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Sockalexis, Louis

Sketch of Louis Sockalexis

Sketch of Louis Sockalexis

1871 Born on Indian Island, grandson of the Chief of the Bear Clan.

1893 Attends St. Mary’s College, Van Buren.

1894-1895 Attends Holy Cross College, Worcester, Massachusetts, batting a powerful .444 over two seasons.

1896 Transfers to Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, where his outfield talent catches the eye of big league scouts.

1897-1899 Serves as outfielder for National League’s “Cleveland Spiders,” the first Native American to play major league baseball.

In his first time at bat in New York, Sockalexis hits a homerun out of the stadium. Famous for his throwing arm, he steals 16 bases in 66 games, hits .338 in his rookie season and is celebrated by sportswriters as “The Deerfoot of the Diamond.”

1899 Leaves the big leagues, exhausted by alcohol and the pressures and exploitations of baseball’s evolution into a big business game.

1901 Returns to Indian Island. Coaches juvenile teams and proudly sends five Penobscot boys into the New England League.

1913 While working as a woodsman, dies of tuberculosis and a heart attack on Christmas Eve, at the age of 41.

1915 The “Cleveland Spiders” officially change the team’s name to the “Cleveland Indians.”

1985 Inducted posthumously into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame.

(1871-1919) It was a sultry summer day in 1897, and at New York City’s sweltering Polo Grounds, the spectator stands burst into taunting war-whoops as a bronzed, brawny Indian strode solemnly to the plate.

Before him stood the New Yorker’s smirking fast-ball pitcher; behind him stretched tables of cynical sports-writers; and far beyond the center field fence, the blue sky beckoned. The pitch–the swing–and in that instant a legend was born in the crack of a bat.

Life and legend forever intertwine in the tragically short career of Penobscot Indian Louis Francis Sockalexis (1871-1913), the first American Indian to play professional baseball on a major league team.

Born on Indian Island, October 24, 1871, Sockalexis was the grandson of the Chief of the influential Bear Clan. Even as a boy, his strength was legendary. He could hurl a baseball over 600 feet across the Penobscot River from Indian Island to the Old Town shore, and at the Bangor Race Track, it is said, father and son amused the crowds by pitching an easy game of catch–across the width of the entire oval.

At the urging of a local priest, Sockalexis attended college first at St. Mary’s in Van Buren and in 1884-85 at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he batted .444 in two seasons and honed his skills in the summer playing ball in the Trolley League along the coast of Maine.

In 1896, his Holy Cross coach moved on and Sockalexis followed, transferring to the famous Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. There, a sharp-eyed scout quickly signed the strapping, 6-foot, 197-pound Sockalexis, against his father’s wishes, to the outfield of the old National League’s “Cleveland Spiders.”

Sockalexis’ rise to fame was the stuff of romance. His first time at bat in a major league game, at the old New York City Polo Grounds, he faced a stadium full of taunting, war-whooping spectators and the New York club’s grinning fast-ball artist Amos Ruse, who had pledged to strike the “damned Indian” out. Lounging sportswriters laughed at the delegation of proud Penobscots in beadwork and full feathered regalia who had travel from Old Town to see the city debut of their native son.

Amid the cat-calling Sockalexis strode to the plate, hammered the first pitch over the center field fence clear out of the park, and brought the stands roaring to their feet.

Thereafter, war-whoops shook the stands in salute when Sockalexis took the field. He hit .338 his first Cleveland season and stole 16 bases in 66 games. He hurled record 400-foot outs, knee-high and hard, from center field to home plate. Sportswriters dubbed him “The Deerfoot of the Diamond” and hailed his team, now in admiration, as the Cleveland “Indians.”

He was celebrated in poetry and in song:

“We New Englangers…
Like the bison on the prairie,
Plunging from the flames upleaping.
Sockalexis! Sockalexis!
Sock it to them, Sockalexis?

And even readers of “Frank Merriwell At Yale” were soon dazzled by the deeds of a new fictitious sports hero, “Joe Crowfoot,” a thinly disguised salute to Louis Sockalexis by the author, fellow Mainer, Gilbert Pattern.

“He should have been the greatest player of all time,” Detroit Tigers manager Hugh Jennings once wrote, “greater than Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Roger Hornsby, or any other man who ever made history for the game.”

Then, suddenly, it was over. A man of pride and intelligence, Sockalexis’ sheltered education and trusting nature left him unprepared for the pressures and exploitation of a big business game. Alcohol and high living took their toll, and in 1899 he played only seven error-riddled games before fading back into the bush teams and minor leagues.

He returned to Indian Island in 1901. There, he coached juvenile teams and proudly sent five Penobscot boys into the New England League before tuberculosis and heart trouble took his life on Christmas Eve, 1913. He was barely 41.

Fame came again, posthumously, for the powerful man thousands once cheered at the plate. Like a long, high hit, Sockalexis’ story came soaring home again in later years. In 1956 he was inducted into the Holy Cross Athletic Hall of Fame, and in 1969 was a charter member of the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1985, he was named to the Maine Sports Hall of Fame, there joining his cousin Andrew Sockalexis, a U.S. marathon medal winner in the 1912 Olympics.

And in 1915, the Cleveland Spiders, the team he once made famous, officially changed their name to the “Cleveland Indians.”

But he would be proudest, perhaps, of his hometown’s 2,500 seat Sockalexis Ice Arena, where Indian Island youth still learn the love of competition and the joy of sports, and the ring of challenge in the heart.

Maine. Department of Education. Maine’s Claim to Fame: A Gallery of Personalities. Augusta. 1990.

Additional resources

Fleitz, David L. Louis Sockalexis: The First Cleveland Indian. Jefferson, N.C. McFarland. c2002.

McDonald, Brian. Indian Summer: The Forgotten Story of Louis Sockalexis, The First Native American in Major League Baseball. Emmaus, Pa. Rodale; New York. Distributed to the book trade by St. Martin’s Press, c2003.

Old Town Public Library. Louis Francis Sockalexis. Old Town, Me. 19?? [Bangor Public Library]

Rice, Ed. Baseball’s First Indian, Louis Sockalexis: Penobscot Legend, Cleveland Indian. Windsor, Connecticut: Tide-Mark. 2003.

Standish, Burt L.[ Gilbert Pattern] Frank Merriwell at Yale. Philadelphia, Pa. McKay. c1903.

Stroshane, Siu Wai. Louis Sockalexis: Baseball Pioneer. Lulu Books. 2004. [Maine State Library]

Wellman, Trina. Louis Francis Sockalexis: The Life-Story of a Penobscot Indian. Augusta, Maine. Department of Indian Affairs. 1975.

Wise, Bill. Louis Sockalexis: Native American Baseball Pioneer. New York. Lee & Low Books. c2007.

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This entry was last modified: October 08, 2013 10:46 PM

One Response to Sockalexis, Louis

  1. william m mccarthy says:

    This man must be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Baseball greats themselves would have endorsed this election.

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