The Myth Behind the First Cleveland Indian: Louis Sockalexis

Faster than Cobb, stronger than Ruth—and one of baseball’s most tragic figures. Could embracing Louis Sockalexis, the game’s first Native pro, help heal one of its deepest racial rifts?

Of course, baseball is just a game. It’s about balls and bats and bases. It’s about scores and stats and pennant races. But if you had any doubts that baseball is also about America and history and life itself, consider this World Series.

Watch the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians wrestle with their respective loser legacies—the Cubs hope to exorcise the Curse of the Billy Goat that’s supposedly barred them from the World Series since 1945 and denied them championship rings since 1908. As the players concentrate on winning, on just playing the darned game, they see the cloudy spirit of Louis Sockalexis hovering about. His story blurs fact and fiction just as the Cleveland team’s very name and offensive caricature of a logo is mired in the muddle of America’s torturous, ambiguous relationship with our Native Americans.

Louis Sockalexis was a natural. His turbo-powered arm could catapult a baseball across the field with breathtaking speed and accuracy. His lightning-quick reflexes helped him make contact with the ball consistently, peppering pitchers with piercing base hits. His rocket-like legs confounded fielders, turning outs into singles, and singles into doubles.

Baseball legend recounts how this phenom dazzled Cleveland fans in 1897. With the first Native American ever to play pro baseball so dominant, Ohioans started calling his team “The Indians.” His on-field feats and Apollo-like physique had already inspired a Maine writer and rival manager Gilbert Patten, using the pseudonym Burt L. Standish, to create the mythical scholar-detective-superstar dime-novel athlete Frank Merriwell. The great sportswriter Harry Grayson would judge Sockalexis faster than Ty Cobb, stronger than Babe Ruth, and a better outfielder than Tris Speaker.

Sockalexis’s rookie year was so dramatic, with his .331 batting average, that 18 years later, in 1915, the franchise resurrected that magical moment. Calling the club “The Indians” made a name that’s now considered racist by some actually a salute to honor this hero, this Native American “Jackie Robinson,” and his people.

Read over the simple story. Savor the legend. Imagine his greatness. Now learn the truth.

“Sockalexis was the greatest outfielder in history,” the Yankee General Manager Ed Barrow would recall, “the best hitter, the best thrower, the best fielder, and also the best drinker.” Louis Sockalexis was a Native American, one of the first, if not the first, to play professional baseball, born on Oct. 24, 1871, on the Penobscot reservation in Old Town, Maine. A college baseball and football and track and field star—like Jackie Robinson decades later—Sockalexis wowed Cleveland Manager Pasty Tebeau. Sockalexis showed up March 19, 1897, and by March 20, the Cleveland Plain Dealer was running a story about “Tebeau’s Indians.” Franchise names at the time were fluid. The Cleveland club initially would be called the Spiders, the Misfits, the Forest Citys, the Blues, the Bronchos, the Molly Maguires, and, mostly, the Naps, for their longtime star and manager Nap Lajoie.

Sockalexis started strong. Fans swarmed the stadium, eager to watch him. Sadly, they often expressed their support through the bigotry of the day, hooting, whooping, uttering war cries. Sportswriters slung stereotypes about the “redskin,” the “Chief of Sockem,” who, with his college background was a “noble savage,” an “educated Indian.” “The man who said that there are no good Indians but dead Indians or words to that effect,” wrote one sympathetic reporter in The Sporting Life, “surely never saw Louis Sockalexis.” After a game-winning home run, a headline declared: “INDIANS HANG ONE LITTLE SCALP ON THEIR BELTS.”

By July 3, the “Deerfoot of the Diamond” boasted a .328 average with 40 runs scored, 39 RBIs, and 16 stolen bases. That night, “The Red Romeo,” as he was also called, jumped or fell out of a brothel’s second-story window. He hurt his ankle and with alcoholism kicking in never fully recovered. By the end of July, the team owner Frank Robison suspended him, saying: “I have done everything I could for Sockalexis, and he has repaid me, and the Cleveland club, by the basest ingratitude.”

By 1899, Sockalexis barely played, even though Cleveland fielded possibly the worst team ever with a 20-134 record. He ended his career having played only 94 games—but with an impressive .313 batting average. In 1913, he had a heart attack while working as a logger. Dead at 42, he was, Harry Grayson would write, “the most tragic figure in baseball history.”

Two years after Sockalexis died, the Cleveland owner Charles Somers wanted to re-name the club. Again, legends abound about a contest among fans, about a council of sportswriters, about an intention to honor Sockalexis. Joe Posnanski, an NBC sports columnist who explored the story carefully, sighs: “Everything is more complicated than you think.” He explains: “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 an underachieving player named Sockalexis. Now I believe that the truth is somewhere in the silence between the notes… 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.”

Sometimes legends create their own truths, especially in baseball. If Cleveland fans long believed the name “Indians” honored the first Native American baseball player, why not stick with that rare note of grace in Americans’ relationship to Native Americans. Perhaps the Solomonic approach to the ongoing Cleveland conundrum, “to change names or not to change names,” is to keep the name—but eliminate the grinning, red-skinned Chief Wahoo, the controversial, offensive team mascot.

History, especially in a tradition-sensitive sport like baseball, is precious. Name changes are hard but logo switches are easy, especially in our age of rebranding. The Indians should build on this benign illusion, stoked over decades, to honor Louis Sockalexis and his people. And the club should move beyond a cartoonish image from the late 1940s reducing a proud people to a punchline.

The poet William Carlos Williams wrote: “The crowd at the ball game/is moved uniformly/by a spirit of uselessness/which delights them.” Indeed, artificiality generates some of the magic of baseball, of all sports, providing a timeout from life. But it’s also a choreographed reality, offering opportunities to get things right, delivering more drama, passion, bonding, heroics than the daily grind provides. And here’s a chance to tinker with our scarred past, to recast, reframe, and thus delight in an example of usefulness amidst the generally charming uselessness that helps make baseball—and 2016’s historic World Series—so compelling.