This week 121 years ago, the Cleveland Spiders signed a player who would have a short career with the team but would be remembered long after he and the team had gone the way of all flesh.
The March 5, 1897, edition of the Plain Dealer said outfielder Jesse Burkett – who lived in Worcester, Massachusetts, in the offseason (and still has a Little League there named for him) – was told the day before to sign a player who had distinguished himself on the baseball field as well as the gridiron at Holy Cross. He was a Penobscot Indian named Louis Sockalexis. But Sockalexis couldn’t be found in Worcester. Finally, he was located in South Bend, Indiana, having followed his coach, Doc Powers, from Holy Cross to Notre Dame. Spiders manager Patsy Tebeau promptly signed him.
The Plain Dealer also said Tebeau had unsuccessfully tried to sign Sockalexis the year before, after taking notice of him – as had many other scouts. Sockalexis’ prowess included the ability to throw a ball 400 feet and hit the ball the length of the Penobscot reservation in Maine, some 600 feet.
But there was a rub: Sockalexis wanted to finish his studies for the semester. Tebeau believed Sockalexis could be one of the best in the league – if he started on the path in spring training with everyone else. Eventually, Sockalexis left campus (he was ultimately expelled) and joined the team in spring training at the Cleveland Athletic Club.
“The Great Sockalexis is here!” proclaimed the March 20, 1897, Plain Dealer, already referring to the team as Tebeau’s Indians. Sockalexis would get that type of greeting everywhere he went – including the Polo Grounds, then home to the Giants and one of the greatest pitchers of the day, Amos Rusie. (Rusie would go on to be part of one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history, pitching in three games after being dealt to the Reds for Christy Mathewson, who of course went on to a Hall of Fame career in New York.)
Rusie determined he was going to strike Sockalexis out, and offered up a mighty curve – which Sockalexis promptly pounded to the deepest recesses of the Polo Grounds, quickly circling the bases for his third home run of the year – and what turned out to be the last of his career.
Sockalexis’ performance fell off a cliff the following year, with his batting average dropping from .338 to .224 in just 21 games. Alcoholism was a contributing factor, possibly the major factor, in his decline. He played six more games in 1899 – the ignominious season that saw the Spiders go 20-134 before fading out of existence – and never played in the major leagues again.
Sockalexis ended up returning to New England, knocking around minor league and semi-pro teams before returning to Maine and working variously as a ferry pilot and then finally on a logging crew. While cutting down a tree in the Maine forest on Christmas Eve 1913, he had a heart attack and died in 1913 at the age of 42. Three days after his death, the Plain Dealer opined that Sockalexis, described without hyperbole as a great natural player, combining speed and power, was almost destined to die young. “It was greatness which killed Louis Sockalexis, a greatness which was transitory and which left him a wrecked creature. Had he never emerged from the precincts of Old Town, he would doubtless have lived to a patriarchal age, filling some niche of usefulness about the lumber camps.”
A little over a year later, the team was casting about for a new name, and Indians was selected. “It is looking backward to a time when Cleveland had one of the most popular teams of the United States,” the Plain Dealer wrote. “It also serves to revive the memory of a single great player who has been gathered to his fathers in the happy hunting grounds of the Abenakis.”