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A SEASON OF BRILLANCE
by Catherine Davids
(written in 1997)

1787
U.S. Congress passes the Northwest Ordinance,
stating that Indian lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent.

1838
The Trail of Tears: 16,000 Cherokee are forced to march from their traditional lands located in the eastern
part of theUnited States to Oklahoma. At least 3,000 die from starvation, harsh weather conditions, and
military brutality along the journey.
 

          One hundred years ago a twenty-six year old man from the Penobscot reservation near Old Towne, Maine, had a

season  of baseball that stands today as one of the most thrilling, and tragic seasons, in baseball history. Born to Francis and

Frances Sockalexis on October 24, 1871, Louis Francis Sockalexis became one of the premiere athletes of his time, and the

first American Indian to play professional major league baseball.

          Home to Sockalexis was a peaceful village on the Penobscot reservation located on the eastern side of the Penobscot

River which flows from the northern highlands of the Pine Tree State into Penobscot Bay, and on into the Atlantic Ocean.

Across the river, on the western banks, lies the city of Old Town. The Penobscot are part of the great Algonquin nation. A

January 8, 1898 newspaper account notes that the Penobscot "are a race of people which gave the early settlers of Maine

and New Hampshire more trouble than any other Indians in the land. Never very numerous, but as scalpers and

wholesale murderers they had a proud and pre-eminent record. Those who infested Maine were known as Tarratines.

The French missionaries Christianized them without trouble and then turned them loose upon English settlements."

(Cooperstown)1.

           This was not a racially healthy climate for the Penboscots, the only Indian tribe to successfully turn back the Iroquois

who during one battle sustained such heavy losses that the Six Nations warriors, who had defeated all other  Indian tribes from

the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Mississippi, drew an imaginary boundarynear Maine, and from that time forward never again

challenged the Penobscot. By 1820 the Penobscsot population had been decimated and only 277 remained. By 1898, the

same year the newspaper article was written, the tribal population had increased to 500 persons.

1871
Anglo-European citizens in Tucson, Arizona attack Eskiminzin's band of Apaches.

        In 1871, the year of Louis's birth, his father Francis was Chief of the Wapnaki Penobscot. Chief Francis Sockalexis was

a superb athlete, and from learning how to weave traditional baskets, to fashioning moccasins, young Louis, tutored by his

father, became known for his skills including his athletic talents. He also excelled in school but it was the competitive nature of

athletics that intrigued Louis the most. He loved to run, and could run faster than all the other boys. As he grew into manhood

he developed the powerful handsome body of a marathon runner. Louis was driven to excel at everything he did, and his

natural talents as an athlete became his primary focus.

        One day Sockalexis, on a walk from the reservation into Old Towne, observed some college boys playing a pickup game

of baseball. He had never seen the game before but instantly fell in love with it. He approached the college boys, and asked if

he could join the game. The players sent the lean six footer out to shag balls, but Sockalexis surprised them with his instant skill

by catching and fielding the balls - no matter where they were hit. Soon he was invited to take a turn at bat, and in spite of never

having seen a pitched curve ball he hit every pitch that came his way. Baseball became his passion. Sports writer Bud Leavitt

writing for the Bangor Daily News in its December 22, 1979 issue noted that "Louis frequently practiced his throwing by

sending balls across the Penobscot River from the reservation to Old Town," a distance of 600 plus feet. Mildred Miller

Wright, the daughter of the local mailman noted in an undated interview that "my father knew Sockalexis quite well, and said

that Sockalexis could outrun the wind. Folks told about how Louis once scaled a silver dollar across the river from the

Old Town side, and it landed on the reservation side." (Cooperstown).
 

1874-1875
Red River War on Southern Plains:
Quanah Parker leads the Comanches, and Satanta leads the Kiowas.

          The gentle man with enormous talent began to play semi-professional baseball for Maine's Knox County League

(Warren town team), and in 1894 he played for the Poland Springs Hotel club baseball team. One day he was challenged to

throw a baseball in front of the hotel - it measured 408 feet. One of Sockalexis' Warren teammates was Michael "Doc" Powers

captain of the Holy Cross College (Worcester, Maine) baseball team. Powers, recognizing Sockalexis' athletic talent recruited

him for the Holy Cross team: the Crusaders. Powers was fascinated with Sockalexis's ability to bat left-handed, and to throw

right-handed. Sockalexis was easy going, friendly, personable, and his fame as a baseball player was spreading. He could

throw faster and farther than anyone. Baseball was his passion, and he became engrossed in the sport. There seemed to be

nothing that could hold him back; his talent was as big as his dreams.

