Written by Richard Coreno
Published: 03 May 2009
Louis “Chief” Sockalexis in Cleveland, Ohio, pro baseball lore is usually associated with the tale that the team - then called the Cleveland Naps, in honor of the great second baseman/manager Napoleon Lajoie - was named after the mythical player in recognition for being the first Native American (Penobscot tribe) in Major League Baseball through a suggestion by a fan during a contest.
The story is about as accurate as Cooperstown, New York, being the birthplace of the game. The nickname was selected by a panel of Cleveland sportswriters in 1915, with suggestions like Tip Tops, Kids, Hustlers and Foresters topping the list before Indians became the choice.
Louis Sockalexis was nicknamed The Deerfoot of the Diamond
Author Brian McDonald packs a wealth of information on Sockalexis, pro baseball and the era in which he lived and played hard - on and off the field - in Indian Summer: The Tragic Story of Louis Francis Sockalexis, the First Native American in Major League Baseball (Rodale Books).
Sockalexis, 25, was a sensation at the plate and in the field during his 1897 rookie season with the Cleveland Spiders. Because of his play - he smacked two home runs in his initial pair of plate appearances in his first game - Sockalexis became known in the local press as the “Cleveland Indian,” with the club was sometimes referred to as the “Indians” in newspaper stories.
But while truly being a legend that came to life on the diamond, Sockalexis also pursued with zeal the late-night haunts where his celebrity opened doors, but ultimately shut the one that should have mattered most.
Though McDonald says there is a gap of several years of the recorded history of the baseball career, what is known is Sockalexis was a multi-sports standout for the Jesuits at St. Ann’s Convent School in Old Town, Maine, and - in 1894 - quickly became a baseball, football and track star at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.
But it was an early-1897 transfer to the University of Notre Dame, and an exhibition game versus the New York Giants in the Polo Grounds - and the aftermath - which showed the two sides of Sockalexis; the brilliance on the field in the sunshine and the demons emerging from the shadows at night. Before the game, ace New York pitcher Amos Rusie vowed that he would fan the emerging star. On his initial plate appearance in this highly-anticipated duel, Sockalexis belted a homer.
“In baseball, the great equalizer of men at its purest, it was how you played, not where you came from,” McDonald writes.
But a few weeks later, Sockalexis was expelled from Notre Dame after ripping up a brothel when the madam made a racial slur to him. Then - as now - talent trumps excess baggage in the pro game; the Spiders inked a deal with Sockalexis on March 9. His memorable pro debut was on April 22.
And while the statistics are impressive for his rookie campaign - 66 games, .338 batting average, 94 hits, 42 RBI, 16 stolen bases - and positive ink flowed in newspapers, an incident on July 4 would ultimately be the foundation to destroying his career; Sockalexis severely injured his ankle while jumping out of a second-story window of a brothel. He played in one game from July 25 to September 12 and was suspended by the club for what was becoming increasingly destructive behavior that was ignited by alcohol.
Sockalexis played in 21 games in 1898 and batted a paltry .224. In March 1899, the Cleveland team owners bought the St. Louis club, transferred the best Spiders west and fielded an inferior club in the “Forest City” which ended up a pathetic 20-134. Sockalexis played in only seven games with the Spiders before being released.
He returned east and stayed in baseball by playing and umpiring in the minor leagues and managing youth teams. Sockalexis - a member of the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame - died at the age of 42 on December 24, 1913.
Through the meteoric rise, triumphs and tragic fall from the mountaintop reserved for superstars, McDonald digs through the dusty pages of fact oftentimes sprinkled with fiction to uncover the rest of the story of the life and fast times of “The Deerfoot of the Diamond.”AHP Rating - 3.5 balls
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