New Jim Thorpe Biography

Yet another biography of Jim Thorpe is to be released soon. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. has announced that Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe by Kate Buford will be released in October. Ms. Buford is the author of Burt Lancaster: An American Life. Buford’s reputation and history suggest that her book will be better than the other recent attempts at chronicling the great athlete’s life. Was she able to gain access to Jim Thorpe’s scrapbooks? It is believed that Robert W. Wheeler was the last Thorpe biographer to have them available for his research. They are now in the hands of a well-known collector of sports artifacts who doesn’t generally allow researchers to see them.

One thing that is sure is that the Kate Buford didn’t have access to the vast majority of the people Wheeler interviewed due to their demise during the intervening years. However, Wheeler taped his interviews on a bulky tape recorder that he lugged as he hitchhiked across the country to interview anyone he could find who had a relationship with Thorpe. He has made the recording of his interview with former West Point cadet Dwight David Eisenhower available to others, but even that hasn’t stopped other authors from writing inaccuracies about the 1912 Carlisle-Army game.

I am curious to learn more about Big Jim’s eye disease. Recently, I learned that he had eye surgery while at Carlisle. About all I have uncovered so far is that he was hospitalized for three days. Nothing was stated about the reason for the surgery. The medical records from his student file are long gone. Perhaps the person who took them or his descendants will return them or at least make their contents public. There are still things to learn about Jim Thorpe. This fall, we will see if this new biography shares any of them.

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7 Responses to “New Jim Thorpe Biography”

  1. Kate Buford Says:

    Hi Tom — Thank you very much for the mentions of my upcoming Jim Thorpe biography, NATIVE AMERICAN SON: THE LIFE AND SPORTING LEGEND OF JIM THORPE.

    Bob Wheeler, with extraordinary generosity, let me have copies of the transcripts of all the interviews he did for his earlier biography of Thorpe. As you accurately point out, by now virtually all of those interviewees are dead, so his resources are invaluable.

    Regarding the eye operation, you’ll read about it in NATIVE AMERICAN SON!

    Thanks again — Kate

  2. tombenjey Says:

    Hi Kate,

    I’m actually more interested in knowing if you were able to find the fifth Carlisle loss in 1905 that Sally Jenkins mentioned but did not describe. Steckbeck listed 10 wins and 4 losses whereas Jenkins stated that their record was 10-5 but provided no detail. The Carlisle Indian School newspaper listed losses to Penn, Harvard, Massillon A. C. and Canton A. C. I found a couple of other games that Steckbeck missed because they weren’t mentioned in school publications, so it is quite possible that another game was played for which the results never found their way to Carlisle. However, I haven’t come across any mention of another game. Sometimes games were added after the season started, even on post-season road trips. The Canton and Massillon games were added in October. The maneuvering by the Athletic Clubs to schedule Carlisle is a story in itself.

    I find Jenkins’s treatment of Carlisle’s 1905 season curious. She starts by saying that Major Mercer was discontented with Carlisle’s 9-2 showing but then says nothing about his success in getting the War Department to allow the Indians to play Army at West Point. She criticized Mercer for replacing the Indian head coach with a white man and specifically for hiring Hall-of-famer George Woodruff, describing Woodruff as “totally unsuitable.” She described Carlisle’s play against Harvard as “plodding” while neglecting to mention that footing was poor due to the rain the night before the game. Granted that Woodruff’s style play was what was called “straight football” in those days and was not the more open style of play that Warner used, but slippery fields generally take those plays right out of the playbook for the game.

    Observers of Carlisle’s next game noted the large number of trick plays the Indians ran against Army in Woodruff’s last game as a head coach. I suspect field conditions had a good bit to do with the choice of plays in both games. Jenkins did not find the first Carlisle-Army game worthy of discussion, saying that under Woodruff they “lost every significant game.” Apparently, she didn’t consider Carlisle’s victory over Army in 1905 as significant. However, sportswriters of the day did. The New York Evening Sun opined, “The most praiseworthy advance was, on the whole, made by the so-called minor college elevens.…Carlisle and several other teams proved that the Big Six was no longer to be feared and three bearded an equal number of the select sextet on their own gridirons. The Indians and Virginia Polytechnic added the finishing touch by defeating between them the Army and Navy, while among the smaller colleges confusion reigns supreme.” The Sun went on to place Frank Mt. Pleasant as quarterback of its All-Eastern team.

    George Woodruff left after the Army game to start a new job with the government, finishing his career with a 7-2 season, losing only to two of the Big Four. Mercer reverted to Indian coaches for the 1906 season, but when Pop Warner became available, he hired him back, even though he (either directly or through his minions) at the beginning of the 1906 season stated, “Coach Glenn S. Warner is undoubtedly the only white man who has ever been able to hold fast the attention of the redskinned footballist and teach him better things” when he announced that Indian coaches were to be employed that year. Mercer’s statement implies that he wasn’t satisfied with Woodruff’s results, even though the old coach had won him bragging rights against “ringknockers” by defeating the The Academy.

    One wonders why Jenkins didn’t mention the win over Army and the opponent in the fifth loss.


  3. Kate Buford Says:

    Hi Tom —

    Wish I could help you out with this question, but Thorpe did not start playing football with Warner at Carlisle until, as you know, 1907. I didn’t have the luxury, unfortunately, to address areas that did not directly involve him. Sally’s book was focused exclusively on the Carlisle football team and its history, so she would be the one to run that question by.



  4. tombenjey Says:

    Hi Kate,

    I’m glad to hear that you’re not hyping the 1912 Carlisle-Army game into something it wasn’t as others have done. Now I can get back to finding out if Winneshiek was actually on Byrd’s Antarctic Expedition.


  5. dinobeano Says:

    Hi, Kate, I am from Malaysia. Read Jay’s review of your book on this great American athlete. I knew of Jim Thorpe’s sporting accomplishments when I was growing up in the 1950s.

    I will get a copy of your book soon. I have posted Jay’s review on my blog, I welcome your comments and Tombenjey’s too . Merry Xmas and a great 2011 to both of you. Din Merican

  6. Kate Buford Says:

    Hi, Dinobeano and Tom — Thank you so much for posting today’s NYTimes review of NATIVE AMERICAN SON and, Tom, for forwarding me this blogpost.

    A week from today, 12/19, the book will be featured as an Editors’ Choice in the NYTimes, too. All good for Mr. Thorpe!

  7. Cooker Hoods Says:

    “,’ I am really thankful to this topic because it really gives up to date information :.-

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