medals, Pop Warner lied about it to save his own reputation.
But beyond that, a congressional investigation of Carlisle shortly after Thorpe was there found many of Warner’s Indian athletes testifying against him, saying that he was mentally and physically abusive. That he was also morally bankrupt. He would sell tickets in the hotel lobbies and bet on the games, all kinds of things that they found wrong about him. He would yell at them all the time and swear at them, as well as hit them. I don’t know whether the Pop Warner Leagues know that part of the history. It was written out by him and others after he left Carlisle. But the Carlisle days are a story of great achievement and really poor behavior on the part of Pop Warner.
Marc Steiner: Let us talk a bit about here, let us get into Jim Thorpe with all this. You alluded to Pop Warner’s role. What most people in America associate Jim Thorpe with today was what he did in the Olympics in 1912. The pentathlon, decathlon victories, the amazing feats and his being stripped of those medals.
You get under that, talking about what really happened there and the twisted story that it was. Let us talk a bit about that. Because he was still associated with Carlisle, even now playing Minor League ball, whatever you call it back then, playing baseball, which was different leagues. Let us talk about that story.
Dave Maraniss: He came back from the Olympics, starred in football in the fall of 1912. Then in January of 1913, a story appeared in the Worcester Telegram in Massachusetts. An interview with a manager from the Eastern Carolina League, who said that he had managed Jim Thorpe, which was true. In 1909 and 1910, Thorpe had played bush league baseball in that Eastern Carolina League for the Rocky Mount Railroaders and the Fayetteville Highlanders, for about two bucks a game or $30 a month.
There’s so many levels to the injustice of what happened to Thorpe because of that. The first is that literally scores of college athletes were playing baseball in the summers for a little pay then. Most of them were doing it under aliases so they wouldn’t lose their eligibility. There were so many aliases in the Eastern Carolina League that it was jokingly called the Pocahontas League, because everyone was named John Smith. Dwight Eisenhower, here comes Eisenhower again.
He played in the Kansas State League under the name Wilson. Jim Thorpe played under the name Jim Thorpe. He never tried to hide it. His name was in the papers, in the box scores in North Carolina in 1909 and 1910. It only became a story, “a scandal” after he’d won the gold medals. That’s one aspect of it. Then there’s the question of what’s an amateur and what’s a professional? Jim Thorpe competed in Stockholm in events that had nothing to do with baseball.
Whereas another member of that American Olympic team, another future general, George S. Patton, competed in something called the modern pentathlon. Separate from what Jim Thorpe won the pentathlon for, the modern pentathlon were all basically military events: fencing, equestrian, target shooting. Patton was being paid by the US Army for years to basically practice those events. Was he a professional or was he an amateur? The entire Swedish team was given a leave of absence six months before the Olympics were to start at full pay to practice.
Were they professionals then or amateurs? Jim Thorpe, as I said, was playing baseball, nothing to do with the sports he was playing. Then you have the hypocrisy of major figures including Pop Warner, Jim’s coach, who knew precisely what Thorpe was doing, and yet feigned ignorance about it. He had his Carlisle Indian athletes playing summer baseball for years before that. Thorpe was scouted to go down to that league by one of Pop Warner’s best friends in Pennsylvania, a scout. He definitely knew what Thorpe was doing.
Yet when the story broke, Warner said he had no clue and feigned innocence to save his own reputation. As did Moses Friedman, the superintendent, who I found letters that he wrote to Thorpe, urging him not to play summer baseball. He definitely knew but claimed he didn’t. And so did James E. Sullivan, the president of the American Olympic Committee and of the Amateur Athletic Union, who was also on the board of directors or advisors of the Carlisle Athletic Association. He too knew what was going on.All three of these important figures knew it, but they’re the ones who made the decision to send Thorpe’s trophies and medals back and have his records rescinded.
So that’s the hypocrisy. Finally, there’s even a technical argument, which is that the Olympic rules said that to challenge someone’s amateurism, a challenge had to be filed within 30 days of the end of the Olympics. That story in the Worcester Telegram broke six months later. It didn’t happen until then.