          Although Chief Francis had trained his son in athlete endeavors he believed that Louis would one day become tribal

leader, and was dismayed to learn and was "filled with foreboding when he heard of his son's achievements in the play of

the palefaces" (Cooperstown). In an urgent, but hopeless move aimed at cutting the young man's ties with the game of the

white men, Chief Francis got into his canoe, paddled down the Penobscot River, into the Atlantic Ocean, and traveled

southward along the coastline until he reached Washington, D.C. where he met with President Grover Cleveland. Chief

Francis's purpose was to find a way to bind Louis to the tribe, and not to baseball, and with Cleveland's assistance Chief

Francis secured his sons place as Chief of the Wapnaki Penobscot. Upon returning home Chief Francis learned that the lure of

baseball was more compelling for his son than the position of  Chief: Louis had left with Powers to attend Holy Cross

College.(1)

1876-1877
Sioux War for the Black Hills led by Sitting Bull & Crazy Horse.
Battle of the Little Big Horn June 25, 1876.

 

          At Holy Cross young Sockalexis was a sensation. In his debut game against Springfield he hit two runs reaching second

base on both runs, and stole bases at will. In a season game against Brown University he was even more spectacular - a game

that today would be rebroadcast time-and-time again as a permanent sport highlight. The game against Brown began with

Sockalexis lying relaxed on the ground near the first base line. During play, Crusaders second baseman, Walter Curley, injured

his ankle. "Powers saw the lazy looking Indian and designated him as Curley's replacement" (Cooperstown). Sockalexis

stole six bases, had three RBIs, and hit a home run that cleared the backfield fence smashing through a window of the Brown

University chapel. Holy Cross won the game 13-4.

          In a game against Harvard, a Harvard batter rapped a ball high over Sockalexis who stood deep in centerfield.

Sockalexis chased the ball, threw it to his Crusader pitcher, and reduced a home run to a three-base hit. Two Harvard

professors attending the game measured the distance, and recorded it as a world record 138 yards (414 feet).

          Napoleon Lajoie, manager of the Cleveland Spiders (National League), witnessed Sockalexis (then with Holy Cross)

catch a near-home run, and then throw the ball 409 feet from centerfield to third base to halt a speeding  Providence College

player. Sockalexis followed this spectacular throw with one that cleared left field and sailed through a fourth floor dormitory

window.  Sockalexis, seeming to come from out of nowhere, could run, hit, and throw faster and farther than anyone. He was

also the team's star pitcher hurling a number of shutouts during his college days - including three no-hitters.

1877
Flight of the Nez-Perce, led by Chief Joseph.
 
 

          Sockalexis's tenure at Holy Cross lasted two seasons: 1895-1896.  The Holy Cross team of 1896 has been called, by

students of college baseball, as the "greatest college team ever collected" with Sockalexis in center field or pitching

(Cooperstown).

          On October 17, 1896, Holy Cross fielded its first football team against Worcester (Massachusetts) Polytech.

Sockalexis, weighing 183 pounds, took position as halfback thus becoming a charter member of the original Crusader football

team. The Crusaders lost their first football game (10-0), and Sockalexis was thrown out of the game by referees early in the

second half of the game. There is no official record explaining what "the big Indian did to incur official displeasure"

(Dooley).

          In the late 1800s football was not governed by a lot of rules and regulations, nd there was a fair amount of enthusiastic

and often brutal on-field kicking, punching, gouging, and general brawling during football games. It was an aggressive and

sometimes ugly sport. Sockalexis played five of the six games and "his beautiful playing drew forth frequent applause"

(Dooley). The most memorable of the six games was played against Boston College, and to this day "there can be found

argument as to the actual final score. The Boston Journal gave the final score as Holy Cross 6, Boston College 4. Not

so said the Boston Globe which reported the result as Boston College 8, Holy Cross 6" (Dooley).
 

1878-1879
Flight of the Northern Cheyenne, under Dull Knife,
for new and safer lands in Wyoming and Montana.
 

It is agreed, however, that into the second half of the game, Holy Cross was leading 6-4, and Sockalexis had his finest

afternoon as a football player. Commented the Globe sports writer "Sockalexis, the Indian astonished the spectators by his

ability. In many respects he was similar to Little Cayou, the Carlisle warrior. When tackled he squirmed along the

ground like a snake, while in defensive work he broke up the interference well, and brought down his man." Sockalexis

carried the ball most of the second half and was able to break through to dump Boston College ball carriers. Sockalexis's

football career lasted that one six-game season. As hopeful as Holy Cross may have been about keeping their triple threat

athlete (baseball, football, track), Sockalexis's focus was baseball.

