For more than 100 years, Louis Sockalexis has been the pride of the Penobscot Nation on Indian Island. As the first known Native American to play professional baseball, Sockalexis distinguished himself as a gifted batter on the 1890s roster of the Cleveland Spiders. At a time when efforts are underway to prohibit the use of tribal references in naming sports teams and mascots, the Friends of Sockalexis say Maine deserves its own statue of the player who tribal members still refer to as “Sock.”
Bangor resident Ed Rice has spent the last 20 years researching and promoting the glory days of Louis Sockalexis, whose brief but storied tenure on the Cleveland Spiders baseball team brought him into the national spotlight back in the 1890s. Rice says sports organizations continually refuse to recognize Sockalexis' accomplishments on the field. So he and the group the Friends of Sockalexis say it's time to recognize the tribal member with his own statue somewhere in Maine, possibly in Bangor, where he once paddled along the Penobscot River. He says the Friends of Sockalexis are forming a nonprofit group to begin raising funds for the memorial now.
"I was told at a minimum for a bronze statue, eight feet high on a foundation block that we're looking at between $80,000 and $100,000 dollars, so we've got a basic goal that we'd like to reach and we'd like to exceed it,” said Rice. Ted Bear Mitchell, a former Penobscot Nation representative to the Maine Legislature, says Sockalexis' ethnicity prompted sports writers and others in the 1890s to refer to his Cleveland Spiders team as "the Indians" – and it wasn't an expression of praise.
"Of course it was meant to be disrespectful, but when Sock started for the first three months of the season and was the third best hitter in the league, he made it into something of a backhanded racist compliment," Mitchell said.
Rice, who authored a 2003 biography of Sockalexis, is advancing the memorial in an era when many sports teams, including several in Maine, continue to use tribal references in their team names or through mascot caricatures. Enduring racial prejudice more than a half century before Jackie Robinson broke what’s often referred to as the ‘color barrier’ in major league baseball, Sockalexis died in 1913 at the age of 42.