Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


July 5, 2012

A Century Later, A Feat No Less Impressive

Biographer Kate Buford examines the remarkable achievements of Jim Thorpe's athletic career and the life that followed them.

Michael Gluckstadt

Who is the world's greatest athlete? Is he (or she) a multisport star in the vein of Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders? A gifted physical specimen like LeBron James or Floyd Mayweather, who may have had as much success in another sport had he given it the focus? Or is it just whoever the reigning Olympic decathlon champion is? (Bryan Clay, by the way.)

Kate Buford
"Jim Thorpe was not a complicated man. But what happened to him was."

Kate Buford

For a time during the early 20th century, one man was all of those things. Jim Thorpe, a Native American whose given name translates as "Bright Path," was the greatest football player of his day, played baseball and basketball as well, and, at the 1912 Olympic Games, he won gold medals in both the pentathlon and the decathlon. These were not fluke achievements in an era of diminished competition—Thorpe's college-football numbers were better than O.J. Simpson's, and his mark in the 1,500-meter leg of the decathlon is only a second shy of Clay's.

Nearly a century after Thorpe's remarkable Olympic run, biographer Kate Buford examined Thorpe's extraordinary athletic achievements, his surprising film career, and the tumult of his post-sports life in her book Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe. In the following interview, which was conducted over email and edited for clarity, Buford tells Gelf how poor conditions at the Carlisle Indian school nearly derailed Thorpe's athletic career and how he would have benefited from having a sports agent. She also wonders whether he'd be better remembered if he'd played for the New York Yankees.

Gelf Magazine: Is Jim Thorpe the greatest athlete of all time?

Kate Buford: He is generally considered the greatest multisport athlete of all time. It's such a tricky question to answer, with so many variables, especially for an athlete who performed so early in the history of organized sports. He certainly was considered the greatest for the first half of the 20th century—until television and the explosion of franchise marketing. None of Thorpe's college-level or professional teams have survived as they were (the New York Giants, for one, are now the San Francisco Giants). If he'd played for the Chicago Bears, the Packers or even the Yankees, they would have a vested interest in keeping his name alive today. It's an interesting and poignant twist.

Gelf Magazine: Are there any plans to recognize Thorpe's achievements a century later in London this summer?

Kate Buford: The duplicate medals given by the IOC to his family in 1983 will be on display at the USA house (a.k.a. the Royal College of Art) in London. The BBC has two radio programs scheduled to air; the first you can hear now on BBC Radio 4. Also, the Hammersmith London tube stop has been given the second name "Jim Thorpe."

Gelf Magazine: Were he around today, which Olympic events do you think he might've entered?

Kate Buford: The decathlon. The classic pentathlon, for which he also won a gold medal in 1912, was eliminated in 1924. Thorpe's time in the decathlon 1,500-meter event—four minutes, 40.1 seconds—was not beaten until the 1972 Games. Today's top decathlete, Bryan Clay, clocked in at only one second faster than Thorpe. We'll see what Ashton Eaton does in London.

Gelf Magazine: What would Thorpe think of the modern, full-of-professionals Olympics?

Kate Buford: He'd probably have no problem with the issue of professionalism. What he lamented, all his life, was the growing pressure on athletes to specialize. He loved doing it all.

Gelf Magazine: To put his play in perspective, which modern football player do you think plays most like Thorpe did?

Kate Buford: Thorpe's Carlisle teammates insisted he played better than Jim Brown. On a college level, he may have been college football's first 2,000-yard rusher, having run 1,869 yards on 191 recorded attempts (two games were not recorded)—more than O.J. Simpson ran for USC in 1968.

Gelf Magazine: Would Thorpe's retirement have been more successful if he'd made the kind of money today's best football players make?

Kate Buford: Oh, yes. Athletes didn't start making serious money until the 1920s, the so-called "golden age of American sports." But by then, Thorpe's glory days were over. The other important new factor in the 1920s was the rise of the sports agent. C.C. ("cash and carry") Pyle made a ton of money for Red Grange when Grange turned pro from the University of Illinois to the Chicago Bears in 1925. Thorpe had no one fronting for him, managing his money and his life. He was too early.