          Doc Powers was hired by Notre Dame in 1897 as their head baseball coach.  Powers took Sockalexis with him, and he

quickly became one of Notre Dame's most talked about athletes. Unfortunately his stay at Notre Dame lasted only one month

because Sockalexis became embroiled in what today has become routine behavior for some athletes, rock musicians, and

movie stars. Sockalexis was in fabulous physical shape. He was 208 pounds of solid muscle. His agile body responded to his

every instinct and command.

          In 1897 he accomplished what probably could not be done today. His experience at Holy Cross and then Notre Dame

should have propelled the greatest baseball career in history...instead Sockalexis was introduced to what would become his

two greatest enemies: racism and alcohol. Teammates, fans, sports writers praised the talents of Sockalexis while condemning

his ethnic heritage.

1879
Ute War against Indian agency in Colorado.
Sheepeater War in central Idaho.

          During Sockalexis' all too brief season of 1897 he and another Notre Dame player (unidentified, of course) went on a

partying tour of South Bend after first loading up on alcohol. They visited a "bordello run by a madam named 'Pop Corn

Jennie' and demolished the joint (Ward, 52). The late William E. Hindle (Indiana State Fire Marshall Department) was a team

mate of Sockalexis at Notre Dame, and reminisced about the infamous evening:

"While they were demolishing furniture, and hurling the broken parts out of  windows, the local gendarmes arrived on the scene. They tried to quiet Sockalexis but only annoyed him. He became so provoked that he flattened two of the coppers with perfectly delivered rights to their jaws, but he was finally overpowered and dragged to the bastille. Sockalexis and his fun-loving pal might have gotten out of this mess if the South Bend Tribune had not gotten hold of the story and plastered it over its front page. This greatly displeased the Reverend Father Andrew Morrissey, then President of Notre Dame, and he expelled both Sockalexis and his companion. Mike Powers wired the Tebeau brothers in Cleveland and advised them to hurry to South Bend and get their Indian out of hock. The next morning Pat Tebeau arrived, squared Sockalexis with the law, and took him to Cleveland, where his major league career began a few days later" (Cooperstown).

          Notre Dame officials fired Sockalexis "the primitive redskin, red-blooded soul, boiled, and that night the Indian, a

perfect athlete committed a violation of  college-standard etiquette: he got roaring drunk, and this was a disgrace to

Notre Dame" (Cooperstown). University administrators informed Sockalexis that he would have to leave to leave the school.

          Not too much is available regarding Sockalexis's academic reports at Holy Cross and Notre Dame because in those

days athletes were recruited for their athletic abilities...academics were pretty much ignored. He was, however, a man of great

intelligence who displayed talent at everything he did. His accomplishments off the baseball field were many.
 

1881-1886
Apache resistance led by Geronimo in Arizona,
New Mexico, and northern Mexico.

 

          Patrick "Patsy" Tebeau had received, weeks earlier, a scouting report statin that Sockalexis was going "down the line

murdering Eastern college pitchers" with his fantastic arm and his incredible ability to "cover ground like a bird"

(Cooperstown). Tebeau's first trip to Notre Dame to sign Sockalexis was a failure. Tebeau propositioned the young athlete

with an astonishing sum of money, but Sockalexis was not interested in signing until the end of the Notre Dame season. After

the scandal, and Power's call, Tebeau wasted no time in returning to South Bend to sign Sockalexis to a contract. They met for

dinner and Tebeau plied Sockalexis with alcohol in order to get the talented and promising baseball player for the least amount

of money. Tebeau's plan was a success, but unfortunately it began the demise of Sockalexis before he even began his major

league career. Sockalexis signed with the National League Cleveland Spiders, owned by brothers Patsy and George Tebeau,

and became the first American Indian professional athlete and major league baseball player.

          A small group of Penobscot Indians, including Chief Francis, all wearing traditional Penobscot clothing appeared at

Sockalexis' debut game against the New York Giants. The Polo Grounds fans went "wild when Louis waved to his

redskinned-brothers parading through the third base grandstand" (Cooperstown).  Pitching for the Giants was

the legendary Amos Rusie, the "Fireball King", who had a mean curve ball teamed with a "built in dislike for rookies,

particularly if the kid carried a bat, and an advance billing" (Cooperstown). Rusie's fabled curve ball was probably the

fastest curve ball ever pitched. New York Giant fans began chanting "strike out the Indian" (Cooperstown). Rusie wound up

and sent the ball to Sockalexis. The fans jeered Sockalexis with racist catcalls that were "clearly meant to be derisive," and

were not silenced by his first major league home run which infuriated Rusie who had an fervent dislike to being upstaged

(Cooperstown).

