This story was published on Aug. 05, 2006 on Page D1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News
On a Bangor baseball field that no longer exists, almost 100 years ago in May 1907, Louis Sockalexis, the first American Indian to play major league baseball, played for the Bangor town team against a club comprised of barnstorming Negro League players from the Philadelphia Giants, reigning champions of the “colored leagues.” The black players, at that time, were not allowed to compete at the highest level of baseball competition in this country because of their color until Jackie Robinson broke the so-called “color barrier” in 1947.
Why Sockalexis had been allowed to play major league baseball in 1897, and why Charlie Bender, John Meyers, Jim Thorpe, and the other American Indians who immediately followed Sockalexis were allowed to play against white professional players is still not clear to me, after more than two decades of researching the matter.
Over the past three years since I wrote a biography, published in June 2003, “Baseball’s First Indian, Louis Sockalexis: Penobscot Legend, Cleveland Indian,” I have come into possession of a number of tidbits of new, relevant information about the life and times of Sockalexis – but, by far, his participation in games against the Negro League players is the single most important revelation about him that I wish I had known about and could have included in my book.
Nevertheless, I am grateful to Bangor historian Clark Thompson, whose avid interest in the Maplewood complex (known as Bass Park since the 1920s) apparently led to this discovery, and thankful for his subsequent note to me once he became aware of my book. He told me he believes he has found markings for the old baseball field, which lay inside the oval for the racetrack.
The two-game series was significant news in its day merely for its entertainment value and the curiosity factor surrounding the visitors. The fascinating irony and meaningful significance of the matchup only becomes compelling with the passage of time and a modern-day perspective on baseball records and, more importantly, racism.
For instance, one of those black players on the Giants, John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, would be named posthumously to the National Baseball Hall of Fame 70 years later, in 1977. Generally acknowledged as the first of his race to play in the major leagues, until Baseball Hall of Fame historian Lee Allen wrongly stripped him of the title in 1963, Sockalexis was already pretty much taken for granted in newspaper accounts after being a national sensation when he joined the Cleveland Spiders in March of 1897. But his very presence inspired the change of nicknames for the Cleveland club right then to the “Indians,” one officially adopted in 1915 and maintained to this day.
After the first three months of the 1897 season he was the third leading hitter (trailing only legendary Hall of Famers Ed Delahanty and Honus Wagner), all the while enduring terrible racial prejudice from peers, fans, and the media. He was a Jackie Robinson figure 50 years before Robinson, something for which he did not receive proper acknowledgement during his lifetime and still does not receive appropriate credit today.
Hardly concerned – understandably for the times – about racism or legacies, competing daily newspapers in Bangor, the Bangor Daily News and the long-defunct Bangor Daily Commercial, provided ample coverage of the first game but only the sketchiest of details for the second.
The first game was played on Monday, May 20, and attracted great attention from the print media. Both daily newspapers promoted the game at the very top of an inside news page. The Bangor Daily Commercial, which published in the afternoon, offered a preview of the event. It noted that the Giants had arrived in Bangor on the noon train and were scheduled “to play the real thing” with the “Bangor ball team” that afternoon.
The Commercial reported the Giants had already previously defeated rival teams of Bangor’s in the semi-professional Maine League, in Portland and Waterville, noting that they had won all their games in Maine “having rather an easy thing” and that the Bangor team could “hardly expect” to be victorious.
Proclaimed the Commercial: “All over the circuit the papers have praised the playing of the dusky ball tossers in the highest terms and say that, exclusive of their superior work, they are well worth seeing as their antics and fun put most minstrel shows to the bad.” The headlines from the respective newspapers, in providing accounts of the first game, reflected the accepted racism of the times. The Bangor Daily News offered: “THE GIANTS ONLY THING IN SIGHT/ Dark Men Came With A [sic] Bundles of Hits and Runs. Good Show.” The Bangor Daily Commercial less-than-delicately noted: “CUT A WATERMELON/Colored Champions Had Picnic at Maplewood/BEAT BANGOR 21 TO 5/Philadelphia Giants Easily Took Measure of Home Team and Played Fine Baseball.”
