This story was published on June 04, 2005 on Page D1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News
OLD TOWN – A little more than 100 years after Louis Sockalexis stepped on to a baseball diamond as a Major League Baseball player in Cleveland, Nate Lonko stood in the infield of Old Town High’s baseball field, posing for a photo with a bat over his shoulder.
Like Sockalexis, Lonko is pretty successful at what he does as the starting shortstop. They both lived right around Old Town – Sockalexis grew up on Indian Island, Lonko in Milford. And like Sockalexis more than a century earlier, Lonko is a Penobscot Indian playing baseball for the Old Town High School team.
Sockalexis was long considered the first American Indian to play major league baseball. So the parallels are pretty cool, Lonko said.
“He was the first one, and he was a Penobscot,” said the high school junior. “I think it’s good to bring it to light, give him some recognition for what he did.”
Ed Rice is trying to do just that by taking Sockalexis’ name to the Baseball Hall of Fame next week.
Rice, who lives in Orono and is an adjunct professor at Husson College and Eastern Maine Community College, is heading to Cooperstown, N.Y., for a symposium at which he’ll discuss his book, “Baseball’s First Indian: Louis Sockalexis – Penobscot Legend, Cleveland Indian.”
Sockalexis had a brief but bright career from 1897 to 1899, playing in 94 games as an outfielder for the Spiders, as the Cleveland team was then known. Known for power hitting and a powerful arm, he flamed out supposedly because of a drinking problem.
Rice’s book was published in 2003. Since then, he has spoken at schools and libraries all over Maine and New England. For Rice, a chance to bring his book to the Hall of Fame is an opportunity to undo the wrongs he believes the Hall has done to Sockalexis’ legacy. It’s also a chance, Rice added, for the Hall to think about recognizing Sockalexis’ contributions to baseball and the fact that there is no mention of Sockalexis in the Hall of Fame.
“I’m there. I’m there for a reason,” said Rice, who has visited the Hall of Fame at least 10 times. “I want to see if we can’t get a few sentences [about Sockalexis in the Hall]. Until someone else is able to dispel it, he’s the first [American Indian] to play.”
Particularly slighting for Sockalexis, Rice wrote in his book, was an article written in 1963 by then-Hall of Fame historian Lee Allen stating that Sockalexis was not the first American Indian to play baseball. Allen instead gave that title to James Madison Toy of Beaver Falls, Penn.
Toy was a Sioux Indian who played in 109 games from 1887 to 1890. But in Rice’s book he writes that Toy never mentioned his heritage and even a descendent Rice contacted in Pennsylvania said Toy’s Indian heritage couldn’t be substantiated. And there are no records for Toy because they were burned in a fire in Beaver Creek.
In addition to the issue of who was actually the first American Indian to play, Rice said he plans to hammer home several other points when he speaks next Friday. In his book Rice contends that the reason the Cleveland team permanently changed its nickname to Indians in 1915 was to honor Sockalexis, which he feels merits recognition in the Hall. He also wants to discuss the issues surrounding the use of Indian nicknames and mascots – there are two depictions of the Cleveland mascot Chief Wahoo but nothing of Sockalexis.
And Rice plans to connect Sockalexis with Jackie Robinson, who was the first black baseball player in the majors.
Rice is careful to say – he admits he has detractors – that he’s not pushing for Sockalexis to have a plaque in the Hall of Fame. Sockalexis’ career doesn’t come close to qualifying for the Hall.
But for Rice, Sockalexis’ experience in baseball was similar to that of Robinson’s in dealing with racism from fans, teammates and opposing players.
“I am not denigrating Jackie Robinson,” Rice said. “Everything that has been done for Jackie Robinson has been warranted. But we need to talk about Louis Sockalexis’ legacy, too.”
It’s something Nate Lonko agrees with.
“Jackie Robinson gets a lot of credit but not as many people know about [Sockalexis],” he said.
Rice also maintains that Sockalexis’ success helped bring along other American Indian players and legendary football player and track and field athlete Jim Thorpe, who played six seasons for manager John McGraw.
McGraw played against Sockalexis and in his book, Rice uses a quotation from McGraw that predicted Sockalexis “could well have been better” than Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb had Sockalexis’ career lasted longer.
According to the genealogy charts Rice has seen, Sockalexis doesn’t have any direct descendents alive. He never married and his only sister died without having any children.
Rice said there are some descendents of the family through Andrew Sockalexis, Louis’ second cousin who gained fame of his own as an Olympic marathoner. One descendent, a great-great grandniece, died in 1999 in Massachusetts.
Rice is trying to shop around a finished manuscript about Andrew Sockalexis. Although Rice speaks mostly for free, when he does get a speaking fee it goes into a fund on Indian Island to refurbish Andrew Sockalexis’ grave. The two cousins are buried a few feet from each other in a cemetery on Indian Island.
Rice will be the final speaker of the symposium. He knows that means many of the attendees will already be en route to Albany for their flights home, but his intended audience isn’t other authors and college professors.
“The target audience is the people at the Hall itself,” he said. “I’m there to make the archivists think, what did we do back in 1963?”