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The Hampton Indian Nine

March 9, 2008

1889 Hampton Indian Nine Baseball Team

The caricaturing of Indians baseball players in the nineteenth-century newspapers goes a long way in explaining why American Indians became thought of as mascots for sports rather than the brilliant fielders and star players that they often were. Indians are being dumbed down in the newspapers as caricatures of savage drunkards, [as if they are the only ball players who drink, that’s laughable if you follow sports]. Most of these newspaper reports are second hand, third hand, reports, but they spread like blogs of the 21st century with a repeated message. Indians are savages . . . even when they are good baseball players. It seems to me to be a no-win situation.

So it comes as little surprise, if always still a kick in the gut, to come across an article like the one which appeared in the Boston Daily Advertiser dated February 13, 1890, reporting with an incredulous wonder the arrival of an Indian student to Yale University who might, just might, contend to play on their hallowed fields:

News comes from Yale College that “H.H. Lyman, a full blooded Sioux Indian, of the Yankton tribe, is a candidate for a place on the nine,” and that “he will undoubtedly be selected.” This is interesting for more reasons than one. Mr. Lyman will add a picturesque element to next season’s baseball games. When Harvard and Yale meet on Holmes field at Cambridge the presence of the full blooded Sioux cannot fail to prove a very strong attraction to our people. Possibly a generous enthusiasm for him may somewhat impair the loyalty of spectators who would naturally shout for their home team.

There is something highly interesting, from a scholarly point of view, in this case. For it is said on good authority that the Sioux student is not only an adept at the bat, but is highly proficient in the class room. There is a problem for those to solve who magnify the laws of heredity. A youth comes from a tribe of red Indians. The future candidate for a place on the Yale nine imbibed with his infant nourishment influences handed down through long generations of barbarism. Yet, behold, in young manhood this brave takes his place in academic halls, side by side with scions of New England’s earliest families, with you whose ancestors haunted the cloisters of Oxford and Cambridge in old England, and straightway he proves himself their intellectual as well as their athletic peer.

It will not quite suffice to aver that this case is exceptional. Even so, the exception needs to be accounted for. But, while instances of scholarly aborigines at our chief seats of learning are not numerous, it is no uncommon thing to find at Harvard and Yale bright, vigorous, masterful students, who are natives of countries that no one ever thinks of as in the first or even the second rank, judged by standards of culture. Such young men cannot apply to themselves Tennyson’s splendid boast:

I, the heir of all the ages,
In the foremost files of time.

But they often display an astonishing capacity for entering into an inheritance which is not theirs by birthright.

“This article mostly dumbfounds me, it’s so offensive,” my fabulous research assistant, Lara Mann, wrote when she came across this piece. “Mr. Lyman was obviously an oddity that they were reporting on, not so much for his baseball prowess as his intellectual capacity. There were several Indian baseball teams (tribal, boarding schools, etc.) in 1890, so that wasn’t weird. What is out of the ordinary is that Lyman was playing on a white team, especially a collegiate team, AND (even more exceptionally) excelling academically, seeing that he is sub-par ‘judged by standards of culture.'” And even in an article in which the “savage drunkard” seems trumped by “noble” triumphs both on and off the field, still emerges the idea of imbibing, here “his infant nourishment influences handed down through long generations of barbarism.” That image can’t but appear.

As you can imagine, “H. H. Lyman” did not miraculously, behold!, materialize a collegiate ball player in New Haven, but is best we can trace Henry H. Lyman, a graduate of Hampton Institute and member of the 1889 Hampton Indian Nine at a time when the historically black college was forced by law to field segregated teams. That’s Henry in the image above, seated on the far left. We can imagine, but not know for certain, that he was one of the many taken away personally by Captain Pratt and brought to Virginia by steamboat and train. After graduating from Hampton, Henry Lyman went on to Yale to study law, graduating in 1891. After that, we lose his thread. There is mention that he practiced law in New York City for a year before he became ill, that he traveled back to Hampton for a time before returning home to the Yankton Agency in the hopes that his health would improve. “Lyman seems to illustrate an interesting ‘transition’ I see going on in America in the late 1800s,” Lara concluded. “There were Indians in a bunch of different capacities in the American mind, some obviously thought to be more civilized than others, judging from tone. Lyman seems to represent a new possibility for the American Indian in the American conscience.”

For more, a three part series from Indian Country Today profiling life at Hampton Institute for American Indian students. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Image: The 1889 Hampton Indian Nine. Hampton University Archives/Indian Country Today.

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