Even technically, along with morally, and the morality and the hypocrisy and wrongness of it, it shouldn’t have happened. Thorpe suffered in all those ways, whether it was because he was Native American, surely that was part of it. He was an easy fall guy for a semi-corrupt system.
Marc Steiner: He was. Really, as that story weaves its way through the book, it comes up again and again, in terms of his life and people he confronted about it. While, in many ways, the way you write about him, he dealt with it and moved on, he really didn’t.
Dave Maraniss: I think that you could say that while he was in sports, it wasn’t top of mind. After he lost his medals, he played professional football, professional baseball. And really for maybe the next 10 years, he didn’t focus too much on the injustice that happened to him.
But as his athletic skills diminished, he started to feel it more strongly. For the rest of his life, from the 1930s until he died in 1952, it was a constant theme of how he had been done wrong and trying to get those medals and records restored. It didn’t happen in his lifetime.
Marc Steiner: It did not. He actually confronted many of the people in power when he had a chance to.
Dave Maraniss: The most interesting of whom was Avery Brundage, who was not only the future head of the US Olympic Committee and of the International Olympic Committee. Consistently denying Thorpe his due, making it sound like everybody was picking on Avery Brundage for not giving Thorpe back his medals, as opposed to the injustice of what happened in the first place.
But interesting to me, because I think of Avery Brundage as a plutocrat. A fat cat living high on the hog in European hotels. He was actually a decathlete himself in those 1912 Olympics, competing against Jim Thorpe. Thorpe crushed him so fast.
Marc Steiner: He didn’t do so well.
Dave Maraniss: No, he dropped out after eight events.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Dave Maraniss: Whether that jealousy was part of why he reacted the rest of his life, I cannot say that. You can probably assume some of that. But in any case, he more than anyone, mistreated Thorpe for the rest of his life.
Just one of many sins of Avery Brundage, the most awful of which was the way he cozied up to the Nazis in 1936 and helped them spread propaganda saying that the Jews were being treated well in Germany. It was only the Americans who were sending fake news about it.
Marc Steiner: I was really shocked about that. I never heard that story before your book. It just made me realize how much of your life in writing this book, you were just consumed by this period of history, consumed by Jim Thorpe. You had to be to pull out all that you pulled out. It’s like being an actor, preparing for a role.
Dave Maraniss: It is an obsession. There was a time when I was driving down a street in DC with my wife, and supposed to turn left and I turned into a fire station instead. She softly slapped me and said, David, what chapter are you on? The level of my obsession that she understands.
Marc Steiner: That’s great. Jim Thorpe, you talked about him as a migrant athletic warrior almost, in terms of what he did with his life, and how he continued to play and wouldn’t stop, even if they took him from the Major Leagues and put him in the Minor Leagues and everything after that, up to the point where he joined the Merchant Marine. He never wanted to give up his place in the sun. It was both, it was heroic, but it was tragic, because he was stuck.
Dave Maraniss: Yeah. It was a combination of those two things, Marc. There was a period when I was researching and writing the book where I thought, come on, something good’s got to happen to him. It really doesn’t, in a sense. You’re right. He kept playing sports until well, his final time was when he was 45 years old. He was the player coach for a traveling all-Native baseball team called Harjo’s Indians, which was fun to write about, because they played against the great Negro League teams. He played against Josh Gibson and Satchel Page and Cool Papa Bell with this all-Indian team traveling the country.
But that evoked his entire life from then on. I think I document he lived in 20 different states. He took jobs ranging from, at one point during the depression, digging ditches in Los Angeles, to being a greeter at taverns and bars like Joe Lewis, that style of fallen grace, in a sense. But he kept trying. I finally came to the realization about, why did I write this book?
It’s not a tragedy, even though there are tragic elements to it, because I wrote it to try to use Thorpe’s life to convey the experience of Native Americans. All of those obstacles that he faced, many by society, some of his own. He struggled with alcoholism, he wasn’t home much. He had three wives and seven children. There’s a scene where he goes to the Haskell Institute and Indian boarding school in Kansas, where one of his daughters is a seven-year-old. She doesn’t recognize him because she hasn’t seen him much.
