- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 11, 2004

If Jim Thorpe were at his athletic peak today he would be a multimillionaire — complete with a bevy of bimbos, an agent to handle endorsements, and his own TV program.

But Thorpe was the greatest athlete of an earlier generation, when professional sports other than baseball were virtually unknown. His inability to earn a livelihood in the sports in which he excelled was the root cause of Thorpe’s downfall, as recounted by Texas journalist Bill Crawford AllAmerican: TheRiseandFallofJimThorpe (John Wiley, $24.95, 250 pages, illus.).

Born on an Indian reservation in present-day Oklahoma in 1887, Thorpe was a “ward of the government” rather than a U.S. citizen for much of his life. In 1904 he was sent east for schooling at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, one of several technical schools designed to train young Indians in the ways of the white man.

Thorpe was a problem student; he had no aptitude for his studies. But he quickly demonstrated his remarkable skills in both track and football, putting Carlisle on the American athletic map.

His coach in track and football was Glenn “Pop” Warner, who had contacts that enabled him to schedule football games with collegiate powers like Harvard, Pennsylvania, and Army. Carlisle did not always beat these teams, but Thorpe’s performance as a running back made him an All-American and one of the best-known athletes in the country.

Alas, even then, there was corruption in amateur athletics. Warner saw to it that his athletes received special food and housing. He doled out “loans” and “expense money” to his boys, and opened accounts in their names at the local department store.

The highlight of Thorpe’s track career came at the 1912 Olympics in Sweden. There he won the gold medal in both the decathlon and pentathlon, prompting King Gustav V to tell the American, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.”

The greatest athlete in the world was of average size by our standards — just under six feet in height and 185 pounds. But he was shifty, fast, and tough. Although he disliked practice and had a fondness for booze, you could count on him to be ready for the kickoff or the starter’s gun.

Thorpe’s downfall came when authorities of the Amateur Athletic Union began to check out rumors that some athletes were in fact professionals. It developed that Thorpe, in need of pocket money, had played minor league baseball in North Carolina for the likes of $15 to $25 per week. Pop Warner, eager to divert attention from financial irregularities at Carlisle, turned Thorpe in to the authorities.The International Olympic Committee, urged on by the Amateur Athletic Union, stripped him of his medals.

Unlike professional athletes today, Thorpe had nothing to fall back on when his playing days were over. He earned pin money as a bar bouncer, a wrestler, and a bit player in Hollywood while going through three unsuccessful marriages. He died in 1953.

Thirty years later, the IOC voted to return Thorpe’s medals to his family.

Bill Crawford has written a thoughtful, insightful biography of one of the victims of sport in America

World-renowned cellist Janos Starker, who made his debut as a soloist with an orchestra at age 15 in Budapest, has been a fixture on the Indiana University music faculty for more than four decades. In fact, his reputation as a “maniacal teacher” — Starker’s words — once led basketball coach Bobby Knight to invite him to give a pep talk to his Hoosiers. Starker talked about “discipline, concentration, dedication, and team spirit as it is expressed in ensemble playing in music and other contexts.”

Now Starker, who has had more lives than a cat, has turned his reminiscences about the past 80 years into TheWorldofMusicAccordingtoStarker (Indiana University Press, $29.95, 340 pages, illus., CD). Never mind some annoying digressions (e.g., “The Autobiography of a Stomach” and some labored “stories”) that interrupt what flow there is. The bulk of the book is a goldmine of insights on what “an obstinate, obsessive determination to be great” — his description of the characteristic that matters most in reaching the top — did for him.

The sidebars almost steal the show, particularly the descriptions of his various cellos and bows and “the Starker bridge,” contrasts between live performances and recorded music, and the perils of touring the world, especially Africa, with your instrument. The appendix “An Organized Method of String Playing” is like a private seminar with the master.

Janos Starker seems to have known, and played with, virtually every top classical musician throughout the world. His favorite conductor? Fritz Reiner, who rescued him from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra after four years of long hours there and made him principal cellist of the Chicago Symphony.

His nonfavorite conductors? Perhaps heading the list would be Eugene Ormandy, whose expectations of “maximum body gyrations from his players” ran up against Starker’s lifelong adherence to “minimal body motions.” Paul Paray, a cellist himself as well as a conductor, crossed swords with Starker over last-minute changes in fingering. “For years afterward Paray referred to me as ‘that bastard in Chicago.’” Igor Stravinsky, says Starker, was “a genius not a conductor.”

The greatest musician he ever encountered? George Enescu, whom he heard perform “four times in eight days as a pianist, violinist, conductor, and composer.” The only other musicians whose performances similarly impressed Starker were Wilhelm Bachhaus, who played the Brahms D Minor Piano Concerto with Reiner’s Chicago Symphony four times in a week, and Jascha Heifetz, who recorded the Brahms Violin Concerto with Reiner.

Starker’s parents were Jewish immigrants to Hungary from Poland and the Ukraine who were too poor to buy Hungarian citizenship. A child prodigy, Janos studied with Adolf Schiffer at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, who suggested that he quit school at 14 to concentrate on music.

Starker’s account of how he and his parents survived World War II in Hungary (his two brothers did not) is worthy of inclusion in the recently opened Terror Museum in Budapest. In a sidebar Starker recounts how, at an after-concert gathering of musicians for drinks in Chicago in 1954, the subject turned to what they had been doing 10 years before. Starker said, “I was in a detention camp on a little island of the Danube river outside of Budapest, working in an airplane factory. We were in trenches, trying not to get killed by Allied bombs. Twenty-one people next to me got hit.”

When another member of the group — horn player Alan Fuchs — asked what date that was, Starker told him. Then Fuchs pulled a little black book out of his jacket pocket and read, “July 31, 1944 — Bombing mission over Budapest,” adding “‘I was on that mission. I was a bomber.” Starker says that he got up, shook Fuchs’ hand, and said, “Cheers, friend. Thanks for missing me.”

Don’t miss this book, warts and all.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va. Mr. Taylor is the author of a number of books, including “Garfield of Ohio: The Available Man.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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