What I've been reading
As long-time readers of the blog know, I have always been keen on stories about olde-tyme football, say from before the Super Bowl era. Luckily, recently a lot of people have decided that olde-tyme football is pretty groovy, too, so there have been a bunch o' books recently that are all about it. And here's another one!
For those of you who don't know, Jim Thorpe is only the greatest athlete in American history. He was a Sac and Fox Indian from Oklahoma who played football, baseball, and won a bunch of Olympic medals in the process (which were later stripped from him because of a stupid technicality but restored to him posthumously). Dwight Eisenhower, you may recall, was a pretty good general and president. Pop Warner is probably best known today as the guy they named the youth football league after, but he was also a tremendously innovative and brilliant coach in his day. He managed to win at Temple, of all places! This book tells the tale of all three men and the day in 1912 when their lives intersected on a football field at West Point.
Anderson's book is more of a triple biography through the 1912 football season, as he skips back and forth from Warner's early coaching career and the lives of his two main players, bringing in a brief history of the Indian Wars and the Wounded Knee massacre to boot. It's a very readable book, zipping around from Warner and his picaresque 1890s career (late in the decade, he coached two different college teams simultaneously, which shows how unstructured the sport was back then) and then to Oklahoma and Kansas to track Thorpe and Ike grow up. Things get more interesting when Warner shows up at Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1899.
Carlisle gets a lot of attention in the book, of course. Anderson goes over the history of the school and how Richard Henry Pratt, a Civil War veteran and missionary, founded it in order to save the souls of the Native Americans. Interestingly enough, although Anderson is clearly not on Pratt's side, he doesn't condemn Pratt's idea either. The Indians who went to Carlisle were forced to cut their hair and were forbidden to speak their native languages, but they also escaped desperate lives of poverty and, in the case of Thorpe, became the most famous athlete in the country. As usual, the issues of the United States' dealings with the Native Americans is much more complicated than we'd like it to be, and Anderson does a good job showing that as horrible as it was sometimes at Carlisle, the alternative was also pretty bad.
Warner wanted to coach at Carlisle because he thought he could train the young men into a team that could implement his vision of "modern" football. Football at the turn of the twentieth century was brutal affair, looking more like rugby than anything else. Players often died from injuries they incurred on the field, and in 1906 Teddy Roosevelt convened a panel of university officials and told them to clean up their sport or he'd ban it (which led to, among other things, the legalization of the forward pass). Warner had a different vision of football, one that emphasized skill over brawn and misdirection over simply powering over others. Anderson makes it clear that Warner had the same low opinion of Indians that most Americans did, but as he coached them, he began to change his opinion. I know, shocking. The Carlisle students were undersized, but they were also faster than many other teams and took to Warner's schemes very well. By the time Thorpe arrived at Carlisle in 1907, Warner was known as a brilliant schemer and he finally had the players to challenge the big schools on a consistent basis. Warner and Carlisle had beaten some of the powerful schools prior to Thorpe joining the team, but with Thorpe, they would challenge for a National Championship.
The most interesting part of the book is the relationship between Warner and Thorpe, who really developed a father-son dynamic through their years together. Thorpe was restless and left the school for a few years (which is how he could still be playing in 1912, when he was 24), but Warner was instrumental in getting him to focus and harness his astonishing ability. Warner even chaperoned him to the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, where he won the gold in both the pentathlon and decathlon, neither of which he had ever attempted before. He was stripped of the medals because in 1909 and 1910 he played minor-league baseball for pay. Many college athletes did this, but used aliases. Thorpe naively did not. Ironically, Eisenhower also got paid to play baseball before he arrived at West Point, which would have made him illegible to play for Army. Eisenhower, however, used a false name.
Thorpe was able to put Warner's tactics into play, and Carlisle became even more of a football power during his tenure there. Carlisle was never able to win the National Championship, because they always lost a crucial game. Anderson makes the point that Thorpe was occasionally bored on the football field, and the implication is that he was so much better than everyone else that he often lost focus. Anderson also writes that bad weather had a huge adverse effect on Carlisle, as they often played very poorly, to the point where they seemed to not want to even be on the field. It's never clear exactly why the Indians didn't like playing in poor weather, but it was something Warner could never cure.
The game on 9 November 1912 is the focus of the book, obviously, as both Carlisle and Army were powerhouses and the game looked to go a long way to determining the National Championship. The reason Anderson focuses on the game is because of the obvious pairing of students who would one day be soldiers and Indians who were once hunted and killed by those soldiers. Warner made reference in his pre-game speech to the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890, which many of his students had heard about from relatives who experienced events like that. Plus, the fact that Eisenhower played across the field from Thorpe and had many opportunities to tackle him led, in hindsight, to people adding importance to this game. Ironically, the game itself was anti-climactic. Carlisle dominated the game from the beginning. Eisenhower tried to take Thorpe out and failed and later injured himself severely. A week later, Carlisle lost to Penn and failed to win the National Championship. It wasn't even the game that catapulted Carlisle to national prominence, as they had been a force in college football for a decade. Thematically, I understand why Anderson focuses the book around the game, and narratively, it helps to have a defining moment, but real life tells us that the game wasn't as monumental as Anderson would like us to believe.
But that's a minor criticism. This is a fascinating book about three men who made a huge impact on both American sports and American culture in general. Anderson has a nice style and he never lets the strands of his narrative get away from him, and everything flows nicely toward West Point in November 1912. We get a lot of insight into Warner's theories of football and how Eisenhower became such a good leader of men. Thorpe is the star of the book to a degree, mainly because he was so talented no matter what he tried to do athletically. Obviously, it helps if you like sports, but Anderson does a nice job showing a portrait of American life in the early 20th century. And shouldn't all Americans try to learn more about our country's history?