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The Cleveland Indians, Louis Sockalexis, and The Name

Mar 18, 2014, 1:55 PM EDT

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When I was a kid growing up in Cleveland, I believed — completely, wholeheartedly, without reservation or pause — that the Cleveland Indians were named to honor a Native American ballplayer named Louis Sockalexis, who played for Cleveland in the late 19th Century.

When I became an adult and a sportswriter, I believed — completely, wholeheartedly, without reservation or pause — that the Sockalexis story was entirely untrue, a bit of state-funded propaganda to conceal the obvious fact the Cleveland team was named the Indians only to capitalize on the many racist cliches that could be used to promote the team. It had nothing at all to do with Sockalexis.

If there is one thing I have learned in my life, it is this:

Things are always more complicated than you think.

* * *

Louis Francis Sockalexis was born on the Penobscot Indian Reservation in Maine in 1871. He was, by all accounts, an extraordinary young athlete. Sockalexis lived such an outsized life that, from the start, it was very difficult to separate myth from reality, legend from achievement, flaws from tragic flaws. We can start off with what we know. From a very young age, Sockalexis showed extraordinary speed, great strength, and more than anything else, an arm unlike anything anyone had ever seen. Stories survive of a young Sockalexis throwing a ball across the Penobscot River — a throw of 600 or so feet — into his father’s waiting arms.

This could be one of the many exaggerated legends of Sockalexis — there are countless exaggerations in his story — but this one also could be true. There are many confirmed reports of Sockalexis’ great arm, my favorite being a throw he made against Harvard when he was playing centerfield for Holy Cross. He reportedly went back to the wall, leaped, caught the ball, and in one motion threw the ball home on a fly to throw out a tagging runner. This one was so jaw-dropping that, according to Ed Rice’s informative Baseball’s First Indian, it was called the “Lighting Throw” and two Harvard professors rushed on the field after the game to measure it. They came up with a measurement of 414 feet, which was some sort of world record.

There can be no doubt that Sockalexis had an arm for the ages.

The rest of his game was dazzling as well, at least when he was young. He was brilliantly fast and hit with power. He was a football star and a track star too. His second cousin, Andrew Sockalexis, was a marathoner of some renown. One of the more famous sportswriters of the age, Harry Grayson, became convinced that writer Gilbert Patten (under the pseudonym Burt L. Standish) invented a superhero sports character named Frank Merriwell with Sockalexis in mind. Frank Merriwell went to Yale, played every sport brilliantly and solved mysteries on the side. He was one of the most famous fictional characters of his day (the writer Calvin Trillin went to Yale, in part, because of his father’s admiration of the Merriwell character). Grayson found proof that Patten, who also lived in Maine, had managed a game against Sockalexis. Whether this is conclusive evidence of Sockalexis being the model for Merriwell or not, Grayson believed it and wrote it often.

Grayson is, in fact, the person most responsible for bringing Sockalexis back into the American consciousness some thirty years after he died. Grayson wrote at length about Sockalexis in newspapers across the country and even included him in the 1944 book “They played the game: The story of baseball greats.” In “They played the game,” Grayson wrote that Sockalexis was faster than Cobb, more powerful than Ruth and was a better outfielder than Tris Speaker. He quoted John McGraw saying that Sockalexis could have been better than Cobb, Wagner or Ruth. He quoted Hughie Jennings saying “He should have been the greatest player of all time.”

There are other quotes about Sockalexis not included in the book, like this famous one from Hall of Fame general manager Ed Barrow: “Sockalexis was the greatest outfielder in history, the best hitter, the best thrower, the best fielder, and also the best drinker.”

Alas, it is the last of these that defined Louis Sockalexis in his time.

* * *

With Sockalexis, myth and reality swirled together into an often indistinguishable fog. We have the record. In 1897, Sockalexis joined the Cleveland Spiders. There is some debate if he was actually the first Native American to play in the big leagues, but there is no doubt that he was the first acknowledged Native American. That is to say that there may have been a player before him who had Native American blood, but Sockalexis was the first to be known as an Indian, the first to endure being called a “noble savage” and “redskin” and “red man” and “educated Indian” in the papers.

“The man who said that there are no good Indians but dead Indians or words to that effect,” wrote an author in The Sporting Life in an allegedly POSITIVE story, “surely never saw Louis Sockalexis.”

Or there is this — a recounting of an exchange between Washington third baseman Charles Reilly and Cleveland’s future Hall of Famer Jesse Burkett. Understand it was Burkett — while coaching at Holy Cross — who helped convince Sockalexis to join the Cleveland team. Reilly, in an effort to bust Burkett’s chops, asked if Sockalexis was ever ordered to sacrifice bunt.

