Louis Sockalexis: Separating Fact from Myth

Most Indians fans know the story of Louis Sockalexis.

The Penobscot Indian spent a short time in Cleveland playing for the city’s National League entry, the Spiders, but in a major league career that spanned 94 games, he impressed the fans and his teammates so much that fans cried out to name the team in his honor.

It’s a nice story – of dubious veracity.

Author Ed Rice has spent the better part of his life trying to tell the true story of the man who was once regarded as the first American Indian to play Major League Baseball. Then he wasn’t regarded as the first. Now he is again.

Rice was in Cleveland last week for the team’s opener, supporting some like-minded friends who were protesting Chief Wahoo. And he’s not a fan of the Indians name either, saying it’s an unfitting tribute to Sockalexis, whom he described as baseball’s first five-tool player.

“He’s Bo Jackson,” Rice said. “He’s so much better than anyone he played with.”

But Rice knows that getting the team to change the name or logo is a tall order. For now, and for most of his life, he’s tried to separate fact from fiction about Sockalexis.

Rice wrote the biography of Sockalexis found in the Indians media guide, and helped write copy for displays at Progressive Field honoring Sockalexis. Rice is the author of “Baseball’s First Indian,” a 2003 book about Sockalexis that was one of three released around the same time – ironic to Rice, who wrote about Sockalexis because there was a dearth of material written about him.

“I wanted to write a book about a guy who hadn’t been written about,” he said. “I didn’t know it would be political, and there was mythology connected to it.”

Rice was born in Massachusetts but grew up in Maine, where Sockalexis was born and is now buried – under a headstone paid for by students at Holy Cross, where he went to school and played baseball.

As a youth, Rice had two goals: Running the Boston Marathon (which he did, one of seven marathons he’s run) and writing a book. He had heard of Sockalexis, and fixated on him as the subject for a book.

“I wondered, ‘Why hasn’t anyone written a book about this guy,’” he said. “Well, I was about to find out.”

Everyone who knew Sockalexis was long dead, and journalism of the era was dubious. It was possible to get multiple stories from multiple newspapers at the same game. But Rice set out to separate the fact from legend.

Sockalexis was already regarded as one of the best college baseball players of his day when he ended up in Cleveland. He had been expelled from school after an incident at a bar in South Bend, Ind., and Spiders players Jesse Burkett and Chippy McGarr, who knew Sockalexis from Holy Cross, recommended to manager Patsy Tebeau that Cleveland sign him.

As expected, Sockalexis was viewed as a curiosity at best, and mostly with outright hostility in the 1890s, a time not known for positive feelings toward Indians. But his talent could not be denied. He hit, hit with power, and ran like a gazelle. By the end of the year, sportswriters started referring to the team as Tebeau’s Indians.

Sockalexis had also demonstrated a fondness for alcohol – probably an addiction, although nobody called it that in the days when cocaine was still available over the counter and Alcoholics Anonymous was a generation away. And in 1899, the Robisons took all the talent the Spiders had to St. Louis, leaving what might have been the worst major league baseball team of all time. Sockalexis played seven games for the Spiders that year and was released. By the end of the year, the team itself had folded, and Cleveland would have to wait until the start of the American League in 1901 to be a major league city again – as far as baseball was concerned.

That team cycled through a variety of names: Blues (because of the color of the uniforms), Bronchos and Naps, in honor of player-manager Napoleon Lajoie (who broke into the majors in 1897, the same year as Sockalexis). But after Lajoie left the team, a new name was needed (the team couldn’t be named for a player on the Athletics, now, could it?).

The legend was that a fan survey demanded the team be named the Indians, in honor of Sockalexis, who had died a little more than a year earlier, suffering a heart attack at the age of 42. But it’s a little more subtle than that, according to Rice’s research. At the time, Cleveland was home to four newspapers, and the sportswriters and editors covering the team suggested the name Indians. Perhaps some recalled the days of Sockalexis’ brief prime, and the Plain Dealer even suggested that the name serves as a remembrance of Sockalexis. But whatever the reason, the team’s been the Indians – despite protests to the contrary – since.

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