On the surface, Louis Sockalexis seems like a weird player to profile. His surface-level stats are completely unremarkable, posting a 0.313 batting average with 3 home runs, 55 RBI’s, and 16 stolen bases all amounting to a career OPS+ of 101 and WAR of 0.8. So why does he have a legacy worth talking about?
A lot of has been made of the decision by the Cleveland Indians to change their team name, but what often gets lost in the fold is why the name Indians was chosen in the first place. A local newspaper ran a contest to decide the team’s new name and Indians was submitted by a fan who claimed she picked the name to honor Louis Sockalexis. Although disputed, Sockalexis is often credited as the first Indigenous American heritage to play professional baseball, as he was born on the Penobscot Reservation in Maine.
Growing up on the Penobscot Reservation, it was clear that Sockalexis was athletically gifted, as he could reportedly throw a baseball across the Penobscot River to the nearby Old Town. These gifts were on full display when he attended college in 1894 at the College of the Holy Cross, where he hit 0.444 over his two seasons at the school while also playing on the school’s football and track teams. Unfortunately, his career at Notre Dame was short-lived as he was expelled for alcohol problems that would haunt him for the rest of his life. His time at Notre Dame wouldn’t a complete waste though, as future Hall of Famer and current Cleveland Spider Jesse Burkett arranged for Sockalexis to have a tryout with the team, where he would eventually sign a contract for $1,500 a year. This would turn out to be a bargain, as during the two and half months of the next season the name Louis Sockalexis would be plastered all of the headlines on a seemingly daily basis for his spectacular play.
However, his aforementioned drinking problems reared their ugly head again. On July 4, 1897, Sockalexis hurt his foot exiting from the second-story window of a local brothel leading to his subsequent benching the next day. Louis Sockalexis would only play three more games in the 1897 season. According to Jay Feldman of the Society of American Baseball Research, it was this benching that would lead to the unfortunate reemergence of Sockalexis’s drinking problems. He only played 21 games in the 1898 campaign, and 7 in 1899 before being released by the Spiders. Louis Sockalexis would bounce around the New England minors before eventually returning back to Indian Island before eventually dying on Christmas Eve 1913 at the young age of 42.
The term Indian originates from Christopher Columbus’s mistaken belief that he had reached the shores of South Asia as opposed to the Caribbean. It wasn’t until the 1960s when activists began to challenge the use of the term Indian, as it was a misnomer. It is important to note that when the name change was made in 1915, there was little push back against the usage of the term Indian at the time.
So while we have the social acumen to look back and judge Cleveland for using the misnomer of Indians to honor their Indigenous American player, especially when their previous name, Naps, was done to honor another player, we must take a few things into account. First, they could not shorten the name to Socks due to the fact the Red Sox name had been in use for 8 years at this point, and the White Sox name had been used for 15 years. Also, as mentioned before, the term Indian was not seen as problematic at the time. So as problematic as it seems now to honor the first Indigenous American by naming your baseball team the Indians, what is truly problematic is how fans and the media treated Sockalexis during his brief time in the majors.
The two and a half months of hype surrounding Sockalexis reached a fever pitch on June 16, 1897, when the Cleveland Spiders faced the New York Giants in the polo grounds in a matchup that the New York press had hyped for weeks. Why? In their first matchup, Sockalexis had netted two hits off of Giants ace and future Hall of Famer, Amos Rusie. During the first highly-anticipated showdown between these two in the first inning the crowd decides to welcome the first Indigenous American to their ballpark by engaging in what has been described as “derisive war whoops.” He would silence the crowd by smacking a Rusie curveball, described as the league’s best curve, over the right fielder’s head for a home run. While this incident is bad, it’s far from the worst that opposing fans had to offer Louis Sockalexis. They would often yell racial slurs at him, imitate war whoops as they did in the Polo Grounds, and even imitate war dances in his presence. The media was just as cruel, referring to the alcoholism that ended his career as the “Indian weakness,” while ignoring the fact that European settlers introduced alcohol to the Penobscot people, leading to a well-documented problem with alcohol that has ruined many lives of the Penobscot people – including the incredibly gifted trailblazer Sockalexis.
So ultimately what is the legacy of Sockalexis, and what will the legacy of the name Cleveland Indians end up being? While people have gone as far as to call the Sockalexis origin story for the Indians name exploitative, it seems like it was an honest attempt to honor a pioneer in the sport of baseball. Is the name problematic now? Yes, but it wasn’t back then.
What can be done to honor Sockalexis now? The first thing that can be done is to find a place for him in the Hall of Fame as he is a true trailblazer of the sport and needs to be honored as such in Cooperstown. Cleveland should continue to Louis Sockalexis by erecting a statue of him at Progressive Field much like the Dodgers have done with Jackie Robinson and the Pirates have done with Roberto Clemente. But most importantly we should remember him as the trailblazer he is. He wasn’t as impactful as Robinson and Clemente, but he played a small part in showing that those of different ethnicities can be just a sensational as white players.