“Don’t ask me about that bead peddler,” Burkett said. “He’s a Jonah. I haven’t hit over .100 since he joined the team … Wait till I strike my gait and I will make him go back to the woods and look for a few scalps.”

Yes, well, the coverage was like that. There was hardly a mention of Sockalexis that did not include some reference to collecting scalps or wampum or General Custer or, in later coverage, firewater. War whoops followed him everywhere. The favorable stories usually involved some sort of bizarre Indian tale. One story that kept getting repeated was that his father wanted him to give up baseball and fulfill his duty as Chief of the Penobscot tribe. The tribe no longer had “Chiefs” as such, but that was but a small detail in this involved story. Supposedly, Sockalexis’ father went on a long journey via canoe, to find the President of the United States and ask him to forbid his son from playing baseball. Yeah.

The story even has an ending, with President Grover Cleveland telling Sockalexis Sr.: “I am sorry Chief, but I am unable to help you. I do not have the authority to order your son not to play baseball. Even if I did, it would be wrong of me to issue such an order.”

That’s the sort of coverage Louis Sockalexis got in 1897.

“Sockalexis was no better and no worse than his people,” wrote one syndicated writer. “He made a spectacle of himself. The white man laughed at him and then kicked him aside. With the quickness gone from his brain and the fleetness from his limbs, Sockalexis was only one more drunk Indian.”

That’s the sort of coverage Louis Sockalexis got in 1898.

Here is what the record shows: Sockalexis hit .338 in 66 games with Cleveland in 1897 and was something of a phenomenon. He did commit 16 errors, however, many late in the season, and he reportedly showed up for games drunk. He hit just .224 in 22 games his second season. His third season, he had deteriorated so much and had so much trouble staying sober that Cleveland released him — a fate made worse by the fact that the 1899 Cleveland Spiders were the worst team in baseball history. He wasn’t even good enough or reliable enough by then to play for a team that went 20-134.

* * *

In 1973 and again in 1990, Sports Illustrated wrote stories about Sockalexis. In both stories, SI wrote that Sockalexis had his first drink in an after-game celebration while playing with Cleveland. He had hit a grand slam and he made a spectacular game-saving catch. And then came his downfall.

Sports Illustrated in 1973: “Exulting Cleveland fans flooding the field, sweeping Sock up and carrying him off on their shoulders. They took him to the local taproom to celebrate, coaxing until he gave in and accepted his first drink. And that was the beginning of the end.”

Sports Illustrated in 1995: “Then in storybook fashion, Sockalexis made a game-saving catch. Afterward, teammates carried him off the field and demanded that he lead them in a drinking fest to celebrate the victory. Sockalexis had never taste alcohol before, but as the months went by he fell under its spell.”

The idea that Louis Sockalexis had his first drink while playing for the Cleveland team on its face is dubious. As it turns out, it’s also verifiably wrong. It was another one of those folk stories that had somehow clanked down through the years like that chip in the “Price is Right” game of Plinko. Not only had Sockalexis tasted alcohol before that night in Cleveland, he was arrested and thrown out of Notre Dame after a drunken episode in a bar before he even signed with Cleveland. Here is a somewhat rough account from sportswriter Dave Lewis in the Long Beach Independent in 1954:

“A gay evening, though, was destined to wind up in violence when the Indian and his friend virtually wrecked a saloon before police arrived … The gendarmes tried to quiet Sockalexis but only succeeded in annoying him. In fact he finally became so provoked that he flattened two of them before being overpowered and dragged to the bastille. He was promptly expelled from school and a few days later reported to Cleveland.”

It seems likely that Sockalexis was drinking while at Holy Cross too before Notre Dame, and perhaps before then. The story that he had his first drink after being the hero is poetry … people have long tried to attach poetry to the story of Louis Sockalexis. But if we are to look at his role in the naming of the Cleveland Indians, we must look at him soberly. He was an extraordinarily talented and haunted player. He dealt with impossible expectations and terrifying racism. He was a hero, in his own way.

But he also was an alcoholic when he joined the Cleveland baseball team and despite what appears to be many honest efforts to kick the habit he could not. His alcoholism was utterly destructive. And so Sockalexis was not viewed as a hero in his time but, mostly, as a waste of talent and, sadly, in the words of one writer, “a man of his people.”

The Sandusky Star (May 18, 1899): “In the Cleveland police court Wednesday, Sockalexis, the half-breed ballplayer, was fined $1 and costs. He was arrested Tuesday night in an intoxicated condition while creating a disturbance at the Lyceum theater. Judge Fielder lectured “Sox,” telling him that he should stop the use of liquor, that it was affecting him physically. The Indian hung his head and below his breath murmured that he would not drink any more.”

