FOR THE first time in 41 years baseball fans in Cleveland will
have World Series memories to sustain them until the next Indian
summer. What these fans neglected to celebrate this year,
however, was the 80th anniversary of the club's changing its
name in honor of the first Native American to play professional
baseball: Louis Sockalexis.
Sockalexis was born on Oct. 24, 1871, on a tiny island located
in the Penobscot River, north of Bangor, Maine. A grandson of
the chief of the Penobscot tribe, Louis attended St. Anne's
Convent School in Old Town, where he competed in football and
track. Maine was a center of semipro baseball in those days, and
by the time Louis was a teenager, he had also become a standout
During the summer of 1894 Sockalexis, who batted lefty and threw
righty, played centerfield for the Poland Spring semipro team.
His closest friend on the squad was Mike (Doc) Powers, a burly
catcher from Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. By the end
of the season Powers had helped secure Sockalexis a baseball
scholarship. He entered Holy Cross that fall.
In his first collegiate season the 5'11", 185-pound Sockalexis
batted .436. He hit with such power that in one game he
shattered a fourth-floor dormitory window beyond the outfield
fence at Brown. And his arm was so strong that people said not
one of his throws from the outfield to the catcher took a bounce.
During Sockalexis's second season at Holy Cross, professional
scouts began to take notice of him. In 1897 a representative of
the Cleveland Spiders of the National League (at that time the
only major league) came to see the young outfielder in action.
He signed Sockalexis on the spot for a yearly salary of $1,500.
In his first major league season Sockalexis batted .338, with 94
hits in just 66 games. "His fielding was spectacular, his base
running supreme, and an ease and grace marked his playing which
rarely, if ever, has been equaled," wrote one New York writer. A
Boston reporter agreed: "His batting is wonderful and his great
speed enables him to steal bases at will."
But as his athletic performance improved, Sockalexis moved
closer to his demise. During one dramatic game with the Chicago
White Sox, he hit a grand slam in the ninth to put the Spiders
ahead by a run. Then, in storybook fashion, Sockalexis made a
game-saving catch. Afterward, teammates and fans carried him off
the field and demanded that he lead them in a drinking fest to
celebrate the victory. Sockalexis had never tasted alcohol
before, but as the months went by, he fell under its spell.
His drinking led to a sharp decline in his play. At one point
Cleveland manager Patsy Tebeau grew so desperate that he
promised to pay Sockalexis $16,000 over the next two seasons if
he cleaned up his act. Sockalexis tried but could not oblige. He
finished the 1897 season with 16 errors and was released the
following year after hitting just .224 in 21 games. By 1899
Sockalexis had drunk himself out of major league baseball and
after that season the Spider owners sold the franchise rights to
the National League so they could concentrate on running the St.
Louis Browns. The following year the league shut down the
Cleveland team. Sockalexis would work at odd jobs until his
death in 1913 at age 42.
In 1901 Cleveland received a charter franchise in the new
American League, and over the next decade and a half the team
went on a name-changing spree, becoming, in succession, the
Blues, the Broncos, and the Naps. But Sockalexis remained so
securely in the hearts of Cleveland baseball fans that they
honored him posthumously. When a new owner took over in 1915, a
local newspaper ran a team-naming contest. The winning entry was
Cleveland Indians. The fan who had come up with the name said it
would be a lasting tribute to Sockalexis.
Sockalexis was beloved outside Cleveland, too. Joe Giovanetti,
who is of Native American descent and teaches Native American
studies at Humboldt State in northern California, says,
"Sockalexis was viewed as a precious extension of the tribe. As
a baseball player he was a sacred and meaningful foundation for
the Indian community. He was more than just someone who picked
up a ball and a bat."
B/W PHOTO: NATIONAL BASEBALL LIBRARY & ARCHIVESockalexis played semipro ball in Maine in '94. [Louis Sockalexis]