Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legends of Jim Thorpe
Author: Kate Buford
Jim Thorpe is a guy I knew very little about prior to reading this book. I knew he played football and was an Olympic athlete, and that he was Native American. I also remember him placing in the top 10 in a Sportscentury ranking of greatest athletes of all time (looking it up now, it appears he was ranked 7th). I had some problems with the rankings on that list at the time, and with years of hindsight I still do, but after having read a book on Jim Thorpe I can say he’s one of the toughest guys to contextualize in the bigger picture for his athletic accomplishments. That was one of the more interesting things about reading this book, but reading about the decline of one of the first global celebrities was just as fascinating.
First, why was Thorpe such a sensation? Although he was a successful football player prior to the Olympics in 1912, it seemed that prior to his competing the decathlete was considered the best all-around athlete due to the versatility that was needed to win that event. When Thorpe competed in that event (as well as the pentathlon) he dominated his competition, winning 8 out of the 15 events he competed in. He also did respectably in long jump and high jump events. His range of victory was bigger than any competitor for a few decades afterwards, and his lack of resources/training beforehand indicate he could have done even better. Example, Thorpe competed with shoes that weren’t his, and had only learned to throw a javelin for the Olympics in the months leading up to the competition.
When Thorpe returned to college, he had a spotlight on him and continued to excel at football. Over the next twenty years, he would compete professional in the Major League Baseball, as well as professional and minor leagues baseball and football. He wouldn’t have the same athletic achievements after his 1911 to 1913 stretch, but some of that is explainable. There wasn’t a National Football League that was anything like what there was even in the 1950’s. Thorpe went from team to team, often signing with gimmick organizations that were only using Native Americans on their teams, or were based around factory gambling. When he played baseball, he signed with the Giants and had a manager who didn’t trust him and hardly played him. When he finally got away to independent and minor league teams, he was a .330 hitter with power. I got the impression that he could have been an all-star at either football or baseball if that had been his focus and it had been structured.
So what does the most famous athlete in the world do in the early 1900’s without a massive player contract? Mostly, Jim hustled. He moved around the country, playing for different teams, occasionally coaching, eventually just being a name to draw crowds who barely took the field. When he was done with that, he was an extra in movies, he had bad business investments. He drank throughout his life, and got out of control when he did. He could lose his temper, lashing out at coaches and reporters and his kids. The author here pulls no punches at Thorpe’s abysmal parenting. Thorpe’s entire family life was a mess. He was married three times, his first two wives divorced him and his third was a financial vampire who seemed to marry him just to earn money any way he could. His children all barely knew him, and Jim made little effort to rectify that. His first child died as a toddler and it seemed he never invested in parenting again afterward.
I finished this book knowing all I wanted to about Jim Thorpe. I think we’ve overrated his athletic achievements some, with many of his football accomplishments being anecdotal and his Olympic records being as impressive on its own, but somewhat dependent on how you value those events. He benefitted by being the first athlete to gain national fame, and amazingly his being stripped of his gold medals when it was discovered he had played minor league baseball contributed his being a sympathetic figure. Journalists like Grantland Rice were as important to Thorpe being a household name for a hundred years as to Thorpe’s achievements on the field.
Besides learning about Thorpe as a person and as an athlete, Kate Buford also did a nice job of contextualizing the very different world Thorpe lived and competed in. There’s a ton of information here on Native American culture and law in that period. There’s great writing about the history of the Olympics to that point, the development of collegiate football and the evolution of the rules in the game. I learned a ton reading this book, and even with the subject living the second half of his life as a name more than as a person I was interested all the way through.