The damaging myth of Pop Warner as Jim Thorpe’s savior

From left: Gus Welch, Alex Arcasa, Glenn “Pop” Warner, Stancil “Possum” Powell and Jim Thorpe ca. 1912. (Cumberland County Historical Society/Courtesy of Cumberland County Historical Society, Carlisle, PA)
15 min

This story is adapted from “Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe,” which will be published Aug. 9.

For 20 long years after Jim Thorpe signed a contract with Hollywood, the sporting colossus from the Sac and Fox Nation waited anxiously for the studios to produce a movie about his life. When it finally came out in 1951, two years before his death, the film offered a mostly sympathetic story; star power in Burt Lancaster, the dynamic lead actor who portrayed Jim; and several evocative scenes of his epic rise to global fame and the troubles that followed.

Biographical pictures are invariably fictionalized accounts and should be regarded on those terms, but along with the usual conflations and inaccuracies of detail, “Jim Thorpe — All American” was misguided in a more important way, reinforcing stereotypes of a White perspective on a Native American’s life.

Thorpe — whose Olympic records in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Games were finally restored last month, 110 years too late — was the main character in the film, from greatest athlete in the world, all-American football star and major league baseball player to fallen hero. But the story was told from the perspective of the narrator, Pop Warner, Jim’s old coach and supposed savior. The implication was that if only Thorpe had taken Pop’s advice, stopped brooding about his fate and fully integrated himself into White society, he would not have suffered the way he did.

Patronizing — and wrong.

Glenn Scobey Warner, the Pop whose name lives on as the symbol of youth football, was an imposing figure in the athletic world of the early 20th century, an innovative and successful coach who was almost as well known in that subculture as Thorpe, his most prominent football and track and field star. Together they turned little Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania into an athletic marvel that competed winningly on the fields of play with the elite colleges of the East, from Harvard and Penn to Syracuse and Army.

With Warner’s brilliant coaching and Thorpe’s dominant performance on the football field, Carlisle’s 27-6 thrashing of Army in 1912 stands as one of the most symbolically meaningful moments of athletic retribution in American history. Soldiers on one side, Indians on the other, competing on the Plain at West Point, an even playing field at last. N. Scott Momaday, the Native American novelist and playwright, said it was like reinventing history. There was, he said, “something in the air that cold November day — something made of omens and prophesies. Some old imbalance was being set right.”

Jim and Pop in that sense rose to fame together, bonded by circumstance and mutual need. But the truth was more complicated. The glorification of Warner in the movie and beyond was misplaced. It glossed over his cowardly actions during the most trying time of Thorpe’s career, when Olympic officials rescinded his records and took away his medals and trophies after learning he had played bush league baseball for minimal pay for two years. And glowing portrayals of Warner also ignored the fact that as football coach he professionalized his supposedly amateur Carlisle team and that his players eventually rebelled against his demeaning methods, leading to a congressional investigation and his departure.

A dubious mission

Founded by the Army’s Richard Henry Pratt in 1879, only three years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was the flagship institution of federally operated Indian boarding schools. Its dubious mission was to exterminate Indians not in body but in language, dress, behavior, tradition, religion and soul. Cut their hair and outfit them in uniforms resembling those worn by the enemies of their forefathers, the U.S. cavalry. “Kill the Indian, save the man” was Pratt’s motto. Football, as a college sport then largely the province of Ivy League old boys, was considered an important part of that assimilation process.

Thorpe started competing in track and playing football for Warner’s teams in 1907, and by the following season he had emerged as a brilliant all-around track man and star left halfback. Teammates, opponents and observers could sense he was special. They could see his easygoing nature, his lack of nerves, the resilience of his body and his resistance to pain, the rare combination of strength, speed, stubbornness, instinct and agile grace, the hint of danger and the spark of electricity. Poet Marianne Moore, who lived in Carlisle and taught business classes at the school during Thorpe’s era, later said he “had an ease of gait that is hard to describe. Equilibrium with no stricture but couched in the lineup in football he was the epitome of concentration, wary, with an effect of plenty in reserve.”

Football was just one of Thorpe’s many talents at Carlisle. He excelled at everything, from ice skating on Letort Creek to ballroom dancing in the school gymnasium. By the spring of 1909, he was starring in two sports at once, competing in multiple events from the hurdles to the shot put, high jump and broad jump in track while also pitching and hitting for Carlisle’s baseball team. He tossed a no-hitter and a shutout on the mound and “covered first base like a veteran.” When the season was over, he and two teammates left school to play summer baseball for the Rocky Mount Railroaders in the Eastern Carolina League.