Gelf Magazine: And do you think it's possible some of his problems arose from brain damage from the hits he endured in the savage early days of football?

Kate Buford: It's an interesting question, in light of what we now know about football concussions and their long-term effects. However, I'd say no. Thorpe prided himself on not getting tackled and he no doubt did serious damage to the players he tackled.
What we do know is that he had an operation at Carlisle for trachoma, a very dangerous infection of the eyes that was rampant in Indian boarding schools of the time and was due to unsanitary conditions. Untreated, it could and did cause blindness. The doctor who operated on Thorpe later said in the 1920s that the condition had affected Thorpe's eyesight, a fact unknown at the time or indeed at all, until I discovered the correspondence at the National Archives. It's highly likely that the effect of trachoma on Thorpe directly affected his ability to play baseball, to see that little white (or spit-brown in the deadball era) ball in the air. He had to work hard at that sport, harder than at any other. By 1919 he was hitting as well as Ty Cobb and Joe Jackson, another achievement that has been forgotten.

Gelf Magazine:Carlisle's founding and history have engendered a fair amount of controversy. Do you think it was a successful experiment?

Kate Buford: The Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was a success to the extent that it brought fame and attention, largely through its sports and arts achievements, to American Indians at a vulnerable time in their history. But the success came at a horrible cost to the hearts and minds of many of its students and left a haunting legacy of cultural loss and a profound kind of identity theft.

Gelf Magazine: Earlier, you compared Thorpe's football abilities to Jim Brown and O.J Simpson—two athletes who went on to have success in Hollywood after their playing days were over. What was Thorpe's film career like?

Kate Buford: Like many sports stars of the time (post-1920s), Thorpe went to Hollywood to use his famous name and physical agility to get work in the movies. He appeared in over 70 films from 1931 to 1950, in bit parts and as an extra, often uncredited. He may have appeared in many more movies, but the records of many of the Poverty Row serial westerns so popular in the 1930s have disappeared. He has an oddly intriguing filmography, including: She, Racket Busters, King Kong, White Heat, and Wagonmaster.
As the most famous among them, Thorpe became a point person for the large diaspora of American Indians who also flocked to Hollywood looking for movie work in the Depression. Eventually, he founded a casting company and pressured the studios to hire real Indians to play Indians in the stereotypical westerns of the time, rather than anybody vaguely ethnic-looking.

Gelf Magazine:You've also written a biography on Burt Lancaster, who played Thorpe in the film Jim Thorpe — All American. Is that what drew you to the subject?

Kate Buford: Yes. When I was doing research on the film in the Warner Brothers Collection at USC for the Lancaster biography, I was struck with Thorpe's amazing story—and with the postcards and letters that came in to Jack Warner during the film's production in 1950, pleading with the studio executive to get their hero's story right. Thorpe had not played in any kind of official game since 1928. Like any biographer, I wanted to know why he mattered so much and for so long.

Gelf Magazine: How does Thorpe's legend, in the film and otherwise, differ from his reality as a man?

Kate Buford:The film, which still shows regularly on TV, has probably done as much as anything to maintain the memory of Thorpe in the public mind. I'm always amazed at how many people, men and women, come up to me to say that movie affected them deeply. It's the story that grabs people.
The movie was made while Thorpe was still alive and my book goes into some detail about the fascinating production story. The producers' dilemma was how to tell, with fairness and popular appeal, a difficult tale about a life with great peaks and equally great chasms, if you will. That remains the challenge to any kind of treatment of Thorpe.
I found, as the biographer, that contrary to the popular idea that his life was one long, sad spiral down after 1913, he accomplished a great deal after his peak years in sports (e.g. that Hollywood career). No one had examined that.
Regarding his legend, there were so many dearly-loved myths and embellishments about Thorpe that needed to be debunked. The truth, as Red Smith wrote in his obituary of Thorpe in 1953, needed no embellishment. The heart of his story is, I think, summed up in the last two sentences of my book's preface: "A gentle person, intelligent and with many flaws, Jim Thorpe was not a complicated man. But what happened to him was."

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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