Sockalexis, Louis (1969)
Updated: Nov 21, 2019
From Society for American Baseball Research
Louis Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot Indian tribe of Maine, played in only 94 major league games, but is remembered today as the first Native American, and first recognized minority, to perform in the National League. He was signed by the Cleveland Spiders in 1897, fifty years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Sockalexis, like Robinson a multi-talented athlete who excelled in football and track as well as baseball, appeared destined for stardom, but alcoholism derailed his promising career. He is, however, at least indirectly responsible for the nickname "Indians" as applied to the present American League team in Cleveland.
Louis Francis Sockalexis was born on the Penobscot reservation in Old Town, Maine, on October 24, 1871. He was the son of Francis Sockalexis, a logger who later served as governor (formerly called "chief") of the Penobscot, and the former Frances Sockbeson. Francis Sockalexis was a fine athlete, but Louis, who grew to be nearly six feet tall with straight black hair and a muscular build, was the best athlete in the tribe. Louis won footraces and throwing contests against all challengers, and his natural baseball ability led him to play semipro ball for various teams in Maine during his late teens and early twenties.
In 1894, after playing college ball at Ricker Classical Institute in Maine, Louis spent the summer at a seaside resort, patrolling the outfield for a baseball nine sponsored by the Poland Spring Hotel. One of his teammates was Mike (Doc) Powers, a future major-leaguer who, at the time, was the captain of the baseball team at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Powers was impressed with Sockalexis' talent, and convinced Louis, a Catholic, to enroll at the Jesuit-run institution. This he did in the fall of that year.
Louis excelled on the diamond at Holy Cross, batting .436 in 1895 and .444 in 1896, and also starred as a running back on the school's first football team in the fall of 1896. He ran track, specializing in the medium and long distances and reportedly winning five events in a single meet. However, it was as a baseball player that he shone most brightly. An incredible throw he made one day from deep center field to the plate was measured by a group of professors at 413 feet, an unofficial national record at the time. He may have been the best college player in the country, and began to draw interest from National League clubs. The Cleveland Spiders had the inside track, as two members of that team, outfielder Jesse Burkett and infielder James (Chippy) McGarr, coached for Holy Cross during the spring months. Louis took hitting tips from Burkett, the two-time NL batting champion, and looked forward to the day when he would compete at baseball's highest level.
From Art Cards
“The Deerfoot of the Diamond” (1871-1913). A Maine native & son of a Penobscot chief, Sockalexis was one of the most gifted athletes ever to play the game. A pioneering Native American, Sockalexis endured intimidation and abuse throughout his all-too-brief career. He starred for the Fighting Irish before joining the Cleveland Spiders in 1897. His legacy lives today whenever the Cleveland Indians take the field—many believe that mascot to be a post-mortem tribute to this early star.
Harvard professors measured his throw at 414′
While at Notre Dame, he homered in the Polo Grounds off future Hall of Famer Amos Rusie
John McGraw called him the “greatest natural talent” he had ever encountered in the game
From SABR archive
This is bounding Sockalexis,
Fielder of the mighty Clevelands.
Like the catapult in action,
For the plate he throws the baseball,
Till the rooter, blithely rooting,
Shouts until he shakes the bleachers.
Sock it to them Sockalexis."
- 1897 poem, author unknown
Sockalexis was an instantaneous success. Before the season even began, he was a hero. The March 27, 1897 issue of Sporting Life contained this report: "SOCKALEXIS, THE INDIAN, came to town Friday, and in 24 hours was the most popular man about the Kennard House, where he is stopping. He is a massive man, with gigantic bones and bulging muscles, and looks a ball player from the ground up to the top of his five feet, 11 inches of solid frame work. In a letter to [Spiders'] President Robison, Mr. John Ward says: `I congratulate you on securing Sockalexis. I have seen him play perhaps a dozen games, and I unhesitatingly pronounce him a wonder. Why he has not been snapped up before by some League club looking for a sensational player is beyond my comprehension.'. . . THEY'RE INDIANS NOW. There is no feature of the signing of Sockalexis more gratifying than the fact that his presence on the team will result in relegating to obscurity the title of `Spiders' by which the team has been handicapped for several reasons, to give place to the more significant name `Indians.'
On the field Sockalexis was equally sensational. For the first two and one-half months of the season his name was in the headlines on a daily basis for his spectacular hitting and fielding, and he became the hottest gate attraction in baseball.
On June 16 the Cleveland club came to the Polo Grounds for the first time, and the park was packed with
New York fans eager to see pitcher Amos Rusie even the score with Sockalexis. In their first meeting Sock had tagged the Giants' ace for two hits. Rusie, who would later be elected to the Hall of Fame, owned the best curveball of the day, and the New York press had hyped the showdown for weeks. When Sockalexis came to bat in the first inning, a group in the bleachers rose to their feet and split the air with derisive war whoops. Undeterred, Sock smacked a Rusie curveball over the right fielder's head for a home run, bringing the war whoops to an abrupt end.
On July 3 Sockalexis was hitting .328 (81-for-247), with 40 runs scored, 39 RBIs and 16 stolen bases. And then, suddenly, the bottom fell out. He did not appear in the lineup again until July 8; he played on July 11 and 12, not again until July 24-25 and after that only three more times the remainder of the season.
Hughie Jennings, another future Hall of Famer, would later describe our hero's precipitous downfall in a series of syndicated reminiscences called Rounding Third (1926). "The turning point in his career came in Chicago," wrote Jennings. "It happened as a result of a play in the opening game of the series. When Cleveland came to bat in the ninth, the score was 3-0 in favor of Chicago. Cleveland filled the bases with two out, and Sockalexis came to bat. He hit a home run. Then, in the home half of the inning, Chicago got two men on bases with as many out.
"The batter smashed a long drive to the outfield. It looked like a home run, but Sockalexis made an almost impossible one-handed catch of the ball. His home run and his catch enabled Cleveland to win, 4-3.
1907 real photo postcard depicting the class D Bangor White Sox of the Maine State League. Relatively nondescript, with one major exception, the presence of Louis Sockalexis, the game's first Native American and first minority to play in the National League. Sockalexis excelled at baseball and football, and enrolled at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. There, he took hitting lessons from Cleveland Spiders Jesse Burkett and Chippy McGarr, who signed him to a contract with the Cleveland Spiders in 1897. When manager Patsy Tebeau expressed his enthusiasm for the newcomer to sportswriters, a headline in the Cleveland Plain Dealer referred to the team as "Tebeau's Indians." From there, the Spiders nickname disappeared, the team quickly becoming known by its new moniker, named after the turn of the century term for Sockalexis' origin. Sadly, Sockalexis struggled with alcoholism, and did not last very long in the major leagues. He returned to Maine, and after playing with a few loosely organized clubs, played one last season in organized ball, with the Bangor team pictured in this postcard. Sockalexis is pictured sitting on the ground in the front row, left.
Sockalexis sadly passed away in 1913. In 1914, the Cleveland baseball team, who had renamed themselves the Cleveland "Naps" in honor of Nap Lajoie, elected to permanently rename themselves the Indians in honor of the popular and tragic Sockalexis. An excellent postcard depicting an important figure in the development of the Cleveland Indians' identity.