The Commercial opened its account claiming that there’d been “a race war on” at Maplewood Park and the “colored gentlemen…had cut a watermelon and thoroughly enjoyed the operation.” Praise for the Giants’ skill as baseball players and as showmen was ample. “It was down for a ball game but turned into a combination of minstrel show, puss-in-the-corner and cross-tag. If the Giants hadn’t kindly let up and played easy, the game might have been going on yet,” the BDN reported. It added, “The Giants are the real article of ball players. They go at the game like a hired man after a bottled dinner. They run bases like scared foxes and about as easy to catch napping. They throw the ball as if it weighed about two ounces and as for batting, ask [the two battered Bangor pitchers].”
The Commercial noted: “The visitors caught everything that came their way, threw the ball around with deadly precision and ran bases as if they had been caught with stolen chickens.” The Giants opened the scoring with four runs in the first and a single run in the second, added six runs in the fifth, two in the sixth, four in the seventh, three in the eighth and one final tally in the top of the ninth. McLellan, reputedly “the fastest colored pitcher in the country,” was described as a lefthander with an outstanding curveball and a “terrific” fastball. Bangor went scoreless until the seventh inning, by which time the game, of course, was completely out of hand.
Sockalexis, then 35 years old, started the game in center field and was Bangor’s cleanup hitter in the team’s less-than-glorious 21-5 defeat. He was hitless in two plate appearances and was replaced by a man named McIntire. Sockalexis recorded no putouts or assists in the field but was charged with one error. A man who batted from the left side, and who had trouble with lefthanded pitchers when he first encountered them in the major leagues, Sockalexis, no doubt, found a stellar performer like McLellan a handful to deal with at the plate.
His counterpart in center field, budding Negro League star and future Baseball Hall of Famer John Henry Lloyd, had two hits in six at-bats, and scored two runs. He had no fielding chances.
Regarding the showmanship, the BDN commented: “The game was made interesting by the running fire of comments from the Giants’ bench and coach lines…” Perhaps as demonstrable as any line, concerning the acceptable racism in journalism, is the BDN comment that completed the above sentence that the Negro League bench jockeys good-naturedly tore into their teammates on the field, “…and the various [pranks or antics] cut up the happy coons who appeared to get real enjoyment out of the occasions.”
The Commercial more politely remarked: “…the colored players commenced a running fire of comment and conversation that was excruciatingly funny. They coached the opposing players, jollied their own men and seemingly had the time of their lives, keeping the spectators in a perfect gale of laughter.”
The BDN concluded: “After getting a good lead the Giants pulled off all kinds of fancy stunts which made fun for the crowd, if it wasn’t baseball.” A crude cartoon, that covered four columns and ran five inches deep, was entitled “MASSACRE OF THE WHITES AT MAPLEWOOD MONDAY AFTERNOON.” It depicted a series of Black Sambo-like Negro figures clowning around while simultaneously abusing a number of smaller, white figures on a baseball diamond. In all likelihood an acknowledgement of Sockalexis’s presence on the team, the cartoonist had two Indian figures fleeing the field toward Old Town.
The second game between the Giants and Bangor resulted in a 10-7 victory for the visitors and was called after only seven innings because of fiercely cold temperatures and gale-like winds.
Apparently the Giants, after scoring four runs in the first inning and another four runs in the third, anticipated another rout and decided to make wholesale swaps of positions to add to their merriment and, perhaps, limit the thrashing. It met with disastrous consequences when they committed a bunch of errors in the fourth inning, leading to a seven-run deluge by Bangor. With just a one-run lead, the Giants returned the members of their team to their rightful positions “and began to take matters more seriously…cut[ting] out some of the vaudeville features,” explained the BDN.
