With November being Native American Heritage Month, we here at Baseball Magazine wanted to shine a spotlight on the pioneer who has been largely forgotten in the history books, and the common knowledge of most baseball enthusiasts. The Native American people have made many contributions to our national pastime, to the point, where some of the games better-known players of recent memory are of Native American ancestry. Jacoby Ellsbury of the Yankees, relief pitcher Joba Chamberlain, and starting pitcher Kyle Lohse are just a handful of our nation’s native peoples that are currently playing in the bigs.
It could be argued however, that the door of opportunity was opened back in 1897 in the city of Cleveland, by an outfielder representing the Penobscot tribe, and his name was Louis Sockalexis. The grandson of the Chief of the Bear Clan showed his athletic talents at an early age, and earned the opportunity to continue showing his skills at the College of the Holy Cross in 1894. As a student-athlete, Sockalexis competed in baseball, track and football. When he wasn’t in school, he continued to follow his passion which was baseball, playing in Maine summer leagues. In February of 1897, Sockalexis transferred, following his coach to the University of Notre Dame. It was while playing for the Fighting Irish, that Sockalexis earned the nickname, the “Deerfoot of the Diamond.” During an exhibition game between Notre Dame and the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds, legend states that Sockalexis in his very first at-bat, he raced around the bases, garnering an inside-the-park home run off of future Hall of Fame pitcher, Amos Rusie, and a later, disputed claim states Sockalexis drove in the game-winning run in extra innings.
Not everything was sunshine and rainbows in the rise of the “Deerfoot”, as Notre Dame expelled the young ballplayer, for a reason, that unfortunately still afflicts many of the Native peoples to this day: dependence on alcohol. Sockalexis was able to obtain a contract from the Cleveland Spiders starting in the 1897 season, and he showed flashes of brilliance during that rookie season, hitting .338 with 3 home runs and driving in 42 along with smacking 8 triples and swiping 16 bags in only 278 at-bats. Once again, Sockalexis’ issues with alcohol would rear its ugly head. He injured his ankle after jumping out of a second-story window while highly intoxicated. His defense suffered immensely, while he continued to shine at the plate.
What might have been a glorious professional baseball career, was undone by the beast that is alcoholism. After that first stellar season in Cleveland, Sockalexis remained in the big leagues for only two more years. In 1898, he hit only .224 in 21 games (67 at-bats), but bounced back briefly in 1899 by improving his average to .273, but again was a limited participant due to his quickly-eroding baseball skills. He played in only 7 games that season, and fed up with both his off-field issues and the team’s poor performance, ownership released Sockalexis. He would never again don a major league uniform. He retired after three seasons, with a .313 average, After sitting out a pair of seasons, Sockalexis returned for one final season of minor league baseball, hitting .288 in 105 games for Lowell of the Class B New England League. The “Deerfoot” was done as a professional ballplayer.
Much like Jackie Robinson, Sockalexis faced issues as a minority in the big leagues. He was often taunted, and had racial slurs and threats shouted his way each time he stepped on the diamond. It was not an easy life for Louis Sockalexis. Many journalists of the time, would often reference Sockalexis and his battle with alcoholism, as a reason why teams and owners would shy away from giving many talented Native American ballplayers legitimate chances at the big league level, using the term “Indian weakness” in reference to his battle with alcohol. It’s sad when an entire people get classified and pushed into one corner, and their entire race gets the stigma, when alcoholism, drug abuse, and other issues afflict every single race, ethnicity, and background. I suppose was just a lack of background knowledge and a sign of the times.
For Louis Sockalexis, his life was cut tragically short. Due to his alcoholism, he battled severe heart problems in the later years of his life, and later caught tuberculosis, which was a devastating lung disease. On Christmas Eve, 1913, at the age of 42, Sockalexis passed away at his home in Burlington, Maine. While not the blazing pioneer for his people that Jackie Robinson was for the African-American, he was still considered the first Native American to make it to the major leagues. Posthumously, Sockalexis was elected to the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame, and even as brief as his career was, he helped to open the door for such players as Allie Reynolds, Hall of Famer Chief Bender, super-athlete Jim Thorpe, and some of the players still active in the game today. So in recognition of Native American Heritage Month, our hats are off to you, Louis Sockalexis.