This story was published on June 11, 2005 on Page A1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Ed Rice made his case for Indian Island legend Louis Sockalexis on Friday afternoon, asking for recognition and respect for the baseball player during a talk at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Orono, Maine, resident and author of the Sockalexis biography “Baseball’s First Indian – Louis Sockalexis: Penobscot Legend, Cleveland Indian” appeared at the final session of the 17th Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, where he spoke for about an hour to an audience of 30 people.
“I hope to someday come to the Hall of Fame and see some sentences that celebrate the legacy of Louis Sockalexis,” he said in a hushed voice.
Speaking at times with passion and intensity, Rice made his main points – the legacies, as he calls them – about Sockalexis, who played in a total of 94 major league games for the Cleveland Spiders and was a star for the first half of his rookie season in 1897 before alcoholism allegedly knocked him out of the game.
Rice claims Sockalexis was the inspiration for the Spiders to change their name permanently to Indians.
He presented his belief that Sockalexis was, in his time, a figure much like Jackie Robinson, who was the first black man to play major league baseball but faced racism from fans and players as he broke into the big leagues. Major league managers were so impressed by Sockalexis’ abilities, Rice said, that they signed other American Indians to play.
Rice also claimed that Sockalexis should be recognized as the first American Indian to play in the majors, a title which was stripped in 1963 when a Hall of Fame historian pronounced a Sioux Indian named James Madison Toy to be the first.
For those reasons, Rice said, he believes the Hall of Fame should recognize Sockalexis. That doesn’t mean induction, as Sockalexis’ career doesn’t come close to qualifying for the hall.
The hall, in turn, feels it represents all its players through its extensive files on the thousands of men and women who have played baseball.
“There have been many others from different backgrounds who have not been represented in the museum portion because we do have a set story to tell,” said Bradford Horn, the hall’s director of public relations, who was not at Rice’s talk, but is familiar with Sockalexis’ story.
“As far as parallels between Sockalexis and Jackie Robinson, their impacts on American society are greatly varied,” Horn added. “Not only was Jackie Robinson a Hall of Fame- caliber player, but his impact of integrating the game was felt coast to coast in a tremendous manner.”
The most prominent American Indian displayed at the Hall of Fame is Charles “Chief” Bender, a 1953 inductee whose picture is also contained in the hall’s timeline of baseball history. Bender’s photo is displayed in a case diagonal from some Ty Cobb memorabilia. Bender pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1903 to 1914.
Although the Hall of Fame does not currently display any of its Sockalexis information, Horn said anything from its files could go on display at any time.
“Just because he’s not in the museum currently doesn’t mean that at some point he will not be,” he said.
Several audience members purchased books which Rice signed after his talk. Karl Lindholm, a Lewiston, Maine, native and professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, bought a copy of the book and had Rice sign the inside.
Lindholm was familiar with Sockalexis from his research about the Negro Leagues.
“I’m in. I didn’t hear anything I didn’t know. I heard details I didn’t know, but I’m not resistant to anything [Rice] suggested,” he said. “I think the lobbying he does on behalf of Louis Soockalexis is great. I’ll have to calculate after reading the book the degree to which I think Louis Sockalexis has been wronged.”
Rice gave some background about Sockalexis’ early days playing for a team at the Poland Spring House in Maine, his two stellar years playing for the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., how Sockalexis came to play for the then-Spiders and what Sockalexis did after his days in Cleveland were over.
Among the crowd listening were Hall of Fame librarian Jim Gates and director of research Tim Wiles.
Gates and Wiles would not comment on the claims Rice made about Sockalexis. They said comments concerning the hall had to be made through its spokesman.
Rice said before the talk he was hoping some hall staffers would listen to his points about Sockalexis.
“A lot of the other presenters did not have such turnout from Hall of Fame staff,” he said. “I feel like I’ve made my case, but now … can I stir up enough interest? My point [was] to get some recognition, and now let’s see where I can take this campaign.”
Rice said he wasn’t nervous before speaking but was visibly relieved once he sat down for his book signing.
“I feel like I’ve just run a marathon,” the longtime runner said with a smile.