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To Pull a Ball from a Storm

January 31, 2008

One might begin here with a tip of the cap to Louis Francis Sockalexis, acknowledged by history or habit as the first American Indian to play major league ball. More certainly, he was the first Penobscot to play in its leagues. In 1897, his first season with the Cleveland Spiders, Sockalexis batted .338 in the first 66 games of his career, this seven years after Wounded Knee.

Joe Posnanski, among many, has put the lie to the the myth that Cleveland’s current MLB team was named to remember the achievements of Sockalexis. Likely, he was little more than an afterthought at the time, later more a pacific justification. During the early years of its history, Posnanski notes, Cleveland had been known as the Blues, the Broncos, for 11 years as the Naps (nicknamed for star player, Napoleon Lajoie), even most strangely, the Infants. But by 1915, when the team officially changed its name to the Indians, they were a crew desperate to shed the memory of past failure. (Their 1899 season in which they went 20-134 might be forever known as the worst ever. The season before the change, they had lost 102.) Rather than the intense but brief success of Sockalexis, the new name seems more reasonably an attempt to conjure the miracle of a winning season akin to that of the Boston Braves the year before.

His death at 41 was due to heart failure while logging, according to the New York Times. The obituary published on Christmas 1913 describes his grandfather as a past Governor of the Penobscot — note: his grandfather was not referred to as a “chief” — and hints at Sockalexis’s attempts to revive his baseball career after his three season with the Spiders, none of which really took. Two of his last known games were played in May 1907 against players from the Philadelphia Giants of the Negro League. Sockalexis was 35. During a late season Nor’easter, “he pulled down two high [flies] out of the hurricane and the one that he didn’t get was on account of the wind,” wrote the Bangor Daily News at the time. “Old Sock got into the game yesterday with more signs of life than he has shown yet.”

To recognize Louis Sockalexis as the first American Indian to play in the major league is not to leave the impression he was the first American Indian to play the game or the beginning. Far from it. The role of American Indians in baseball begins long before the statistics and mascots of organized ball, as we are about to see.

Related:

The Story of Sockalexis – The Baseball Reliquary
Redeeming SockalexisBangor Metro
Penobscots: Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo Insults SockalexisKennebec Journal
Accounts of the May 1907 gamesBangor Daily News
(Be aware: the descriptions of these games against the Philadelphia Giants, quoted from the paper’s archive, are painfully racist.)

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