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Arts and Culture

This Penobscot Baseball Player Inspired The Cleveland Indians Name ‘For All The Wrong Reasons’

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Public domain via BDN
Louis Sockalexis, in an undated photo taken during his professional baseball career between 1897 and 1907.

It was a historic day in 1897 when Louis Sockalexis, a 26-year-old member of the Penobscot tribe, became the first Native American Major League Baseball player, taking the field for the Cleveland Spiders.

The response from the crowd 123 years ago, however, was far from laudatory. Instead, Sockalexis was met with shouted racial slurs, demeaning “war whoops,” and fans doing “war dances” every time he took the field. Fans would ask him if he was drinking firewater, something that became ever more cruel over the course of his career, during which his alcoholism worsened.

That legacy of racist language and iconography lived on after Sockalexis. In 1915, a Cleveland baseball team was named the Indians — a name that the team and its fans claim was chosen to honor Sockalexis and Native people in general, but in reality had a far more complicated, racist origin.

“Here we had this Penobscot man who made it to the pinnacle of baseball success, and he was being booed and mocked. He certainly wasn’t being honored,” said Maulian Dana, Penobscot Nation tribal ambassador. “When you talk about Louis Sockalexis in relation to the team and to that name, that’s what you end up talking about. Not his achievements, but that heartbreaking story.”

Earlier this week, the Cleveland Indians made the long-awaited announcement that they would retire the name Indians after the 2021 season, and choose a new name in the coming months. The announcement came two years after the team retired its mascot, Chief Wahoo, a caricature of a Native person with bright red skin and a feather in his hair — though you can still buy Chief Wahoo merchandise in the gift shops at Progressive Field.

Indian Island resident Chris Sockalexis, whose grandfather, Byron Sockalexis, was a second cousin once removed of Louis Sockalexis, is one of the few remaining distant relatives of Louis.

While he and his siblings found Chief Wahoo to be offensive and were glad to see it go, the Indians team name is less troublesome to them — though he said they accept the team’s decision to retire the name.

“While we are disappointed with the upcoming name change, we understand the decision by the Cleveland organization in identifying and rectifying social injustices. We stand with [their] decision and will continue to support their efforts,” Sockalexis said in a statement on Thursday. “Our biggest concern with the name change is that the history of Louis Sockalexis within the [team] may become lost in the shuffle. We do not want the legacy of Louis to fade into the background.”

Sockalexis was born in 1871 on Indian Island. By the age of 13, he’d already become a sought-after player on local baseball teams, according to Ed Rice, author of “Baseball’s First Indian: The Story of Penobscot Legend Louis Sockalexis.”

Sockalexis reportedly could throw a baseball from Indian Island across the Penobscot River, and routinely threw the ball to one shore, rode the ferry across the river, picked up the ball and threw it back to the other side.

“By the time he was a teenager, he was playing on teams with adults,” Rice said. “He was clearly an extraordinary player — better than most of the adults he ended up playing with.”

In those days, professional baseball was in its infancy, and for most people in Maine, baseball was played as “town ball,” in which towns formed ad hoc teams for a few weeks each summer and played each other. Sockalexis was a hot commodity across the state, and for close to a decade from his teen years onward, he played for multiple teams each summer.

It was on one of those teams that Sockalexis was first noticed by players from College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, who eventually recruited him to attend the school and play for their team. Sockalexis also played football and ran track at Holy Cross. An 1896 Worcester Telegram article hailed him as “a whirlwind on the bases,” and said he “could field anything that his great speed could get him into, and could throw like a bullet.”

“He was what you’d call a ‘five tools’ player,” Rice said. “Kind of like a Willie Mays or a Mickey Mantle. He was just as apt to hit a home run as he was to steal a base.”

Sockalexis attended Holy Cross for two years before transferring briefly to Notre Dame in Indiana. His tenure there lasted only a few months before he signed a major league contract with the Cleveland Spiders and made his professional debut on April 22, 1897.

His first season with the Spiders was, by all accounts, a resounding success. According to a brief bio published by Holy Cross, he batted .338, stole 16 bases and didn’t strike out in 278 at-bats. His skill was so evident that, for a time when Sockalexis played for them, the Spiders were actually known as the Indians. Rice believes that the nickname wasn’t really an honor, but rather a kind of cruel joke at Sockalexis’ expense, and was the real origin of the permanent name the team eventually chose in 1915.

“It is inspired by Louis, but for all the wrong reasons,” Rice said. “When fans remember that nickname from the 1890s again in 1915, when it’s chosen as the official team name, it’s because of him. And more likely, people probably didn’t actually remember Louis in 1915, but they remembered that nickname for the team.”

His career with the Spiders lasted just three seasons. The 1898 and 1899 seasons saw Sockalexis decline rapidly, in both his playing and his health. His alcoholism worsened, and he played just seven games in 1899 before he was let go. He coached youth baseball teams on Indian Island and played in the minor leagues for several seasons, including for the Bangor Cubs and the Lowell Tigers, before retiring in 1907. He did not marry and had no children, and died at 42 in 1913 after a long battle with tuberculosis and heart disease.

Cleveland’s professional baseball team operated under a litany of names until 1915, when it was known as the Cleveland Naps, named for star player Nap Lajoie. When Lajoie left the team, another name change was needed — and here’s where the story behind the Indians name gets a little fuzzy.

The story put forth by the Indians organization and countless fans and sports journalists was that the team held a naming contest, and a young fan wrote in to say the team should be called the Cleveland Indians, in Sockalexis’ honor. That’s the story the team stuck with for decades, and the one that many diehard Indians fans believe to this day.

And yet, little evidence suggests that a naming contest ever happened. The first known reference to such a contest actually dates to 1949, in a book about the team’s history. Sportswriter Joe Posnanski said in a 2014 column that he believed the name more likely stemmed from the fact that the Boston Braves had had such an unbelievable World Series-winning season in 1914 that the poorly performing Cleveland team chose the name the Indians hoping that some of that luck might rub off.

Nevertheless, the team has long sought to associate its name with Sockalexis, and today has a plaque honoring him on Progressive Field’s Honor Wall, which Chris Sockalexis and his family visited in 2019.

Such attempts at respectfully honoring Sockalexis’ achievements, however, come alongside the many decades of the Chief Wahoo mascot, among the most egregiously racist mascots in a long history of using Native American names and iconography as mascots for sports teams.

As outcry around Native American mascots has grown in recent decades, however, teams at the high school, college and professional levels have been retiring their names or removing offensive imagery. Earlier this year, the Washington Redskins announced they would choose a new name, while other teams such as the Kansas City Chiefs have retired Native imagery while retaining their name.

In Maine, schools have entirely abandoned Native mascots. Husson University no longer uses the name the Braves, and now uses the Eagles. Old Town High School removed the Indians in favor of the Coyotes. And in 2019, Skowhegan High School became the last Maine school to get rid of its Native mascot, retiring the Indians and choosing the name the River Hawks in October of this year.

When the Cleveland Indians finally choose a new name, Chris Sockalexis said he’d support the team renaming itself the Spiders, the name Louis Sockalexis played under.

Maulian Dana, who has been at the forefront of the campaign to get rid of Native mascots in Maine and nationally, has seen a lot of change in a short time. Nevertheless, the Cleveland Indians name change announcement hits closer to home.

“This one is deeply personal,” she said. “I hope this is a way for us to talk about Louis and his life and achievements, rather than continuing this excuse for people to run around with a hideous racist mascot, perpetuating the trauma we have experienced for so long. It feels like a dark cloud is starting to retreat.”

This article appears through a media partnership with the Bangor Daily News.