A SEASON OF BRILLANCE
by Catherine Davids
(written in 1997)
U.S. Congress passes the Northwest Ordinance,
stating that Indian lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent.
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."
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
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).
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
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.
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
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"
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"
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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).
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.