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Louis Sockalexis
Louis Sockalexis
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        Although it was discovered in the 1960s that the first Native American in the major leagues was James Madison Toy, who played in the American Association in 1887 and 1890, the first man known and treated as an American Indian was Louis Sockalexis. Born on October 24, 1871 on the Penobscot Indian reservation outside of Old Town, Maine, Sockalexis displayed incredible athletic talent in his youth. Tales abounded of his great throwing arm, with descriptions of him hurling a baseball over 600 feet across the Penobscot River. He went on to become a star pitcher and outfielder at both Holy Cross and Notre Dame, where life and legend continued to intertwine. One of his colossal home runs was estimated at 600 feet, while another reportedly broke a fourth-story window in the Brown University chapel. He stole six bases in one game; pitched three no-hitters; and one of his outfield throws, measured by two Harvard professors, traveled 414 feet on the fly.

        Sockalexis was signed to a professional contract in 1897 by the Cleveland Spiders baseball club of the National League and was an immediate success, hitting an impressive .338 with eight triples and 16 stolen bases in his first 60 games. He appeared to be on target to fulfill the enormous promise predicted for him by New York Giants manager John McGraw, who described Sockalexis as the greatest natural talent he had ever encountered in the game. But his rookie season and his professional baseball career were soon ground to a halt. A drinking problem that had begun in his college days resurfaced, and on July 4, 1897, during a party, an inebriated Sockalexis jumped from the second-story window of a brothel, severely injuring his ankle. He played only sporadically during the next two years, and his last game in the major leagues came in 1899 at the age of 27.

        The challenges faced by an athlete breaking racial barriers in any sport are intimidating, and it is difficult to comprehend the sense of loneliness that would be part of such an athlete’s experience. Jackie Robinson’s travails as the first African American major league ballplayer are well documented. Although Native Americans were accepted in professional baseball a half century before African Americans were, they were still subjected to racism. In his brief major league career, Sockalexis was a sideshow attraction. Tapping into a public consciousness that still remembered the Indian Wars of the 1870s, spectators for opposing teams were reported to have showered racial slurs and invectives on the Penobscot Indian when he stepped to the plate. Fans imitated war whoops and war dances when Sockalexis came to town. He was exploited by those who had a business interest in baseball (i.e., the club owners and the press) and who, aware of the public’s great curiosity in Sockalexis, cultivated his Indian image for the purpose of selling tickets and newspapers. Sportswriters later attributed his rapid decline to an inherent "Indian weakness," the abuse of alcohol, which continued to perpetuate one of the most dominant and enduring Native American stereotypes, that of the drunken and lazy Indian.

        Sockalexis spent his final years on the Penobscot Indian reservation, teaching Native American boys how to play baseball. It was reported that when he died of heart failure at the age of 42 on October 24, 1913, his yellowed press clippings were found inside his shirt pocket. Sockalexis was buried at the Old Town cemetery, with his name burned on a wood cross. In 1934, the State of Maine erected a stone marker on his grave.

        In 1915, two years after the death of Sockalexis, the Cleveland ballclub (then nicknamed the "Naps," after their long-time player-manager Napoleon Lajoie) changed its nickname to the "Indians." Over the years, the club and major league baseball have claimed the name was changed to honor the memory of Sockalexis. In recent years, however, some researchers have called into question this long-believed story, much as an earlier generation of historians debunked the myth that Abner Doubleday invented the game of baseball. In an essay published in 1998 in the Sociology of Sport Journal, entitled "An Act of Honor or Exploitation?: The Cleveland Indians’ Use of the Louis Francis Sockalexis Story," author Ellen J. Staurowsky argued that the name "Indians," and its attendant logos, were more likely chosen for exploitative purposes. This was a period in American history when Native American images were frequently used as distinguishing marks for products and when Native Americans were often equated with animals, as seen in a common expression of the day, "No Dogs. No Indians." A Cleveland Plain Dealer cartoonist at that time hinted that the nickname was bestowed on the club by sportswriters who hoped the team would emulate the Boston Braves. The sensation of the baseball world in 1914, the Miracle Braves, as they were called, rose from last place on July 4 to win 60 of their final 76 games and capture the National League pennant. One Cleveland writer reported, "We’ll have the Indians on the warpath all the time, eager for scalps to dangle at their belts."

        In recent years, the story of Louis Sockalexis has usually been brought up in connection with protests by many citizens who have argued that the Cleveland Indians nickname, and the club’s smiling Chief Wahoo mascot, are manifestations of racism. These protesters charge that spectators today, just as they did a century earlier in Sockalexis’ time, don headdresses, wear "war paint" and sing "war chants," and chop tomahawks in a display of behavior that is demeaning to Native Americans. The very things that are sacred to Native Americans — the wearing of eagle feathers and religious chanting and dancing — are made comical or quaint in the confines of the ballpark.

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