All American: The Rise and Fall of Jim Thorpe by Bill Crawford
Review by C. Douglas Baker
All American: The Rise and Fall of Jim Thorpe is an interesting biography of the greatest athlete of the 20th Century, albeit with some flaws. Thorpe, a Sac and Fox Indian, grew up on a reservation with a tough father and mother.
He was placed in a number of boarding schools and kept running away, but did finally wind up in his early teens at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The boarding school, dedicated to the education and acculturation of Indian youth into white society, is where Thorpe came under the tutelage of Glen Scobey “Pop” Warner, who helped coach and guide him in track and football.
Thorpe’s biggest claim to fame was the infamous gold medals he won in the pentathlon and decathlon of the 1912 Olympics, thereafter being proclaimed the greatest athlete in the world. He was also a football star for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, helping the team beat such notable gridiron institutions as Harvard, Penn, and Army.
While at Carlisle, Jim Thorpe played “summer baseball” being paid to play on semi-professional baseball teams in North Carolina. Thorpe had a limited source of income from his holdings in Oklahoma so made a little spending money playing baseball in the summer. This was a very common practice for college athletes at the time.
Given the choice of making money doing hard labor on a farm or playing ball, it wasn’t a tough choice. Unfortunately, this created a huge scandal because of the odious Olympic definition of “amateur athlete” and Thorpe was stripped of his medals after being sold out (according to Crawford) by Pop Warner and James Sullivan, the head of the Amateur Athletic Union that controlled the Olympics in America. These medals were later reinstated long after Thorpe’s death.
In addition to being a biography of Thorpe and telling us a bit about his early life and his athletic career at Carlisle, the book has a theme, the exploitation of amateur athletes, like Thorpe.
Amateur athletics bring in large amounts of money for coaches, schools, and hangers on, money that is made on the athletic prowess of these “amateur athletes.” Meanwhile the athletes themselves get nothing (or maybe a little under the table) and in fact their lives are carefully controlled by those profiting from their efforts.
The last chapter is an indictment, somewhat, of the Olympics and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the exploitation of college and amateur athletes.
Overall this is a fine book providing a clear picture of Jim Thorpe, Pop Warner, and the real situation around Thorpe being unfairly stripped of his Olympic medals. The primary flaw of the book is it covers very little of Thorpe’s professional athletic career in football and baseball, which was disappointing. It is also a bit stilted in writing style. These are minor flaws as the entire work is definitely worth reading.