The Dubuque Herald (May 21, 1899): “The once famous Indian Sockalexis, who made such a furor in baseball all over the country, has had his last chance. He was arrested for intoxication, Tuesday night, and the judge failed to recognize his pleadings for release. It needed no pleading with Manager Cross, however, and the Indian was released at once.”

And then there was this surprisingly long and irrepressibly sad item in St. Louis Republic under the headline “Poor Old Socks” and the subhead “Fire Water was the Indian’s Downfall:”

“That unfortunate son of the forest, that white Penobscot who played a brief but star engagement with our club in 1897, the Indian Sockalexis is a wreck in every way,” said one of the St. Louis players today. “Socks” was a tremendous drawing card in 1897. Thousands of people came to see not the game but the Indian. In New York and other places where we used to dress at the grounds, a fearful crowd would press about the rooms to see the aborigine come forth.

His picture was in every paper in America, his arms, his legs, his batting eye, every part of him was photographed and reproduced. Poor old Lo, he never got a bit swelled, but he has lots of of friends who wanted to buy for him and he was good enough to let them do it. Result soon came and “Socks” had to quit the game. He was a true Indian.

When he got the red man’s burden on he always was ashamed. He would come into the hotel slinking behind doors and pillars like his great ancestors slunk behind trees. From his ambush he would peep to see if (manager Patsy) Tebeau was around.

“Socks” is now in Cleveland for want of a better place. He hangs out with a gang of waiters who work at restaurants and saloons. The gang is divided into three crews, one for each meal. Each gang steals grub and fetches it to “Socks.” He has a place to sleep and for all this he pays by rushing the growler. He was around in the coldest days of last winter without shoes or clothes. He bore the frigid weather with true barbaric stoicism.

Yet if this poor savage had only been born without the Indian’s love for strong water, he would today be drawing a salary of $2,400 for five months work of three hours each day. But the Indian was strong in him and he is past redemption. Socks was sure death on a straight high ball and was quite a thrower, but he had some grave shortcomings in the field. Withal, he was good to draw as big a salary as any man in the league had he behaved himself.

After he was released by Cleveland, several papers suggested he could still be a “freak sideshow” for some independent league teams. He did do that for a while. He worked other jobs as well.

Sockalexis died on December 24, 1913 of a heart attack. He was 42 years old.

* * *

Now to the part about how the Cleveland Indians were named — we go back to Sports Illustrated in 1995: “When a new owner took over in 1915, a local newspaper ran a team-naming contest. The fan who had come up with the name said it would be a lasting tribute to Sockalexis.”

This was the story as it had been told for relentlessly for about 50 years. The story seems to originate with a man named Franklin Lewis, who wrote a history called “The Cleveland Indians” in 1948. In it there is a nonspecific one-paragraph reference to Sockalexis and how the team was named:

“There is a story, still heard frequently, that the Indians were named after a real Indian known as Sockalexis, a wild slugger who joined the National League Spiders in 1897. Sock was strong and fast, and there was fire in every movement. But there was fire in his throat too, and it needed extinguishing. Between remedies for this and the discovery by enemy pitchers that left-handers who threw curves could baffle the redskin, Sock enjoyed a rapid demise as a big leaguer.”

This story — and you will note that even Lewis refers to it as a “story” — was cleaned up and recast and pushed relentlessly by writers and, especially, the team (especially as Native Americans and others began to challenge the rightness of using names like Indians or, even more, mascots like the red-faced Chief Wahoo). In 1967, for instance, the Sockalexis story made it into Chase Morsey Jr.’s popular syndicated “Sports fans! I bet you didn’t know” column.

“Ever wonder how different sports teams got their nicknames? Well, today let’s take the case of the Cleveland Indians … Back in the early days, Cleveland’s nickname was the ‘Spiders’ … Nobody liked that name too well, and when Nap Lajoie took over the team shortly after that, they were called the ‘Naps.’ … Then Lajoie was replaced by Jim McGuire and the team was called the ‘Molly McGuires’ … When McGuire left a new name had to be found … Someone remembered that some years back Cleveland had a player named Louis (Chief) Sockalexis … Sockalexis was a full-blooded Indian, and was, in fact, the first Indian ever to play big league baseball. … And so the name ‘Indians’ was selected to honor Chief Sockalexis and it’s been ‘Indians’ every since.”

