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Biographer hits home run with Sockalexis story at Holy Crossstrong
Author Ed Rice gives a presentation about Louis Sockalexis, a former student-athlete at Holy Cross who went on to be the namesake for the Cleveland Indians, Saturday at the college. [T&G Staff/Ashley Green]
By Bill Ballou
Posted Feb 3, 2019 at 7:37 PM
WORCESTER - One of baseball’s most delicious ironies is that this city, the only one whose major league team had no nickname, produced a player that inspired one.
That would be Louis Sockalexis, a charter member of the Holy Cross Athletics Hall of Fame, the man the Cleveland Indians were named after.
Sockalexis, of the Penobscot Tribe of Maine, played just two years of baseball at Holy Cross and his major league career was done before the 20th century dawned, but he had larger-than-life talent and thus spawned larger-than-life legends.
Sockalexis biographer Ed Rice, whose first professional byline was in the Worcester Telegram in 1968, spoke about the legend and the athlete at Holy Cross’ Kimball Hall on Saturday to an audience heavily populated by players on the current Crusaders squad.
“It is indisputable,” Rice said of the fact that today’s Indians were named after Sockalexis. Cleveland’s team, then in the National League, had been called the Spiders before Sockalexis joined them for spring training in 1897 and by opening day, they were the Indians.
That name later fell out of use, then was revived in 1915, an editorial in a Cleveland paper specifically crediting Sockalexis with the original incarnation.
Sockalexis played baseball at Holy Cross in 1895 and 1896, and also played on the school’s first football team later in 1896. He hit .436 in ’95, .444 in 1896, then transferred to Notre Dame. Sockalexis could hit a baseball more than 400 feet and throw one more than 400 feet.
He was, according to Rice, the prototype of what has become to be known as a five-tool player.
Sockalexis grew up on the Penobscot Reserve on Indian Island, Maine, near Old Town, and was discovered playing summer league ball in Maine by Holy Cross baseball captain Doc Powers. Powers brought him down to Worcester to take courses at what was then St. James Prep, whose students were eligible to play college level sports.
Sockalexis arrived in a world in which the Battle of the Little Bighorn was only 20 years in the past, the Massacre at Wounded Knee just five years. It was not, in general, a pleasant world for Native Americans, but Sockalexis found Holy Cross to be a welcoming destination.
“This campus,” Rice said, “was one of the few places where an American Indian could find comfort in his life. He got respect from a society that in general wanted nothing to do with American Indians.”
While at Holy Cross, Sockalexis legendarily hit a baseball through a church window. He legendarily threw a ball 413 feet, the distance having been measured by professors. He also legendarily ran down a long fly ball to deep left at Holy Cross, catching it after swimming across the Blackstone (aka Middle) River.
While the first two legends are true, when Sockalexis played for HC the diamond was in the center of campus and nowhere near the river.
Rice is not sure why Sockalexis left Holy Cross for Notre Dame, but by 1897 he was playing in the major leagues. Leaving Worcester, Rice said, turned out to be the worst decision Sockalexis ever made. His brilliant career was cut short by alcoholism.
Where and when the problem began is unknown, but Rice cites a letter from Holy Cross teammate Bill Fox - later a priest - who wrote, “To my knowledge, Sock did not give into alcohol. He was a perfect citizen here.”
Sockalexis, Rice said, was 50 years ahead of Jackie Robinson in enduring the threats, hatred, insults and disdain of the public at large. He was spat upon. Newspapers described him as a savage.
Still, Sockalexis hit .338 in 66 games with Cleveland in 1897, but suffered a foot injury when he jumped out the window of a hotel. He played in just 21 games in 1898, seven in 1899, then drifted to the minors.
Sockalexis eventually moved back home to the Penobscot Reserve and died of a heart attack on Dec. 24, 1913, at age 42. Cleveland teammate Ed McKean paid tribute to Sockalexis a week after he died, saying, “He had more natural ability than any player I have ever seen, past or present.”
Ironically, Sockalexis outlived Doc Powers, who died in 1909 from internal injuries suffered when he crashed into a wall chasing a popup in Philadelphia’s Shibe Park.
Sockalexis’ stature at Holy Cross is such, Rice said, that he is a charter member of the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame even though he played just two seasons there.
“What other school,” Rice added, “has a player in its Hall of Fame who was there for just two years?”
Rice has authored a biography of Sockalexis titled “Baseball’s First Indian, Louis Sockalexis: Penobscot Legend, Cleveland Indian.” It is being reissued later this year with updated information on one of Holy Cross’ and baseball’s most gifted and historic players.
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 … [Read more...]