Major League Baseball’s First Player of Native American Descent
“Sockalexis was the greatest outfielder in history, the best hitter, the best thrower, the best fielder, and also the best drinker.”
~New York Yankees General Manager Ed Barrow
Louis Francis Sockalexis, a former professional baseball player with the Cleveland Spiders from 1897–1899, is considered the first player of Native American descent in Major League history. He was recognized among his peers as a future all-time great, able to run, throw, and hit faster and farther than anyone else in the game. Unfortunately, alcoholism and unrelenting pressures from the game he loved kept him from reaching those lofty heights. By 1899 Cleveland had released him, and after short stints with multiple minor league teams, he died in obscurity in 1913. Despite his brief stay at the top of his sport and tragic fall from its graces, his influence continues to this day.
Sockalexis was born on October 24, 1871, on a Penobscot Indian reservation near Old Town, ME, to Francis and Frances Sockalexis. His father, Chief of the Wabanaki Penobscot, was an incredible athlete, and at a young age, Louis also became known for his athleticism. He was intelligent and did well in school, but his natural athletic ability and love of competition drew him toward sports. After graduating from high school in 1894, he enrolled at Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA, participating in baseball, football, and track.
In December 1896, he followed his coach Doc Powers to Notre Dame. Within his first few months at Notre Dame, Sockalexis got drunk with a teammate and trashed a South Bend bordello. He was removed from the team and eventually told to leave the school. Unfortunately, this was not his first alcohol-fueled run-in with authorities. The Jesuit fathers had once reprimanded Sockalexis at Holy Cross for his drinking.
Before his dismissal from Notre Dame, Cleveland Spiders manager Patrick “Patsy” Tebeau met with Sockalexis to offer him a contract to play baseball for his team. Loyal to his coach and current teammates, the ballplayer declined the offer. He had wanted to finish the year with Notre Dame before turning professional. After he left the school, Tebeau again met with Sockalexis to coax him into coming to Cleveland. On March 9, 1897, with Notre Dame no longer an option, he signed on to play outfield for the Spiders.
Sockalexis had a three-year major-league baseball career from 1897–1899 with the Cleveland Spiders (later Cleveland Indians). He took the league by storm for much of his first season, but quickly fizzled into obscurity by his third.
1897–1899 Cleveland Spiders
On March 19, 1897, twenty-five-year-old Sockalexis (he told the team he was twenty-three) reported to a Cleveland gymnasium to begin Spring practice. In little time Sockalexis took the baseball world by storm. Despite his muscular build, he was the fastest player on the team, renowned for his hand-eye coordination and flexibility. The superlatives flowed in even before he stood in the batter’s box as a professional for the first time.
Despite the excitement for the hard-hitting, fast-running, and fine-fielding player, the racist undertones that dogged Sockalexis throughout his professional took root right away. In March 1897, journalists reported that having Native Americans in the game of baseball meant that “his complete civilization and redemption from savagery are only a question of a very short time.” Although the popular opinion was that Cleveland had secured a “treasure” whose career on the diamond “should be brilliant,” Sockalexis was still seen as little more than a novelty — an outsider playing the “white man’s’” game.
Sockalexis, for his part, played well to start the season. After twenty games, he was batting .372 and excelling in the outfield. Attendance numbers were higher every place he stepped on the field. Crowds came out to support their favorite team and hassle the “Indian ballplayer.” His success brought cheers in Cleveland but made him a target of ridicule whenever his team played away games. The team’s owner called him “the greatest find of the year” and “better than [he] thought he would ever play.”
It seemed that the crowd’s jeers hadn’t phased Sockalexis — at least while he was on the baseball field. He’d been a factor in nearly every Cleveland win to that point. As his star grew brighter the insults grew stronger. Newspapers joined in the taunts, using racist language that turned his Penobscot heritage into a caricature. He wasn’t Cleveland Spiders outfielder Louis Sockalexis; he was an “injun.” and “Red Man” that had been “captured” to play baseball for Cleveland.
The drinking problems that had hounded Sockalexis at Holy Cross and caused his dismissal at Notre Dame reared their head on July 3, 1897.
He went out drinking and, and by some accounts, at some point in the evening, either fell, was pushed, or jumped out of a second-story window. Sockalexis severely sprained his ankle in the fall. Others note that the injury came while he was running the bases during a game. In either case, two days after his June 3 dalliance, he was sent home by his manager to have his injured ankle placed in a cast. Sockalexis returned to the field on July 8 and played well for a few games. Unfortunately, rock bottom occurred on July 12. In an 8–2 loss to Boston, his errors in the field accounted for all eight runs.
Sockalexis barely played after that. On July 29, he was fined by the Spiders three times for breaking team rules by being intoxicated. He was also suspended without pay until he was deemed both sober and back in playing condition. A remorseful Sockalexis would a little playing time in late August and September, but the season that started so incredibly for the rookie outfielder would end quietly. His stats, a .338 average, and 16 stolen bases in 66 games, were almost entirely achieved before his early July night of drinking.
Newspapers now wrote less about Sockalexis and his ability to play baseball and more about his affinity for alcohol. His accomplishments had become an afterthought.
Sockalexis played two more seasons for Cleveland before being released.
In three seasons, He played in a total of 97 games, 66 of those came in his first year with Cleveland.
He batted .224 in 1898 and .273 in 1899. Continued alcohol use and the lost trust of his manager and teammates had relegated him to the bench, and eventually out of the league. Sockalexis drank himself out of baseball, an affliction that newspapers attributed to the “Indian weakness.”
1900–1913 Minor League Baseball and Going Home
Between 1900 and 1907, in between arrests for vagrancy, disturbing the peace, and public drunkenness, Sockalexis played minor league baseball for three different teams. While he played relatively well, he was getting older, and the baggage he carried was too much for teams to bear.
In 1907 the 35-year-old retired from the game and returned to the Penobscot reservation in Maine.
Sockalexis didn’t work often, teaching baseball to local kids and playing on local traveling teams. He umpired and captained a ferry between the island and the mainland. Alcohol had ravaged his body, and he suffered from tuberculosis, rheumatism, and heart trouble in his final years.
On December 24, 1913, while working at a logging camp near Burlington, ME, Sockalexis suffered a heart attack and died. He was 42 years old.
Louis Sockalexis dealt with the same kinds of racist taunts that Jackie Robinson had to endure fifty years later in the latter’s battle to break baseball’s color barrier. Both men were ridiculed for their skin color. They were belittled and considered something less than human. Louis Sockalexis was an Indian first, then a drunkard, then a ballplayer, and finally a human being. Unfortunately, he was never able to overcome the taunts — or the trappings of alcohol — and his career soon floundered. Even in the year before his death, he was thought to be little more than a “lazy, fat Indian enjoying life.”
His is a story not only of accomplishment, but of what could have been. Sockalexis overcame racism to reach the pinnacle of his profession and was destined to great things in the game of baseball. Unfortunately his addictions were his undoing.
Despite the disappointing end to his playing days, his legacy endured in Cleveland for many years. In 1915 the Cleveland Naps became the Cleveland Indians. Although disputed, many believe the name change was made in homage to the team’s former star player.
Louis Francis Sockalexis was voted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame in 2000.
Bibliography available here.