This story was published on April 05, 2004 on Page C1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News
(Editor’s note: In this final installment of three columns, focused on disrespect to Native Americans in the world of sports and, particularly, to a Maine Indian legend, Louis Sockalexis, author Ed Rice argues his case why Louis Sockalexis deserves to have the title “First Indian” to play major league baseball restored to him. He also implores the Baseball Hall of Fame to recognize, at long last, the Jackie Robinson-like stand the Penobscot made in 1897.)
Probably because of the nature of his brief, meteoric career in Cleveland, Louis Sockalexis remains an enigmatic figure … not only for the Indians Major League Baseball team and its fans, but those concerned with the issue of disrespect for Native Americans in America today.
People who blithely contend that Sockalexis is well known and well respected could not be more wrong.
I would suggest disrespect to Louis Sockalexis and the Penobscot Nation runs deeper than what even the knowledgeable baseball fan knows. Just one example: In 1999, Sports Illustrated magazine published lists featuring the “50 Best Athletes of All Time” from all 50 states. Both Louis and his second cousin, internationally renowned marathoner Andrew Sockalexis, were left completely off a list on which, arguably, both merit consideration for places in the Top 10.
In truth, only Joan Benoit Samuelson ever garnered the kind of national and international headlines, as a Maine athlete, that the two Sockalexis cousins achieved. Very recently, Sports Illustrated compounded the felony when it re-released the list as part of the magazine’s 50th anniversary celebration, featuring detailed portraits state-by-state of the greatest moments and names in each state’s history. Again both Sockalexis names were conspicuously absent for anyone with any real knowledge of Maine’s greatest athletes. I won’t go the easy, headline-grabbing route by charging Sports Illustrated editors with racism; I charge them, merely, with stultifying, insulting ignorance.
As a man who has researched the life of Louis Sockalexis for more than 23 years, I have three important points I wish to make about the historic Penobscot baseball player and slights to his legacy that concern me greatly: It probably will never be determined if the phrase “in honor of” is appropriate when pondering whether the team adopted the nickname in 1915 to celebrate Sockalexis himself and the role he had played in the team’s history. An early biographer of the team, the late Franklin Lewis, seems to be the genesis for a tale that would have us believe the words “in honor of” are deserved; however, significant mistakes Lewis made in explaining the situation at the time and his lack of detailed information about specific individuals involved are substantially damning to his story. One thing, however, is undeniably true: Louis Sockalexis was the sole inspiration for the nickname “Indians” for the major league baseball team in Cleveland and should never, ever have that legacy questioned.
Several baseball historians, following the ill-advised lead in the early 1960s of Baseball Hall of Fame historian Lee Allen, have wrongfully stripped the crown of “First Indian” to play Major League Baseball from Louis Sockalexis and anointed James Madison Toy with the title. There are no records whatsoever that give credibility to the claim for Toy and even his own living relatives question the validity of the claim. Understand this: Even if Toy possesses some Indian blood, the record book makes pretty clear that no teammate, no rival, no fan, no media representative writing about the game knew that he claimed an Indian heritage … and that was not the case at all for Sockalexis when he came along less than a decade later.
One of the greatest collegiate players of his era, Sockalexis would ultimately be honored as a charter member of the College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, Mass.) Athletic Hall of Fame when it was created in 1956. And when he created a sensation for the first three months of the 1897 season, he stood up to the most deplorable racist treatment imaginable – indeed, treatment only individuals such as Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby could say they experienced as well. To this day, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown continues to cheat Louis Sockalexis of an extraordinary legacy to which he is entitled, and the city of Cleveland continues to fail to recognize it could easily lay claim to an extraordinary shared legacy that no city in the United States can proclaim: Home of the First Indian to play, and the First Black (Doby) to play in the American League.
ACTION STEP: To the Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, N.Y.: It’s time to correct the false record that your own resident historian is responsible for – Louis Sockalexis should be acknowledged in the National Baseball Hall of Fame as the first Native American to play major league baseball. He should also be shown palpable respect for the Jackie Robinson-like stand he was forced to make in 1897.
As proof of my dedication to the cause, I will continue to accept invitations to Maine schools and libraries, to discuss Maine legend Louis Sockalexis. My presentation is free; however, if any school or library has a budget for such speakers, I would encourage donation of that speaker’s fee to the Sockalexis Fund. Funds will be used to refurbish marathon runner Andrew Sockalexis’ gravestone and support the activities of the Penobscot Nation Boys and Girls Club.
Andrew Sockalexis was a brilliant runner who took second place at the Boston Marathon in 1912 and again in 1913, and was the fourth-place finisher in the marathon at the 1912 Olympic Games. I have written an as-yet-unpublished book on Andrew Sockalexis, which I hope to offer, one day soon, to the schools and libraries of this state as a companion volume to my biography on Louis Sockalexis.