That is when the trouble for Thorpe began — and when Pop Warner’s hypocrisy and duplicity started to be revealed. His athletes did not slip away to play minor league baseball surreptitiously. For years, some of Pop’s ballplayers had joined various teams in the low minor leagues each summer, where they were paid about 30 bucks a month, many of them recruited by a Pennsylvania-based scout who was Warner’s close friend. Records show Thorpe’s departure for Rocky Mount was so well known that Carlisle’s superintendent, Moses Friedman, tried to prevent him from leaving, arguing that it was more important for him to stay in school. It strains credulity to think Warner was unaware of the dispute.

Hundreds of college athletes spent their summers playing pro baseball during that era, but most tried to protect their amateur status by using aliases. One among them was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who played in the Kansas State League under the name Wilson. A scout for the New York Giants recalled that players in the Eastern Carolina League “had as many aliases as the gunmen in New York.” Thorpe, however, played under his own name, which appeared in stories and box scores virtually every day for the two summers he was in the league, first for Rocky Mount and later for the Fayetteville Highlanders.

Although Thorpe decided not to return to school during those two years, he was in frequent contact with Friedman and met twice with Warner, once after meeting the team at a game in St. Louis and then embarking on a long hunting trip with the coach in Oklahoma, Jim’s home territory. Again it requires a willing suspension of disbelief to assume Pop did not ask Jim what he had been doing while away from school.

Warner’s once-dominant teams struggled without their star left halfback until finally the coach persuaded Thorpe to return in 1911. His lure was that Jim could not only restore Carlisle to football glory but also train for the 1912 Olympics, employing his all-around skills in the five-event pentathlon and 10-event decathlon. It was a moment of mutual vulnerability: Warner needed Thorpe as much as Thorpe needed Warner. If Thorpe had not returned to Carlisle, his name could have been lost to history; instead he went on to one of the most incandescent bursts in American sports history, culminating with gold medals in Stockholm and an overwhelming gridiron performance against Army at West Point during his final stellar season.

A scoop and a confession

On Jan. 21, 1913, Roy Johnson, a reporter for the Worcester Telegram, tracked down one of Thorpe’s former coaches from his Eastern Carolina League days who was spending the winter at a relative’s house in Massachusetts. It was Charles Clancy, who had coached Jim briefly with the Fayetteville Highlanders. After a short but revealing interview, Johnson realized he had something sensational and returned to the newspaper office to bang out a story that was “smeared all over the front page” the next morning: “THORPE WITH PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL TEAM SAYS CLANCY.”

It was considered the scoop of the sporting year. Old news, perhaps, in the cities and towns of North Carolina but freshly explosive everywhere else and repeated in newspapers across the nation. When word reached Warner at Carlisle, he professed shock and denial. His first instinct, before consulting Thorpe, was to declare Jim innocent. Thorpe himself stayed silent for a day, discombobulated by the aura of scandal, then decided to present a full acknowledgment. Yes, he had played baseball for about $2 a day in the Eastern Carolina League. The confession, he later said, “lifted, as magic, a great load from my mind and shoulders.”

But he found himself alone. All the powers that be, men who had every reason to know what Thorpe had done, professed ignorance, choosing to save their own reputations and leave Thorpe hanging. Warner declared that he never knew and drafted a confession letter for Thorpe that placed all of the blame on the athlete while falling back on patronizing, racist language as a halfhearted excuse. “I was simply an Indian school boy and did not know all about such things,” Warner had Thorpe saying.

Friedman, the superintendent, also claimed he knew nothing, as did James E. Sullivan, head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, who was close to Warner and served on the advisory board of the Carlisle Athletic Association. With Warner’s blessing, Friedman took Thorpe’s Olympic trophies and medals from the Carlisle trophy case and sent them to New York for shipment back to Sweden. Sullivan, who considered himself the moral arbiter of all things amateur, arranged for the International Olympic Committee to rescind Thorpe’s records, his name excised as though he had never competed at Stockholm, the second-place finishers declared the winners.

Thorpe spent the rest of his life trying to restore his Olympic standing, and his many supporters continued the quest after he died of a heart attack at 65 in 1953, attaining justice only last month. The arguments in his favor were based on both technicalities and common sense.