1885
Second Riel Rebellion of Metis in Saskatchewan.
Big Bear & Poundmaker lead Cree bands in uprising.
 

 Sockalexis's first at-bat was followed by the "wildest,  craziest Indian victory dance in the famed old arena's history"

(Cooperstown).  Rusie furiously kicked dirt around the mound. Sockalexis's second at-bat was his second home run (of the

game) on the third pitch, which traveled through the air, and over the left field wall. The Penobscots went into another "war

dance", and Louis grinned obviously delighted by his family's reaction (Cooperstown). Rusie, one of the "meanest bastards" in

baseball stood on the mound and "glowered…angered and embarrassed" (Cooperstown).

          One New York writer summed up Sockalexis's big league debut by penning that "his fielding was spectacular, his

base running supreme, and an ease and grace marked his playing that rarely, if ever, has been equaled"

(Cooperstown).  Another sports writer noted that "tall, broad shouldered, lithe, bronzed, and handsome, he strode to

home plate at the Polo Grounds, a perfect specimen of his stock, the Algonquin, the truest type of American Indians"

(Cooperstown). Sockalexis became an instant sensation. He was a natural, and a star from the moment he put on the

Cleveland Spiders uniform. The whole baseball world "marveled at the deeds of the Indian" who was hitting better than

seasoned professionals (Cooperstown). He did not need to be educated or taught how to play baseball - he had natural talent.
 

1887
Ignoring traditional Indian ways of sharing land, the Dawes Act splits up
reservations into individual parcels and sells the remaining land thus depriving
American Indians of over 90 million acres of original reservation land.

 

Sockalexis made unbelievable catches, and stole bases in the blink of an eye. His throwing was hard, deadly accurate, and he

cut down runners at home plate from his position in center field.

          Sockalexis spent his major league career as a member of the Cleveland Spiders, and played with baseball greats like Cy

Young, Nig Cuppy, and Cupid Child.

          Sockalexis's crowd appeal was ambiguous because although everyone admired his talented athleticism he was treated

badly by baseball fans, team mates, and sports writers who responded to his presence on the field with stereotypical war

whoops, and bigoted name calling. In 1897, in his first full season as a professional baseball player, Sockalexis played right

field, and only twice went without a hit. His batting average consistently remained a dazzling .338 to .387. During 1897 he made

94 hits, and knocked in 42 runs in 66 games. In four consecutive games before July 4th he compiled 11 hits in 21 at-bats.

Sports writers quickly ran out of adjectives to describe the athletic accomplishments of the twenty-six year old Penobscot.

Sockalexis's big league debut was sensational. He had everything in the limelight of the baseball diamond: success and a growing

heartache.

          Although Sockalexis was becoming famous for his remarkable skills as a baseball player he was also becoming notorious

for his drinking - something he was taught at Notre Dame. The constant catcalling, by fans and writers, was a painful endurance

for the young man. He was having a remarkable career at a time when American Indians were undergoing intolerable

experiences with the United States government, and these episodes were not unknown to Sockalexis, and the Penobscot

people who lived by government imposed regulations.
 

December 29, 1890
U.S. military, with civilian support, slaughter Big Foot's
peaceful tribe at Wounded Knee, South Dakota as Sioux
participate in the Ghost Dance.

          After the July 4th game Sockalexis engaged in a night of protracted drinking and could not play for two days. Upon

returning to the game he began to stumble around the outfield and made errors - something he had never done before. Tebeau

began assigning other players to check on Sockalexis so that he would not drink. One night Sockalexis out maneuvered his

caretakers by sneaking out of his second floor hotel room. The two-story fall broke Sockalexis's right ankle and brought his

1897 baseball season to a close. It is said that he was given every chance, but there was "the aboriginal Indian thirst for

firewater, which was unquenchable" (Cooperstown). Considered to also be part of Sockalexis's downfall was that he would

not listen to managerial advice or recognize any discipline. The star athlete was embroiled in a clash of cultures with his

Penobscot traditional upbringing making his ways and methods unrecognizable by the strict disciplined descendants of Pilgrims

and Puritans. Sockalexis drank to escape the anguish of ridicule.

          At the conclusion of the 1897 season he had tumbled into pieces, and his accomplishments on the diamond were 

damned.
 

