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Chief Sockalexis

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Louis Francis Sockalexis

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[edit] Biographical Information

"At no time has a player crowded so many remarkable accomplishments into such a short period of time as Sockalexis." - Hughie Jennings
"No player has been talked of more this season than Sockalexis, the right fielder of the Clevelands. . . The Indian is having a troublesome time with the small boys. . . 'If the big and small boys of Brooklyn and other cities find it a pleasure to shout at me I have no objections. No matter where we play I go through the same ordeal and . . . I am so used to it that at times I forget to smile at my tormentors . . .' " - from The Sporting Life of June 19, 1897

Louis Sockalexis was the first American Indian player in major league baseball. He was a big name in his time, and although he had a short major league career, had a good rookie year.

In 1963, baseball writer Lee Allen claimed that Jim Toy, an early American Association catcher, had a Lakota (Sioux) father. This claim has been proven unfounded by Ed Rice (Baseball's First Indian, Tidemark Press, 2003.) Mr. Rice has located Jim Toy's death certificate, which lists Toy's race as "white."

Sockalexis attended Holy Cross, where he excelled in baseball, football, and field events. He set a new national amateur throwing record of 393 ft. In a game against Harvard University, he made an unofficial throw of 414 ft.

During two seasons at Holy Cross, "Sock" batted .436 and .444 respectively. A speedy runner, he was clocked at 100 yards in 10 seconds, in full uniform. Crowds came to watch him throw out runners at the plate from deep center field. In 1956 Sockalexis was inducted into the Holy Cross Athletic Hall of Fame.

Sockalexis was recruited to the University of Notre Dame in December 1896. After only three months, he was offered a contract of $1500 - at that time a large sum - to turn pro with the Cleveland Spiders. Sockalexis stated he preferred to finish the school year first. However, only a few days later, he and a classmate were arrested for drinking and smashing up a local brothel. Notre Dame had a strict no-alcohol policy. Sockalexis was kicked out of school the next day.

Louis Sockalexis began spring training with the Cleveland Spiders in March 1897, and made his debut in April. Newspapers nicknamed the team "Indians" due to the excitement over Sockalexis. For over three months, crowds flocked to see his spectacular fielding and hitting. Other "cranks" or fans, taunted him with jeers and racial epithets.

Like Jackie Robinson 50 years later, the handsome, educated Sockalexis won over his detractors with his quiet dignity, his friendly smile, and most of all, his phenomenal talent. He stole bases at will, hit record-setting homers in the deadball era, and consistently threw out runners from deep right field. But Sockalexis paid a high price for his success. Heavy drinking and an ankle injury put an end to his once-promising career. He was released to the minors in May of 1899.

Sockalexis spent three years as a vagrant. In 1902, he completed an entire season of 100 games with the Lowell Tigers in Massachusetts, where he thrilled crowds with his clutch hitting and game-saving catches. However, his fielding was mediocre due to his injured leg and poor judgment of line drives. His nicknames were "Sock" and "Sox". Unlike other Native American players, he was never called "Chief".

In 1905, Louis returned home to Indian Island, Maine. He stopped drinking and coached a team of Penobscot youths (Five of them eventually played in the New England Leagues). In his last years, Sockalexis became a respected umpire in the Maine leagues.

Louis's second cousin Andrew, was a famous marathoner who placed second in the 1912 Boston Marathon and fourth in the 1912 Olympic marathon. Sadly, both men died relatively young - Louis at age 42 of heart failure, and Andrew at age 27 of tuberculosis. They are both buried on Indian Island in Old Town, Maine.

In The Sporting Life article quoted above, he claimed he was born in 1873, after first saying he was born in 1871. He also stated he played for St. Mary's College and Ricker's College before coming to Holy Cross to play center field. He stated that the Cleveland players were supportive of him, especially Jesse Burkett.

[edit] Further Reading

  • David L. Fleitz: Louis Sockalexis: The First Cleveland Indian, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2002. ISBN 978-0-7864-1383-6

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