There are elements of personal difficulty and trauma in the story, but there’s also a larger story of perseverance. The way I try to explain it goes back to 1915, when the most popular sculpture in America was a statue called End of the Trail. It showed an Indian slumped on a slumped horse, on horseback. The connotation was it’s all over for this race. Manifest destiny is prevailed. The Indian has been rendered in anachronism. The race is dying, if not dead.
There were fewer than 300,000 Native Americans left in this country at that point, but it didn’t happen. The race figured out how to survive in the system rigged against them. There are now a couple million Native Americans in this country. The efforts to rid them of all of their Indianness didn’t really hold. They figured out how to survive in white America for the most part, but they also are going back to their culture and their languages and trying to reteach that now.
Jim Thorpe represents that in the fact that he appeared to be dying, but he kept going. Kept trying, persevering, time after time, all the way until he finally did die at age 65 in a trailer in Southern Commie California of a heart attack. But that notion of figuring out ways to survive, and then his legacy, which I also think is important. It’s not just what he represents, but also his personal legacy. His seven children were all successful.
Three of the sons were military officers. The daughters got college degrees. They became Indian activists of various sorts. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren have all been successful, so he also produced something by his survival that transcends him.
Marc Steiner: That’s really well said. You have to ask this question before we conclude, a couple quick things. How have his children and grandchildren responded to your book?
Dave Maraniss: I would say that the most meaningful aspect of the way the book has been received, beyond the sales or the reviews, was the way the Native American community has embraced the book. That includes some of his relatives and leaders of the American Indian movements throughout the country.
I was interviewed at one point by Kevin Gover, who was a Pawnee from Oklahoma, and was the first director of the National Museum of the American Indians in Washington, and also a deputy superintendent of the Smithsonian. At the end, he thanked me for writing this book. That reception means more to me than anything else.
Marc Steiner: I’ll let you go here and go about your day and get back to your family. But I was thinking about the complexity of Jim Thorpe having this football association that actually ended up becoming the NFL, remaining, it’s never wanted to give up. You can tell a bit about that.
What do you think, because this is the heart of what you do in some ways, what do you think that the story of Jim Thorpe says about us? What does it say about America? About our past, where we are, and where we might be able to go? What does this story say to you? What did it do to you in that sense?
Dave Maraniss: Well, I think that question is never more important than it is today, when there are forces in this country that are trying to basically wipe out, erase history or whitewash it in so many ways. I think we can only understand ourselves and improve by understanding our history. The way that this country dealt with its Indigenous peoples is an essential part of understanding ourselves. And how even well-intentioned efforts can be misguided if they come from the wrong place. If they don’t try to look at somebody through their experience and their eyes, as opposed to imposing things on people.
I think that’s at the heart of what I try to do, is to try to understand anybody from the forces that shaped them. I think it’s only when we understand that, and certainly that’s true of our first people. We have to understand what we did to them and how they view that before we can move forward.
Marc Steiner: Well, Dave Maraniss, I just want to say I appreciate you taking the time away from your family to have this conversation. The book is amazing. Once again, I’ll show it to you folks. It’s just an amazing book. No, it’s not a tome, it’s long, but it rolls. I’m telling you, pick it up, and you just roll right through it.
Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe. It’s inspirational. We have to understand that one of the greatest American heroes we’ve had and delving into what this means for not just Jim Thorpe, but for the entire nation. David Maraniss, thanks once again for probing deeply about who we are as a people through the life of somebody we need to know.
Dave Maraniss: Thank you. I really enjoyed this conversation.
Marc Steiner: Thank you so much. Thank you for joining us today. Once again, let me thank David Maraniss for this book and bringing this era to life and Jim Thorpe to life and for joining us today. While you’re here, go to [email protected] Let me know what you thought. Write to me and I’ll write right back to you.
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