He’s why Cleveland came to be called the Indians. How should they honor him?
Members of one Maine tribe hope that the team’s first know Native American player, trailblazer Louis Sockalexis of the Penobscot Nation, is properly recognized.
by Erik Ortiz, NBC News December 14, 2020
Erik Ortiz is a staff writer for NBC News focusing on racial injustice and social inequality.
Cleveland’s major-league baseball team announced Monday that it will drop its “Indians” nickname — in place for more than a century — to “unify our community,” a decision quickly praised by Native American groups, including some members of a Maine tribe with a historic connection to the team.
“To see this happen and to know that friends of mine have stood outside the stadium doors and had beer cans thrown at them and been called names just because they’re asking for sensitivity about the issue, now we won’t have that pain anymore,” said John Bear Mitchell, a citizen of the Penobscot Nation in Maine. Mitchell is a student development coordinator for the University of Maine System’s Native American waiver and educational program.
Such sentiment follows decades of protests over the team’s name and its longtime mascot, known as Chief Wahoo.
Team owner Paul Dolan told The Associated Press that Cleveland will temporarily remain the Indians through the 2021 season. Dolan said in a statement Monday that the team will consider a non-Native American name after engaging with tribal communities and civic leaders about the “negative impact” the moniker has had.
“It’s a difficult and complex process to identify a new name and do all the things you do around activating that name,” Dolan said. “We are going to work at as quick a pace as we can while doing it right.
“But we’re not going to do something just for the sake of doing it,” he added. “We’re going to take the time we need to do it right.”
That’s exactly what some people like Mitchell want to hear, and they are hoping the team doesn’t simply erase the moniker as if it never existed. They hope it will make sure that Louis Sockalexis, of the Penobscot Nation, the first known Native American player for Cleveland and what was then known as the National League, is adequately remembered.
Changing the name is “the ultimate honor and tribute” to Sockalexis, said Mitchell, whose great-grandfather played on a Little League team that Sockalexis had once coached. But “completely walking away from his history would be the worst way to handle it and to dishonor him.”
Cleveland’s baseball franchise has been known as the Indians since 1915, winning two World Series, in 1920 and 1948, and since then it has had the longest championship drought of all major-league teams.
In response to the possibly that the team could honor Sockalexis further, Bart Swain, a spokesman for the team, said that there is a plaque of him in Cleveland’s Heritage Park, beyond center field of Progressive Field, where the team plays, and that in 2006, he was inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame.
Cleveland’s decision to review its name was announced in July as ownership said it would “determine the best path forward” following national conversations about race and greater awareness of the harm that sports teams’ nicknames and logos can do by perpetuating racist and ethnic stereotypes. The same month, Washington’s NFL team said it would drop its nickname, which has long been condemned as an anti-Indigenous slur.
Other professional sports teams, however, including baseball’s Atlanta Braves, the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, haven’t made the same commitment despite pressure from Native American activists.
Among the prominent voices who have criticized renaming sports teams is President Donald Trump, who tweeted in July that teams are named “out of STRENGTH, not weakness” and that they are changing names “in order to be politically correct.”
In 2000, the Penobscot Nation formally asked the Cleveland Indians to eliminate their use of the Chief Wahoo mascot, which it considered a “gross caricaturization of an Indian,” but it wasn’t until after 2016, when Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said the logo could be considered “offensive,” that the mascot was abandoned amid renewed public attention.
Protesters demonstrate against the Cleveland baseball team’s mascot prior to the Opening Day game on July 24, 2020.Jason Miller / Getty Images
Barry Dana, the Penobscot Nation’s chief from 2000 to 2004, said the attitude of some non-Native Americans was that the word “Indians” at its core wasn’t racist, and that, if anything, it was intended to be a tribute to Indigenous peoples.
But when Sockalexis first came to play baseball in Cleveland in the late 1890s, “Indian” was used as a pejorative by the white audiences who came to see him play, Dana said.
“He faced a lot of racism,” Dana said. “So as long as one name, one image and one mascot remains, you will continue to have the perpetuation of stereotyping of Native people. I know in their heart some people believe it’s honoring Native people, but this is found to be harmful.”
The images of fans who wear Indian headdresses or make hand gestures in celebration, he said, “don’t do justice for the athletes like Sockalexis who endured that racism.”
Sockalexis first came to Ohio in 1897, signed to what was then known as the Cleveland Spiders.
People would informally call the team the Indians because of Sockalexis, said journalist Ed Rice, author of “Baseball’s First Indian: The Story of Penobscot Legend Louis Sockalexis” and director of a monument fund hoping to honor him.
“It wasn’t meant to be complimentary,” Rice said. “It was meant as if the P.T. Barnum circus had come to Cleveland.”
At 5-feet-11, Sockalexis, a top collegiate ballplayer, wowed the fans as an outfielder for the Spiders, making his mark with long, powerful throws. Penobscot tribal members to this day recall stories passed down through generations of how he could “throw a strike across the river.”
Media reports at the time noted how Sockalexis was “sensational” during games, according to the Society for American Baseball Research — “for the first two and one-half months of the season his name was in the headlines on a daily basis for his spectacular hitting and fielding, and he became the hottest gate attraction in baseball.”
Louis Sockalexis in Poland Spring, Maine, in 1894.Courtesy Penobscot Nation
Jackie Robinson is credited with breaking baseball’s color barrier in the 1940s, but Sockalexis effectively paved the way for nonwhite players. Rice said that although there may have been other players with Native American ancestry, Sockalexis, given his appearance, couldn’t hide who he was — and he didn’t shy away from it.
“He taught others how to swear at umpires in Penobscot,” Rice said.
Sockalexis would play only three seasons of major-league baseball, his promising career derailed by alcoholism as he “bounced around the New England minor leagues for a time, being picked up and released by one club after another,” according to the Society for American Baseball Research.
He returned to his tribe in Maine and died in 1913 at age 42 while working as a wood cutter.
Now’s the chance, Rice said, for Cleveland’s franchise to ensure that he isn’t simply relegated to the footnotes of baseball history but is given a more prominent display and the Indians name is given proper historical context at Progressive Field, with Sockalexis at the forefront.
Mitchell said he understands that some Cleveland fans may want to cling to the name, but baseball teams’ names have been changed before, as when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays dropped the “Devil” in 2007. On the local level, Maine last year became the first state to ban the use of Native American mascots in its public schools and colleges, and it can be done through compromises and understanding, he said.
“Other people’s traditions are going to be interrupted, and I recognize that. They’re going to have to grieve their loss and move on,” Mitchell said. “As a people, we’re going to have our dignity back — that’s so important.”