August 19, 2022

The real Cleveland Indian behind Sockalexis myth

While I was pleased to see the memory of Penobscot Indian Louis Sockalexis recalled in a BDN editorial (Oct. 22), it was disheartening to also see several examples from the plethora of misinformation about the great baseball player further perpetuated, some of which have attended this legendary story for almost a century.

I’m afraid I have to strongly disagree with the editorial writer’s assertion that the Indian Island hero’s story is one “every true Mainer knows.” It’s largely unknown because of a lack of public and media interest, which probably contributed to the ridiculous and insulting situation of it taking until 1985 to admit one of the state’s truly greatest athletes into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame. (By contrast, Sockalexis was the first person admitted to the Holy Cross Sports Hall of Fame when it was created in 1956.)

Further, even those who do know something about the story should be advised not to trust much of anything that’s been published to date, largely because the pathetic, small batch of accounts on Sockalexis, in the BDN library and in libraries around the state, are not at all well researched. The earliest of these stories on Sockalexis are riddled with inaccuracies that writers like national columnist-broadcaster Curt Gowdy, the late BDN sports editor Bud Leavitt, former Portland broadcaster-author Don MacWilliams and, yes, even the Portland author the BDN editorial writer cited, Will Anderson, merely repeated in their newer retellings.

With the help of Society for American Baseball Research member Richard “Dixie” Tourangeau of Boston, I have researched, for more than a decade, and recently completed a book on both Louis and his cousin, 1912 Olympic marathon runner Andrew Sockalexis. Tourangeau and I looked at every available game, box score and story we could find on Louis’ baseball career at Holy Cross, Cleveland, and with the semi-professional Connecticut and New England leagues.

Here, I offer the facts to rebut two of the worst fabrications in the editorial, fabrications that, in fairness to the BDN editorial writer, have appeared in most of the articles ever written on Louis Sockalexis.

Sockalexis did not send “the first pitch of his first professional at bat into the stands for a home run.” Sockalexis actually went hitless in three times at bat in his first game playing for Cleveland, on April 22, 1897, at Louisville. Sockalexis did smack a legendary home run, on the first pitch he saw from the celebrated pitcher Amos Rusie, in his “debut” in New York City on June 16, 1897. Careless, early writers mishandled the word “debut” so badly that the myth evolved of a home run in his first at bat.

And, at the other end of the spectrum of Sockalexis’ legacy, it’s complete myth that, when Cleveland adopted the nickname “Indians” in 1915, “a fan suggested the Indians in honor of their hero and no other suggestions were needed.”

This apocryphal tale probably owes to Franklin Lewis’ 1940s team history on the Cleveland Indians. Lewis, and others, have contended there was a fan contest to give the team a new nickname in 1915 … but there was no fan contest whatsoever in that year.

Here, briefly, reported from the Cleveland Press and Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper pages of that day, is the real story: In 1915, the great slugger Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie left the Cleveland team to close out a stellar career where it had begun, in Philadelphia. Obviously, the nickname “Naps” no longer seemed appropriate for the team. The Cleveland owner, in January 1915, asked the sports editors-writers at the city’s four newspapers to huddle together and give the team a new nickname for the coming season; most of the baseball team nicknames, in the game’s earliest era, were unofficial and, in some cities like Cleveland, could and did change from year to year.

The representatives of the four newspapers chose the nickname “Indians” in 1915 and, as crucial and exciting evidence that they were most definitely thinking of the “Spiders”-turned-“Indians” of 1897, these writers also announced a new nickname for the city’s very popular semi-professional team: They were to be called the “Spiders.”

I agree with the BDN editorial writer that Mainers should know and be proud of Louis Sockalexis’ enduring legacy with Cleveland — even as I state that I find the present mascot and team logo repugnant and utterly demeaning to Native Americans.

Further, writer Don MacWilliams, in his book “Yours in Sports” (featuring brief biographies of famous Maine athletes), did tremendous harm here in Maine to the charming legacy Sockalexis deserves as the only real person for whom a professional sporting team is nicknamed.

MacWilliams contended that, in 1897, the team had already dropped the nickname “Spiders” (it arose in the early 1890s because of the presence of so many “small, wiry” men on the team) and adopted the nickname “Indians” before the arrival of Sockalexis. MacWilliams, quite simply, did not do any research.

The Cleveland newspapers and the national weekly sporting publications (The Sporting News and The Sporting Life) were filled with stories about the sensation Sockalexis created in Cleveland and around the rest of the league. Even during the 1897 preseason, those writing about the Cleveland baseball team dropped the informal nickname “Spiders” and adopted “Indians,” in full recognition of the stir the presence of Sockalexis was creating. At first, the nickname was used in a flagrantly derogatory and racist way; however, as Sockalexis continued to impress initially hostile players, fans and press with his superlative playing, the nickname grew more and more respectful.

There is absolutely no question that the team was called the “Indians” in 1897 for no other reason than in recognition of the presence of Penobscot Louis Sockalexis from Indian Island, Maine. But a number of Maine writers and even the Maine Sports Hall of Fame, continuing to cite MacWilliams’ erroneous contention, have shamefully attempted to strip even this honor away from Sockalexis.

Though some baseball historians think James Madison Toy, who played in the late 1880s-early 1890s, had some Indian blood and may have been the first Native American to play professional baseball, that is, even if true, merely an obscure historical footnote; for, apparently, few people (if any) knew about it at the time. Louis Sockalexis was the first Native American to play major league baseball and be recognized as such — be it with enormous cheers or derisive, mock “war whooping” and racist jeering. And he and his meteoric impact were responsible for the nickname “Indians” in Cleveland baseball history. Indisputably.

I could not agree more with the BDN editorial writer when he closed with the remark about this being “a great story.” Yes, it is … and we owe it to Louis Sockalexis’ memory, the Penobscot tribe and posterity to get it right.

Ed Rice is a free-lance writer from Brewer

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