Skip to main content

Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe

Review

Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe

There is something inherently sad about sports biographies. When you think about it, for the most part the subjects of these books have completed their careers before they turn 40. With the rare exceptions of those who remain in the game as coaches or executives, the rest of their lives are spent looking at past accomplishments.

PATH LIT BY LIGHTNING is even more disheartening, and not only because of the racism that Native Americans had to endure. The accomplishments that earned Jim Thorpe praise as “the greatest athlete in the world” following his resounding victories in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics --- not to mention gold medals and other trophies that came with them --- were stripped from him because he was paid a few dollars for playing semi-pro baseball, which cast a pall over the precious notion of amateurism.

Among the book’s many themes is the hypocrisy of the governing bodies that decided on what that constituted. Despite attempts throughout the years to have Thorpe’s records and hardware reinstated and returned, any number of spurious excuses and alibis were offered to explain why this wasn’t possible. It wasn’t until Thorpe had been long dead that the International Olympic Committee finally decided to restore his medals.

"Once again, Maraniss, an associate editor at The Washington Post and winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, demonstrates an amazing talent for research..."

David Maraniss, whose wide-ranging oeuvre includes such acclaimed sports titles as CLEMENTE, WHEN PRIDE STILL MATTERED and ROME 1960, portrays Thorpe as a victim on several levels. One, of course, was due to his heritage at a time when the prevailing attitude was to “kill the Indian, save the man.” This was accomplished by the establishment of numerous institutions designed to educate that demographic in the ways of white America, including the famed Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where Thorpe spent the early part of his life. “Lo, the poor Indian” is a phrase that Maraniss uses time and again to explain and excuse the shortcomings of a people dealing with such a cultural disadvantage. Thorpe and his contemporaries were handicapped because they were uneducated and ignorant in the ways of the world.

Thorpe sought to go along to get along. Although he was an elite athlete, he does not come off as overly entitled and is in fact characterized as shy and withdrawn outside his close circles. Later in life, his giving nature would come back to haunt him, making it easy for people to take advantage of him, despite his own precarious financial situation.

Like many athletes from his era, sports were basically Thorpe’s only marketable skill. His strength and speed made him a legend in the early days of football when you played offense and defense. His prowess on the gridiron overshadowed his career as an inconsistent professional baseball player (three teams over six years in the Major Leagues, as well as many more in the minors).

It is hard to understand why Thorpe had so much trouble when his playing days were over. Where were the opportunities for someone of his stature? He was not prepared when his skills departed him, which must happen to everyone. Using letters written by Thorpe, we see a man who was ambitious but luckless, quick to believe in offers for employment that never panned out. America’s greatest athlete was forced to take whatever work he could, which was especially difficult during the Depression when he was lucky to get an occasional stint as a manual laborer.

Thorpe was also not the best family man. Married three times, he did not spend a great deal of time at home as he was always on the road looking for the next opportunity. That led to two divorces and estranged relationships with his seven children (one died during the 1918 flu epidemic). His third wife is portrayed as an opportunist who sought to capitalize on his fame, even after his death.

Another theme of PATH LIT BY LIGHTNING is the hyperbole on two fronts. One is sports journalism at a time when newspapers were the only media available, and sportswriters such as Ring Lardner and Grantland Rice were overly dramatic in describing the exploits of Thorpe and his contemporaries. The same applies to former athletes who reminisce about their heroics on the field, which seems to grow at every telling. Maraniss depicts the legendary football coach Pop Warner as an opportunist who took credit for playing a major role in Thorpe’s development while at the same time failing to come to his defense in times of trouble.

Once again, Maraniss, an associate editor at The Washington Post and winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, demonstrates an amazing talent for research, perhaps to a fault, depending on how much “outside” information you want in your reading. The epilogue, which deals with Thorpe’s death and its aftermath, devotes a fair amount of space to the disposition of the remains of Chief Black Hawk. This is interesting, but perhaps not germane to this story, which is a somber examination of a man who deserved so much better.

Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on September 16, 2022

Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe
by David Maraniss

  • Publication Date: August 9, 2022
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction, Sports
  • Hardcover: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1476748411
  • ISBN-13: 9781476748412