1890
Sioux territory opened to gold miners.

 

          In an April 9, 1898 preseason interview Sockalexis said "after wintering in the woods of Maine - it took the life out

of me down in a warm place like Hot Springs. I felt well but couldn't get ginger enough in my game. I am in good

condition again and will play as well as ever. As to my falling by the wayside again there is no chance for it. I made a

big fool of myself and know it. Mr. Robison and Mr. Tebeau stuck to me longer than I deserved and I mean to repay

them. When I get to Cleveland I intend to get a place near the ball grounds to live at and I will not go downtown all the

season. My mind is made up and it's no joke. I have a good future as a ball player and only have to take care of myself

to keep in the game."

         Charles W. Mears, writing for a Cleveland newspaper (April 24, 1897) wrote that "everybody in Cleveland, as well as

in other league cities, for that matter, are talking Sockalexis, and if the young Indian isn't the best advertised new man

that ever entered the big organization then it will not be the fault of the baseball paragraphers of the press. They have

discovered a novelty in it. The newspaper talk concerning the youngster has stirred up great local interest in the Red

Man, and of all the young players on the Cleveland Club's list he is the most talked of, and it will be his appearance

that will drawn the greatest number of curious people at the opening of the season."

          Sporting Life reported "much of the stuff written about his dalliance with grape juice and his trysts with

palefaced maidens is purely speculation...too much popularity has ruined Soxkalexis by all accounts. It is no longer a

secret that Cleveland management can no longer control Sockalexis." Sockalexis suffered the devastating effects of

prejudice. Mike Delehanty wrote that "the league is all gone to hell now that they're lettin' them damned

foreigners in." American Indian baseball players like Sockalexis and Jack Meyers, "a Cahuilla from California were

treated as foreigners and inferior foreigners at that" (Thompson, 1). Sockalexis had to wonder how he could be a

foreigner in a land wher his people had lived for eons.  

1891
Provisions made for white people to lease
Indian land, and in 1898 the Curtis Act expands allotment
to include lands within Indian territories.

 

          The Cleveland club continued to remain optimistic for Sockalexis's 1898 season, giving him a $6,000 contract, but

unfortunately Sockalexis batted only .224 in 21 games. Previous to the 1899 season, Sockalexis signed a $10,000

contract carrying a provision that he cease all drinking. Seven games with 16 errors finished his major league career, and

Sockalexis was released outright.  In his 94 major league games Sockalexis batted .313 with 115 hits and 55 RBIs.

          Hughey Jennings, in his book, Rounding Third, described Sockalexis's first game in the major leagues. "Rusie made the

first ball his famous fastbreaking curve, faster than most pitchers speed ball, and Sockalexis, undismayed by the

thousands of imitation war-whoops from the fans, clouted it far over Mike Tiernan's head in center field for a home

run." Jennings, one of baseballs best judges, emphatically stated that Sockalexis was "the greatest player who ever donned a

suit."

          A newspaper account read that the "white man's pace was too swift for Sockalexis who only lasted three seasons.

Drink sealed Sockalexis' fate. He liked the taste of burbon, and once having discovered it couldn't leave it alone. He

became a hopeless drunkard. He was not incorrigible. it was the racial trait that sealed it" (Cooperstown).
 

1901
In Crazy Snake Uprising, Creeks under Chitto Harjo
resist allotment in Indian territory.

 

         After being released from the Cleveland Spiders Sockalexis played,in one year's time, with Hartford in the Eastern

League, with Lowell in the New England League, and with Bangor in the Maine League. His strength and fortitude never

wavered in spite of his problems with alcohol. When Sockalexis could no longer compete in baseball, even at minor league

status, it was reported that he "quietly passed from the din of the baseball diamond to his proud tribe" (Cooperstown).

Over the next few years alcoholism sapped the elasticity out of his muscles. Without baseball Sockalexis began to drift from

city-to-city searching for something only he could identify, and if not searching then certainly to elude the emotional and mental

torment that haunted him. He was nicknamed Deerfoot of the Diamond, the Abanaki Adonis, and Chief of Sockem'

(Cooperstown). He was called a "curiosity, and an interesting product of his people" (Cooperstown). Rarely, if ever, was

he simply called a man or a baseball player - usually it was Indian or redskin. "Indeed, the nickname `Chief', which was

applied to virtually every Indian baseball player from the 1890s to the 1950s, is itself a subtle indication of racism"

(Thompson, 1). Baseball was all he knew and loved, but the people of the game behaved more like enemies than compatriots.

          Sockalexis's career was short, but brilliant. His greatest enemies were alcohol, the players, fans, and sports writers who

tormented the athlete with racially motivated nicknames, and stereotypical behaviors based on Sockalexis's ethnic background.

Racism and alcohol were Sockalexis's greatest enemies, and both contributed to his death.

Continue with Part II of A Season of Brilliance

 

(1) Other sources have suggested that this story about a canoe trip story may be more apocryphal than literal.