Baseball’s tribute to American Indians
HOWES CAVE, N.Y. -- Long before Jackie Robinson endured torrents of racial taunts in breaking baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Louis Sockalexis had a bull’s-eye on his back.
From the day in 1897 when he first donned a uniform for the Cleveland Spiders, Sockalexis suffered more than his share of racial slurs.
“If the small and big boys of Brooklyn find it a pleasure to shout at me, I have no objections,” Sockalexis told the Brooklyn Eagle during his rookie season. “No matter where we play, I go through the same ordeal, and at the present time I am so used to it that at times I forget to smile at my tormentors.”
Sockalexis figured the tormenting was just part of the game. A Penobscot Indian from Maine, he’s considered the first player of Native American descent to make it to the major leagues. (James Madison Toy played with Cleveland a decade earlier and was said to be of Sioux ancestry, but he never publicly acknowledged his Indian heritage and his 1919 death certificate lists his race as white.)
Sockalexis’ story is one of many chronicled in “Baseball’s League of Nations: A Tribute to Native Americans in Baseball,” an exhibit on display through the end of the year at the Iroquois Indian Museum. The exhibit features photos and several artifacts, many on loan from the National Baseball Hall of Fame in nearby Cooperstown.
“There’s never been an exhibit like this before,” said 61-year-old Mike Tarbell, an Akwesasne Mohawk who serves as an educator at the museum and was a pitcher in his athletic heyday. “For myself, it’s like a breath of fresh air. We’re always doing something that involves pottery or basket making or painting or sculpturing of some kind. We’ve forgotten that baseball was a part of our history as well.”
Counting current players Joba Chamberlain (Winnebago Nation) of the New York Yankees, Jacoby Ellsbury (Navajo) of the Boston Red Sox, and Kyle Lohse (Nomlaki Nation) of the St. Louis Cardinals, more than 50 Native Americans have played major league baseball.
“We came up with a lot of cool stuff that we didn’t think we were going to find,” said museum curator Stephanie Shultes, who assembled the exhibit. “It was kind of amazing, once we started, how much there really was out there, how many of these guys that you did find out about you may have never realized before were Native [Americans].”
American Indians were introduced to baseball in several ways. Lewis and Clark are said to have tried to teach an early version of baseball to members of the Nez Perce during the famed explorers’ trek across North America from 1804-06.
And in the late 1800s, Native American prisoners of war at Fort Sill, Okla., reputedly played baseball, including Apache warrior Geronimo.
An integral part of early attempts at formal education, religious conversion and assimilation into white society was the playing of sports such as baseball at federally operated boarding schools. More than 100,000 Native American children attended the 500 boarding schools that followed the opening of the first in Carlisle, Pa., in 1879.
Jim Thorpe, considered by many to be the greatest athlete of the 20th century, was among those children for whom success in baseball and other sports became a source of pride and success. The games also provided freedom from the boarding school regime.
Sockalexis broke new ground with the Spiders. Nicknamed the “Deerfoot of the Diamond,” he attended college at Holy Cross, where he participated in baseball, football and track. When his baseball coach left for the same position at Notre Dame in 1896, Sockalexis transferred. He was expelled because of problems with alcohol, but signed with the Spiders.
Sockalexis had a batting average of .313 with three home runs and 33 RBIs in three seasons before injuries and struggles with alcohol led to his release in 1899. He finished his career in the minor leagues and returned to Maine to coach juvenile teams.
Despite his brief stint at the top echelon of the sport, Sockalexis paved the way for the likes of:
* Charles Chief Bender, a Chippewa from Minnesota who starred on the mound for the Philadelphia Athletics, compiling 212 wins in 16 seasons. In 1953, 28 years after retiring, Bender became the first Native American elected to the Hall of Fame.
* Allie “Super Chief” Reynolds, a hard-throwing right-hander of Creek descent who went 131-60 in eight years with the Yankees and finished his 13-year major league career in 1954 with a 182-107 record.
* Pepper Martin, an Osage who starred at third base and the outfield for the Cardinals’ famed “Gashouse Gang” of the 1930s, and in 1931 was named the first Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year.
* Zach Wheat, a Cherokee outfielder who starred for Brooklyn in the early 1900s and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1959.
* Rudy York, a Cherokee who as a rookie catcher with the Detroit Tigers in 1937 broke Babe Ruth’s record for most home runs in a month, hitting 18 in August, and also drove in 49 runs that month to break Lou Gehrig’s record by one. York finished his career with 277 home runs, 1,152 RBIs and a .275 batting average.
* Jack Aker, of Potawatomi descent, spent 11 seasons as a reliever with seven teams in the majors and since 1994 has been teaching baseball to Native American children in Arizona and New Mexico.
* Thorpe, a Sac/Fox from Oklahoma and direct descendant of the warrior Black Hawk who played for the Giants, Reds and Braves from 1913-19. Thorpe also played in the NFL and won gold medals at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics in the decathlon and pentathlon.
“That was my hero,” said Tarbell, whose grandfather attended the Carlisle school with Thorpe. “I kind of did myself like him. Jim Thorpe was in my mind whenever I did something. I wanted to follow his path.”
Native Americans were expected to ignore racially charged ridicule. Nearly every player of Indian descent who stepped onto a ballfield during the first half of the 20th century was called “Chief.” It wasn’t the only taunt: “Redskin,” “Heap-Big Injun” and chants of “Back to the reservations,” “Dog Soup” and “Whoop, Whoop” were part of the racist cacophony that emanated from the stands.
Bender didn’t win games -- he scalped opponents.
After throwing one of the best games of his career, Bender was depicted wielding a tomahawk and wearing a headdress.
Even teammates and opposing players sometimes did the taunting as teams around the country began calling themselves Indians and owners recruited Native American players as gate attractions.
Moses Yellowhorse, a Pawnee signed by Pittsburgh in 1921 as a pitcher and regarded by historians as the first full-blooded American Indian to play in the big leagues, hit Detroit slugger Ty Cobb so hard in a 1922 exhibition game that Cobb had to be carried from the field.
“Cobb was hooting and hollering before he went to bat, and that infuriated Yellowhorse,” said Todd Fuller, author of a Yellowhorse biography.
In Gene Locklear’s eyes, the prejudice never disappeared. Signed by the Cincinnati Reds as an amateur free agent in 1969, Locklear, who was born and raised on the Lumbee Nation in North Carolina, played only five seasons before retiring at age 30 after a brief stint with the Yankees.
“I endured a lot of stuff,” said the 59-year-old Locklear, an award-winning artist who has had one of his paintings displayed in the White House. “If you go back through my record, in 1975 I was hitting .450 [for San Diego] and they sent me to the minor leagues for a month. I think that’s racism. They didn’t like me.”
Tarbell endured hateful epithets, too, during his amateur playing days, which ended prematurely because of injuries suffered in combat while serving in Vietnam.
However, like Sockalexis, he was usually wearing a smile.
“I was a pitcher, and when they said, ‘Get that Indian out of here!’ or ‘Take that redskin back to the reservation!’, it was part of the game,” Tarbell said. “But each of those players had to face me one at a time, and so I went away with a smile on my face. I struck them out.”