Unlike blacks, American Indians good enough to earn a spot on Major League Baseball rosters early in the 20th century weren’t told they couldn’t play.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that despite an unofficial policy that worked something like “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” American Indians were often targets of the same racially based vitriol that marked Jackie Robinson’s entry into the game in 1947. Keeping a low profile may have worked for some, but for men like Louis Francis Sockalexis, prejudice was very much a part of the game and their lives.
That’s the view officials at the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cave are hoping visitors will take away with them after seeing “Baseball’s League of Nations: A Tribute to Native American Baseball Players.” The exhibit will open Tuesday, April 1, and run through Dec. 31.
‘Baseball’s League of Nations: A Tribute to Native American Baseball Players’
WHERE: Iroquois Indian Museum, 324 Caverns Road, Howes Cave
WHEN: April 1 through Dec. 31, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $8 adults, $6.50 seniors and students, $5 under 12
MORE INFO: 296-8949 or
The American Indian experience and baseball
Along with the exhibit, a series of programs will be held at the Iroquois Indian Museum throughtout the year. Kicking off the series will be Mark Tarbell, above, speaking about “Baseball in Iroquois Communities” on May 10 from 1 to 4 p.m.
“There were some that didn’t claim their ancestry and they were able to play baseball and not face a lot of prejudice,” said Mike Tarbell, an educator at the Iroquois museum and a descendent of the Mohawk Turtle Clan. “It was a good way to get off the reservation. But there were others who did face a lot of prejudice. For them, I’m sure it was very personal, and it was something they didn’t want to write about or talk about back then. I’ve read quite a bit and you don’t see too much about it. Sometimes, you just stumble across the fact that the guy was a Native American.”
Covering all bases
The exhibit, divided into four parts, is made up of a collection of photographs, artifacts and various baseball memorabilia, some of it borrowed from the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown. The first part focuses on Iroquois community teams and players; the second part tells the story of baseball teams created at boarding schools such as Carlisle where Jim Thorpe played; the third part highlights famous barnstorming teams like Green’s Nebraska Indians; and the fourth part concerns itself with players who made it to the major leagues.
“We’re very grateful to the Baseball Hall of Fame for helping us out, and we’ve also connected with some reservations and borrowed some things,” said Erynne Ansel-McCabe, director at the Iroquois Indian Museum for the past seven years. “Along with bats and uniforms and other memorabilia, we have firsthand accounts of the Native American experience with baseball. This exhibit is a tribute to those players, and their stories need to be highlighted and honored. It’s a wonderful history.”
Love of the game
While Ansel-McCabe is a relatively new baseball fan, Tarbell, who has been with the museum for 16 years, played quite a bit as a young man and has an interesting link to Thorpe, an American Indian generally regarded as one of the greatest athletes ever. Tarbell’s great-uncle, Joe Tarbell, was a very good pitcher and played at Carlisle in 1907, the same year Thorpe was there.
“I can remember my father talking about how his uncle played baseball at Carlisle. So I started looking through a few things and came across a picture of my uncle when he was playing for a team from Boiling Springs,” said Tarbell. “It was a community right near to Carlisle and he probably played there during the summer. The picture was like an old postcard, and when I blew it up, I got a great look at my uncle and the expression on his face was amazing. You could tell there was excitement and exhilaration in his face. It seemed as though he was doing something just for the enjoyment of it, and that’s how I remember my baseball-playing days. I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Although James Madison Toy is generally recognized as the first American Indian to play in the major leagues in the late 19th century (1887 and 1890), at the time few realized his ethnicity. It was Sockalexis, rather, hailing from a Penobscot Reservation near Old Town, Maine, who was the first man to really feel the full brunt of racist attacks while playing for the Cleveland Spiders of the National League in 1897.
A member of the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame, Sockalexis, who also played college ball at Holy Cross and Notre Dame, only lasted three full seasons in the big leagues. In 1901, he returned to Maine to coach juvenile teams and battle an alcohol problem that plagued him throughout his life. In May 1897, he was quoted in the Brooklyn Eagle about an experience he had playing with the Spiders in Brooklyn.
“If the small and big boys of Brooklyn find it a pleasure to shout at me, I have no objections. No matter where we play, I go through the same ordeal, and at the present time I am so used to it that at times I forget to smile at my tormentors, believing it to be part of the game.”
Later in 1897, however, in an article printed in Sporting Life, Sockalexis was more upbeat about playing the game.
“You have no idea how anxious I am to learn every trick and point of the game. There are many little things that come up in nearly every game that are new to me, but the white players are good to me, and are always ready to advise me.”
Hall of Famer
Charles Bender, the first American Indian to be elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame, was a Chippewa from Minnesota who, like Thorpe, went to Carlisle. Nicknamed “Chief,” Bender played 14 years in the major leagues, mostly with the Philadelphia Athletics, and had a career won-loss record of 212-127. He pitched a no-hitter in 1910, going 23-5 with a 1.57 ERA. In the 1911 World Series, he pitched three complete games, losing the opener to the New York Giants’ Christy Mathewson, 2-1, before winning game four, 4-2, and the deciding game six, 13-2. Overall, he posted a 6-4 record in five World Series.
According to Bender, “There has been scarcely a trace of sentiment against me on account of birth. I have been treated the same as other men.”
“Baseball was Chief Bender’s best opportunity for money and achievement. So I’m sure he didn’t want to say bad about it,” said Tarbell. “He was a great player, and it’s possible that he didn’t face that much prejudice, but I’m sure he faced some. He probably just kept those moments to himself.”
These days, with the popularity of players such as the New York Yankees’ Joba Chamberlain (Winnebago) and the Boston Red Sox’s Jacoby Ellsbury (Navajo), prejudice toward American Indians in baseball is less.
“We have wonderful players today who are happy to identify themselves as Native Americans,” said Ansel-McCabe. “Things have gotten a lot better, but all these wonderful human interest stories, from way back to the beginning to the present time, are all incredible stories that ought to be heard.”