This story was published on Jan. 26, 2006 on Page A1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News
Ed Rice was home doing chores on Jan. 16 when an envelope arrived via FedEx. What he found inside, he said, made his jaw drop.
Rice, the author of a book about legendary Indian Island baseball player Louis Sockalexis, who played in 94 games for the Cleveland Spiders from 1897 to 1899, now has what he believes to be the most compelling piece of evidence that Sockalexis was in fact the first American Indian to play major league baseball.
Although Rice wrote “Baseball’s First Indian-Louis Sockalexis: Penobscot Legend, Cleveland Indian” to make a case for Sockalexis, he did not have solid proof that the Penobscot Indian was the first. He believes he has that now in the form of the 1919 death certificate of James Madison Toy, who is currently recognized as the first American Indian to play professionally.
The delivery of a copy of that document caused Rice to set aside his chores that afternoon. On the death certificate, Toy’s race is listed as white.
Information about Toy’s father included on the death certificate makes Rice confident he has all the evidence he needs to prove that Sockalexis’ name should be restored after a National Baseball Hall of Fame historian proclaimed Toy, who was said to be a Sioux Indian, was the first American Indian to play professionally in a 1963 paper.
“I want to turn this argument around,” Rice said. “It’s 43 years of a hoax as far as I’m concerned. It wasn’t a deliberate hoax, but it was a hoax. A document puts me on the offensive rather than the defensive.”
The offensive for Rice will likely mean notifying the Hall of Fame of his discovery. Rice is in contact with a number of people there, including librarian Jim Gates. Rice, who is teaching journalism classes at the University of Maine, has called a press conference for 1:30 p.m. today at the UM campus to announce his findings.
Hall of Fame Director of Research Tim Wiles declined to comment on Rice’s findings. Spokesman Brad Horn said the Hall would look at the death certificate when Rice sends a copy to Cooperstown.
“As a research institute we always like to look at new information,” Horn said. “We’d like to take a look at everything that is a part of baseball history.”
It’s unlikely the Hall of Fame would make any proclamation about Sockalexis, Horn added, but his picture and information could be displayed in the museum if an exhibition calls for them.
“It’s not our job to do that,” Horn said. “Our job is to present the history of the game.”
The copy of the death certificate will go into the Hall’s library files about Sockalexis, Toy and American Indians in baseball.
Rice has said he doesn’t dispute that Toy may have had Indian blood – many people do, he said – but it was likely that Toy was never subjected to the daily prejudices that Sockalexis faced at the ballpark.
Sockalexis had a bright but brief career playing outfield for the Spiders, as the Cleveland team was then known, and batted .328 through July 3, 1897, to rank behind future Hall of Famers Honus Wagner and Big Ed Delehanty.
He was out of major league baseball two years later because of injuries and alcohol abuse and died in 1913.
Toy played from April 20, 1887, through July 30, 1890, and had a .222 career batting average. Sockalexis’ career batting average was .313, according to the CNN/SI.com Web site.
Rice’s breakthrough – the discovery that Toy had died in a different town in Pennsylvania than Rice had believed based on his research for the book – came just a few weeks ago.
Ever since the book was published in 2003, Rice has talked to different groups around Maine about Sockalexis’ story. He spoke last June at a symposium in Cooperstown, N.Y., the site of the Hall of Fame.
After he met with members of the Bangor Rotary in early December, Rice was approached by Michael Palmer.
Palmer, the vice president and general manager of Bangor television station WVII, is interested in baseball and genealogy and told the author about a number of different research routes Rice could have taken.
In his research about Toy, Rice found that he was born in Beaver Falls, Pa., and was buried there, but Rice’s understanding was that the records had been destroyed in a town office fire in the 1920s.
Working on his own, Palmer found that Toy had died in the town of Cresson, Pa., and not Beaver Falls. According to www.baseball-reference.com, Toy died in Cresson.
Palmer notified Rice who contacted the town and the Pennsylvania Division of Vital Records.
Rice found he could get a copy of Toy’s death certificate, but only if he was related to Toy. He marked on the form that he was kin and submitted it electronically to the records department. When an official called a few hours later to find out how he was related to Toy, Rice lied and said he was a great-great cousin in Maine.
“I just took a deep breath and thought, if there’s a record, God, why aren’t I entitled to get it out there into the public domain?” Rice said. “I don’t see that I’m doing harm other than I’m trying to get my hands on a record once and for all.”
The death certificate arrived a few days later on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Rice was home preparing for the next semester of classes he was to teach and catching up on housework when he sat down and read the document.
The word “white” in the Color or Race section of the death certificate first caught his eye. Caught off-guard momentarily, it didn’t take Rice long to realize what he was holding in his hands.
“I’m stunned,” he said. “I’ve never had a document in my hands to be able to say to the folks back at the Baseball Hall of Fame, we’ve got to really take another look at this whole James Madison Toy file.”
But that wasn’t all the death certificate revealed. Through his own research Rice had unearthed Toy’s mother’s maiden name and determined she came from a white family, but Rice was never able to find Toy’s father’s name. Now, thanks to the death certificate, he had that. Toy’s father’s name was James Toy and the document stated he was born in Pennsylvania.
James Toy’s name disappeared from census records after James Madison Toy was born in 1858.
Palmer set about researching Toys in other parts of the country who claimed American Indian heritage. He was unable to find any in the east or central parts of the U.S., but found some among Ute Indians in Colorado.
However, plenty of Toys live in Beaver County, Pa. Palmer was unable to find the exact line from which James Madison Toy was descended, but he did find that the Toys there were all born in Pennsylvania or had emigrated from Ireland.
“That is huge,” Rice said. “We’re talking about a man who is supposed to be a Sioux Indian. What’s a Sioux Indian doing off the reservation in the early 1800s? This is a grown man who is no longer living with his people in the Dakota country where the Sioux lived. He’s just wandering around.”
Hoping that the Hall of Fame might see it that way, too, Rice intends to submit what he’s found and try again to convince officials in Cooperstown of his belief that Sockalexis was the first American Indian to play professional baseball.
Rice plans to submit his new material to national news outlets such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN, which he said have rejected his story ideas in the past.
Rice said he doesn’t feel vindicated, but having an official piece of paper strengthens his argument.
“I just wanted to present the idea that Louis was recognized as an Indian and faced all this prejudice,” Rice said. “… I feel as though we’ve really flipped the balance on the scales right now. Now I have a document.”