The BDN quoted Giants captain Sol Smith as vividly stating, after the game, that a lesson was well learned: “We don’t go for to change ’round no mo.” The Giants tacked on two more runs in the sixth inning, to round out the scoring in the abbreviated contest. A crowd of some 300 were said to have “shivered” through the game. The News, for Wednesday, May 22, declared: “The agile colored base-ball prestidigitators, who played button, button, whose [sic] got the ball, with our ‘champeens’ on Monday met up with something more like the real thing yesterday. If the weather hadn’t been 60 degrees below baseball and a Labrador hurricane sweeping across the diamond it might have been quite a game.”
In a BDN sidebar to the story, entitled “BASEBALL TALK,” a couple of interesting sidelights were related. Concerning Sockalexis it was noted of the second contest with the Giants: “Old Sock got into the game yesterday with more signs of life than he has shown yet. He pulled down two high [flies] out of the hurricane and the one that he didn’t get was on account of the wind. The Giants outfielders misjudged several of the high ones.”
It was also stated in this BDN roundup: “A number of the Giants have been entertained at little soirees by the colored colony of Bangor.” Yet another crude cartoon accompanied the Commercial account of the second game. In this one, a stereotypic caricature of a black man, in civilian attire, is shown with a ticket in his hand and he is being energetically escorted to the railway station by several white gentlemen. A scorecard, carrying the lopsided scores of the Giants’ victories over the Maine League teams, is prominent in the background. The caption lines feature the manager of the Philadelphia Giants asking: “Shall we come again?” And the punch line, coming from the manager of the Maine League, is emphatic: “No! We have about decided to draw the color line. We will let you know.”
Perhaps the first and only Baseball Hall of Famer to ever play in a series of baseball games in the state of Maine, John Henry Lloyd was born in northeast Florida in 1884 and was playing semi-professional baseball in his teens. He subsequently joined the Cuban X-Giants in 1905.
Like so many gifted youngsters, Lloyd began his career as a catcher (so did Sockalexis, playing on teams in Maine’s summer leagues, with players considerably older than him), but by 1907 he was frequently playing shortstop and batting cleanup. He was said to have played “for any team who could pay,” and that included teams in Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey, and Chicago. He was in demand as an all-star player who went on tours to Cuba and the West Coast.
By age 44, in 1928, he was still playing professional baseball and hit .564 in 37 games, with 11 home runs and 10 stolen bases. The next year he hit .388. However, as early as 1915, he was already serving as a player-manager and by 1921, while playing and managing, he acquired the nickname “Pop” for mentoring those considerably younger than he was.
His Negro League statistics, from 1914 to 1932, include: 477 games played, 1,769 at bats, 651 hits, 90 doubles, 18 triples, 26 home runs, and 56 stolen bases. His batting average was .368. He died in 1964.
Also, it should be noted that a photo of that very 1907 Bangor team in the Maine League, posing at the field at Maplewood Park, appears in Richard Shaw’s book, “Bangor in Vintage Postcards.” Louis Sockalexis, however, is misidentified in Shaw’s book; he is the very first person in uniform, seated on the ground at the far left.
Finally, this outright editorial thought from a Sockalexis biographer: If we in the Bangor area can offer a plaque denoting the place where an infamous criminal was gunned down by FBI agents, can’t we begin the process and see to conclusion the posting of such plaques (or even statues, both of which are richly deserved) to honor both Louis and Andrew Sockalexis at the Maplewoood-turned-Bass Park complex?
Andrew, second cousin to Louis, was the second-place finisher in both the 1912 and 1913 Boston Marathon and fourth-place finisher at the Olympic Games of 1912 in Stockholm. Because of his international fame, Andrew Sockalexis attracted the greatest American runners of his era to use the railroad and come race him in his home area.
In a much-publicized race in its time, the great runner Clarence DeMar, the all-time champion of the Boston Marathon with seven victories, barely defeated Andrew in a 19- mile race, in September 1912, that began in Old Town and used Route 2, to finish with five miles on the track at … Maplewood Park. Already caught in the throes of the tuberculosis that would ultimately kill him in 1919, this was one of Andrew’s last great races in his home area.