OK. Well, let’s get through the inaccuracies. Cleveland baseball had a long and mostly losing battle with team nicknames before 1915. They had been the Infants, the Spiders, the Bronchos, the Blues and unofficially they had been the Exiles, the Castoffs, the Misfits, the Molly McGuires (for a brief time in 1910) and countless other names. I had no idea until I went back and looked how much people HATED the nickname Spiders, which I always thought was kind of cool. The nickname confusion got so bad that in 1903, a Cleveland newspaper actually DID have a contest to name the team and the choices were so uninspiring and uninteresting (Cyclops? Excelsiors? Gladiators? Thistles?) that they finally voted on just naming the team after Cleveland’s best player, Napoleon Lajoie. That’s how they became the Cleveland Naps.

Well in 1914, the Naps were horrendous .. and Lajoie was sold. A new name was needed. But, contrary to the story told so often, there was no team-naming contest this time. Papers did solicit ideas from fans, but team owner Charles Somers put together a group of Cleveland sportswriters from the four papers and told them to come up with a name. They are the ones who chose the Cleveland Indians and there is no indication that they chose a name entered by a fan. No, they chose Indians for their own reasons.

And what were those reasons?

This was the cartoon that ran in the Cleveland Plain Dealer the next day:

wpid-oldpd01-2014-03-18-13-19.jpg

Um, yeah. Here you can see pretty clearly why the Indians were named. One: A year earlier, the Boston Braves had a miraculous season — coming from last place on July 4 to win the pennant — and so Native American names were in. Two: It was a glorious opportunity for HI-larious Native American jokes and race-specific cliches and insults that fit well in headlines. For instance, there was this one-liner in the Muskogee paper:

“If we were an Apache, we’d sue the Cleveland club for libel for naming that team Indians.”

You will notice there is no mention in this cartoon of Louis Sockalexis, nor was there in any of the national stories about the name change. In fact, in my national search of more than 300 national newspapers, I could not find a single mention of Louis Sockalexis in the entire year of 1915.

The story I grew up hearing — that the Cleveland Indians were named to honor Louis Sockalexis — is certainly untrue.

So that dispatches one myth. Unfortunately, it creates another.

* * *

As a sportswriter I came to believe — and have written on more than one occasion — that the name Cleveland Indians had nothing whatsoever to do with Louis Sockalexis. Many, many others have written that as well. While for years it was accepted the the team was named for Sockalexis we now seem to have come to the conclusion that Sockalexis had nothing to do with it.

But we have to get back to the original thesis here; Everything is more complicated than you think.

In 1897, when Louis Sockalexis joined the Cleveland team, they were in desperate need of something exciting. The team had been alternately terrible and almost good enough, the worst cycle in sports. The Spiders had never won a pennant, and they could not draw anybody to ballgames. It seems semi-pro baseball in Cleveland was way more popular that the Spiders.

So, when Sockalexis joined the team in 1897, there WAS legitimate excitement. The stories of his baseball exploits were known everywhere. The curiosity of seeing a Native American athlete play ball was overwhelming. And people began calling the team in 1897, yes, the Indians. In his honor.

“There is no feature of the signing of Sockalexis,” wrote The Sporting Life, “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 seasons, to give place to the more significant name, ‘Indians.’ And repeatedly that season — and periodically over the next few years — the Cleveland team was referred to as “Indians” in headlines and stories.

The fact that the 1897 Cleveland team was often called “Indians” was not directly the reason the team was officially named Indians in 1915. But it was part of the decision-making process. “(The name) recalls the old fighting days of the early American League period,” wrote the Boston Daily Globe, “when the Cleveland players of those days were often referred to as the ‘Indians.’”

And so the story I came to believe — that the whole Sockalexis naming thing was a fraud — is also untrue. The indians name does have something to do with him.

* * *

It is perfectly clear in the year 2014 how different people feel about the Washington Redskins nickname or the Chief Wahoo logo. Trenches have been dug, camps have been formed, it’s unlikely that there are any undecided voters left. I’m on record. As a lifelong Cleveland Indians fan I still think Wahoo is racist and offensive and should be dumped in the nearest bin. As a lifelong football fan who loves the history of the game, I still find it almost impossible to believe we still call a team “Redskins.”

But many others disagree — and I mean they VIRULENTLY disagree — and my point here is not to start the fight again.

As a child, I believed the Cleveland Indians were named for a great player named Sockalexis. As a grown man, I believed the Cleveland Indians were not named for a underachieving player named Sockalexis. Now I believe that the truth is somewhere in the silence between the notes. And, whatever the original reason for the name, I just spent days learning about and admiring a fairly obscure Native American baseball player who triumphed and suffered and lived and died more than 100 years ago. I don’t believe the Indians were named to honor Louis Sockalexis, not exactly. But I do believe the Indians name could honor him. That choice is ours.

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