By Jon Ouellette, Special to the Bangor Daily News
Journalist Ed Rice of Orono has been an advocate for Native Americans’ rights in sports since the 1970s. He has written commentaries, given speeches and penned a book titled “Baseball’s First Indian, Louis Sockalexis: Penobscot Legend, Cleveland Indian,” where he argues that Sockalexis deserves recognition as baseball’s first Native American ball player.
Rice, 65, has spoken twice at the Hall’s baseball writers’ symposium in the last decade on behalf of Native American baseball pioneers that he feels have been poorly represented by the Hall in Cooperstown, N.Y.
For Rice, this is no longer a baseball issue, but an equality one.
“The issue is we don’t treat Native Americans with the respect we treat other minorities. Period,” he told the BDN Thursday.
“Do I know that Native Americans have far more serious issues than this? Oh sure […], I understand that. But I’m not Native American, these aren’t the issues I wrote about. This is the area that I wrote about and what I see. And the direct connection to that is the Baseball Hall of Fame,” added Rice, who is an adjunct professor at Eastern Maine Community College.
Rice – who has taught English, journalism and communication courses at a variety of schools including the University of Maine, EMCC and the New England School of Communications to go along with his career as a journalist – says his involvement in the cause was sparked by “absolute luck” in the late 1970s, early 1980s after he read two conflicting newspaper accounts about Sockalexis.
It was only after visiting the exhibits in Cooperstown that Rice decided something needed to be done about Native Americans’ lack of recognition in the Hall.
“I had been through the exhibition halls quite a bit and what I saw there was a timeline for the first black players, the pioneer black players with [Jackie] Robinson and [Larry] Doby for Cleveland, all of the guys who were the first,” he said.
“And I saw that Roberto Clemente and others, the first Latino and Hispanic players, they were recognized. Women in baseball – “A League of their Own” makes that pretty clear. And I thought, ‘Wait a minute. There isn’t a single sentence in this entire place about Sockalexis or John Meyers or Charlie Bender or Jim Thorpe, the guys who endured horrible racism.’ And I thought that was just wrong […]. [The Baseball Hall of Fame isn’t] interested in any of this stuff and I don’t know why.”
Rice says he has asked Cooperstown to explain its reasoning of refusing to recognize Native Americans’ contributions to professional baseball, but has yet to receive what he thinks is a suitable answer.
In the past, the Hall has said that the lack of a Native American exhibit stems from how difficult it is to pinpoint exactly who was a Native American and who wasn’t in those days.
In his most recent commentary published in “Indian Country Today” on Sept. 7, Rice lists four ways to identify Native Americans in baseball:
1. Was the player listed in the American census as American Indian?
2. Was the player registered with a tribe?
3. Did the player, indeed, acknowledge being a member and connecting directly with any Native American community?
4. And, more significantly to the point, did the player make ‘known’ his roots so that his playing peers, the fans and the media were aware of his race?”
Bender, who pitched in the Major Leagues off and on from 1903 to 1925, is currently the only Native American ball player in the Hall of Fame. Rice said he understands why other individual players have not been inducted considering their statistics don’t stack up against the all-time greats, but believes that there is still no reason why Native Americans as a group have failed to be given their due in Cooperstown.
“If the problem is, we don’t know who is [Native American] and who isn’t, [include] the ones you do know and then when families come along and they’ve got genealogies, they can prove it,” he said.
“Until somebody comes forward and says, ‘Here’s your first [Native American player], here’s your second one and here’s your third one,’ [the Hall] doesn’t want to recognize them and I think that’s wrong.”
Erik Strohl, vice president of exhibitions and collections at the Baseball Hall of Fame, said the reasoning behind Cooperstown’s reluctance to provide an exhibit for Native American baseball pioneers comes from a lack of physical space.
“We certainly have not ignored the history of Native Americans in baseball,” Strohl told the BDN Friday. “We have files on every Native American who’s played just like every other player that’s played.”
Strohl says that the Hall’s goal is to show “how America and baseball grew up together,” and that they look at the whole continuum of baseball in deciding who and what gets an exhibit.
According to Strohl, there are approximately 40,000 three-dimensional artifacts, a quarter million photographs, 14,000 hours of recordings and three million total pieces in Cooperstown. He said that the Hall is “always evaluating” its exhibits, and that a Native American exhibit is not out of the question.
“We certainly have content in the library on the contributions of Natives to baseball. Our mission is to preserve the history of the game and look at it in its totality. It is unfortunate we have a lack of space, but these men are recognized in our archives and in our library,” he said.
Rice says he will continue to write and maintain his role as an advocate for Natives’ rights in sports, but that his fight with the Hall is coming to a close.
“I’m almost done here,” he said. “I’m going to turn 66 in another few weeks […]. I’ve written this stuff, it’s not new.
“My hopes are, one day, that I’ll walk through the Baseball Hall of Fame and I’ll see Louis [Sockalexis’] name there. Not on a plaque because he’s been inducted, because he doesn’t deserve that. But on a little 3 by 5 card and maybe some kind of photograph that says he was [one of the first] known Native American players.”