The rules of the Stockholm Olympics required that challenges to an athlete’s amateur standing be filed within 30 days of the end of the Games. The IOC decision against Thorpe came six months later, well beyond the deadline. A technicality, to be sure, but all Olympic rules were technicalities in one way or another, and this one should have absolved Thorpe. Moreover, Thorpe’s semi-professionalism had nothing to do with track and field. Playing baseball and excelling in the all-around events of the decathlon required completely distinct skills. Compare that with the situation of one of his Olympic teammates, future general George S. Patton, who competed in the modern pentathlon, requiring riding, shooting and fencing skills that he refined while on the Army payroll; or the entire Swedish team, whose members were allowed to leave their jobs and train while under full salary for months before the opening of the Games.

Or, circling back to Pop Warner, compare it with what had been going on in the Carlisle football program for years. When a federal inspector undertook an investigation of the school in 1914 at the behest of Congress, he uncovered how Warner had used the resources of his athletic association to control the internal workings of the school and its public image, using Carlisle’s share of the lucrative gate receipts from games at Harvard, Penn and other big schools to pay off local newspaper correspondents, merchants, lawyers, ministers and law enforcement authorities. Anyone who had influence and might help the program was getting money from Warner.

First and foremost, that meant the players. Hundreds of checks went to athletes who were “kept for the purpose of playing football,” in Inspector E.B. Linnen’s words. Linnen documented that all of the top stars — including “James Thorpe, Frank Mount Pleasant, William Garlow, Gus Welch, Antonio Lubo, Peter and Frank Hauser” — were receiving $10 to $15 per month along with larger sums, loans and free overcoats and watches from Carlisle merchants.

To put this in context, many major college programs found ways to get money to their top athletes. It could also be argued that athletes supplied the entertainment talent that made money for the schools and deserved some financial reward. What the investigation established above all else was the hypocrisy and duplicity of Warner, who had been operating an athletic program as a form of quasi-professionalism while claiming amateur innocence in the case of Thorpe. If the system was corrupt, the blame fell heavily on administrators, not the players — and especially not Thorpe and the other young Indian athletes who arrived from impoverished reservations to bring profits to a school gaining fame from an exotic heritage it was designed to erase.

One of the instigators of the congressional investigation was Welch, the quarterback on the 1912 team. Welch filed a petition against Warner in part out of disgust with his coach for bailing on Thorpe during the Olympics controversy, which he saw as a tipping point after years of unease among the players. Along with revelations about financial payments, the investigation included interviews with many of Pop’s football players who accused him of profiting by selling packs of game tickets in hotel lobbies and of abusing his players mentally and physically, occasionally hitting them and calling them “g--d--- boneheads” and “sons of b----es.” As Welch testified in an affidavit, “Mr. Warner is a good football coach, but a man with no principle.”

It was not long thereafter that Warner left Carlisle for Pittsburgh, another stop in a winning career that carried him on to Stanford and Temple and a hallowed place in the college football annals. The events at Carlisle, aside from the many victories on the field, were whitewashed from history.

A revealing fiction

In the 1951 movie about Thorpe’s life, there is a scene where Jim and Pop reconnect in Los Angeles. It is 1932. Jim is 45. His playing career is over. He is down on his luck, finding odd jobs as a ditch-digger and the emcee of dance contests, when Warner reemerges in the role of savior. He finds Jim in the dank basement dressing room of a decrepit ballroom taking off the greasepaint makeup of a dime store Indian. Pop chews Jim out for picking up “the idea that the world owed you something.” Before leaving, he gives his old star tickets to the Opening Ceremonies of the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. At first Jim rips the tickets in half, saying he doesn’t want them, but soon he is in the stadium sitting next to Warner.

None of this happened in real life, but the scene is illuminating nonetheless. When the U.S. team marches in, Warner joins the crowd in enthusiastic applause. Jim sits stone-faced. The movie switches to newsreel briefly as Vice President Charles Curtis opens the Games. Pop turns to Jim and says: “The announcer forgot to announce one thing, or maybe he didn’t find it necessary. Charles Curtis, Indian.” Curtis, a Kansan, claimed Indian heritage, his mother a member of the Kaw Nation, and the implication was that the vice president had so successfully integrated himself into the highest rungs of White society that his race need not be mentioned. Thorpe could have accomplished the same, according to Pop, if he had stopped feeling sorry for himself and his people.

The reality was different. It was the vice president who got Jim into the Games. He worshiped Thorpe and was dismayed to read newspaper reports that the great athlete had not been invited to the Coliseum for the Opening Ceremonies. “I actually felt almost tearful when I read the story,” he said, directing Louis B. Mayer of MGM to make sure Jim was accommodated.

When Thorpe received the tickets at last, he considered the initial snub an insult not to him but to all Indians. “It had to be another Indian who finally got me the invitation,” he said. Pop Warner had nothing to do with it.