Louis Sockalexis broke a different color barrier in baseball 50 years before Jackie Robinson started for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
He was a red man. And unlike Jackie Robinson, he couldn’t handle the taunts and insults, the war whoops in the stands and the racial jeers.
Sockalexis had a sensational start to his Major League Baseball playing career, dubbed a ‘wonder’ and ‘the most talked about’ young player on his team.
But he would only play 97 games in the Major Leagues, spend time in jail and die young.
After his playing days ended, he was arrested for vagrancy in Holyoke, Mass. Unshaven, with toes protruding from his shoes, he explained his downfall:
They liked me on the baseball field, and I liked firewater.
On Oct. 24, 1871, Louis Francis Sockalexis was born a member of the Penobscot tribe in Old Town, Maine, where both money and jobs were scarce. He was the son of Francis Sockalexis, a logger who became governor, or chief, of the Penobscot tribe, and Frances Sockbeson Sockalexis. He grew to six feet tall and excelled at sports.
In the summer of 1894, Louis Sockalexis played outfield for a baseball team sponsored by the Poland Spring Resort. One of his teammates was Mike ‘Doc’ Powers, a summer visitor to Maine and captain of the baseball team at the College of the Holy Cross. He persuaded Louis, a Catholic, to enroll in the Jesuit school.
He tried out for Holy Cross’s baseball coach, Jesse Burkett, a future Hall of Famer who played for the Cleveland Spiders. Burkett offered the 24-year-old Sockalexis a full scholarship. He rewarded Burkett with outstanding play for two seasons, batting over .400. He once stole six bases in a game against Brown and is credited with setting a world’s record for the longest baseball throw – 138 yards.
Burkett moved to Notre Dame, and Louis Sockalexis followed him. In the spring of 1897, Burkett helped him get a contract with the Cleveland Spiders.
He made a splash.
Deerfoot of the Diamond
“I unhesitatingly pronounce him a wonder,” former New York Giants Manager John Ward told the Sporting Life.
His Indian heritage and outstanding play was catnip for sportswriters. They called him the ‘Deerfoot of the Diamond’ and ‘Chief of Sockem.’
When he hit a game-winning home run for the Spiders’ first victory of the season, a newspaper headline read, ‘Indians Hang One Little Scalp on Their Belts.’
The team went on a tear, led by Sockalexis’ hitting heroics. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported ‘a visibly larger percentage of women than usual’ came to the ballpark when he played. Fans also came to jeer at him with war whoops and war dances.
He cheerfully shrugged off their taunts — he claimed.
Off the field, Sockalexis liked to drink and carouse at night. A teammate called him a ‘wild bird.’ In early July, a foot injury hampered his play. How he got it is unclear. According to some accounts, he jumped or fell from the second-story window of a brothel. According to others, he injured his foot while running the base paths.
His drinking caught up with him, his play clearly suffered and his boosters in the sporting press turned on him. Suddenly Louis Sockalexis fit all the stereotypes of the drunken Indian. When he made a fielding error, he was called ‘a wooden Indian.’ In late July, the Plain Dealer reported, management couldn’t control him anymore.
Sockalexis’ demeanor changed; he grew angry and sullen. He spent the end of the 1897 season on the bench.
And then he spent most of the 1898 season on the bench.
In 1899, most of the Spiders were sold to St. Louis, except Sockalexis. He stayed behind with the Spiders, who won only 20 games that year with a team made up of rejects, prospects and semipro players.
Early in the season, the Plain Dealer reported, ‘the big Indian seems to have come to his senses.’ But then his play quickly deteriorated. On May 13, he twice fell down drunk in the outfield.
The once promising star wasn’t even good enough to play for the worst team in baseball, and the Spiders released him.
Last Years of Sockalexis
Louis Sockalexis played minor league ball for a few months, then dropped out of the game. Over the next two years he was arrested and jailed for drunkenness, public disturbance and vagrancy. He returned to baseball in 1902, playing for a Lowell, Mass., team, and in 1903, playing for Bangor.
He returned to the reservation in Old Town, where he coached teams and piloted a ferryboat. In 1913, he joined a logging team. He died of a heart attack on Dec. 24, 1913, only 42 years old.
Back then, baseball teams changed their names frequently. The leagues had merged, and Cleveland’s American League team was known as the Naps, after their best player, Nap Lajoie. But Lajoie had been traded, and the team needed a new name. In 1915, the team’s owner asked local sportswriters to come up with one.
They settled on the Indians. Perhaps they remembered that brief period of excitement when Louis Sockalexis made his major league debut nearly 20 years earlier. Perhaps they were thinking of Boston’s miracle Braves, who won the World Series the year before. At any rate, the Indians adopted the image of Chief Wahoo as their logo.
The grinning, dark red caricature has come under criticism recently, much like the name of the Washington Redskins. The team tried to deflect its critics by saying the team was named in honor of Louis Sockalexis.
Louis Sockalexis was voted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame in 2000. And in 2021, the Indians changed their name to the Guardians.
This story was updated in 2022.