For the first time in 41 years baseball fans in Cleveland will have World Series memories to sustain them until the next Indian summer. What these fans neglected to celebrate this year, however, was the 80th anniversary of the club's changing its name in honor of the first Native American to play professional baseball: Louis Sockalexis.
Sockalexis was born on Oct. 24, 1871, on a tiny island located in the Penobscot River, north of Bangor, Maine. A grandson of the chief of the Penobscot tribe, Louis attended St. Anne's Convent School in Old Town, where he competed in football and track. Maine was a center of semipro baseball in those days, and by the time Louis was a teenager, he had also become a standout ballplayer.
During the summer of 1894 Sockalexis, who batted lefty and threw righty, played centerfield for the Poland Spring semipro team. His closest friend on the squad was Mike (Doc) Powers, a burly catcher from Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. By the end of the season Powers had helped secure Sockalexis a baseball scholarship. He entered Holy Cross that fall.
In his first collegiate season the 5'11", 185-pound Sockalexis batted .436. He hit with such power that in one game he shattered a fourth-floor dormitory window beyond the outfield fence at Brown. And his arm was so strong that people said not one of his throws from the outfield to the catcher took a bounce.
During Sockalexis's second season at Holy Cross, professional scouts began to take notice of him. In 1897 a representative of the Cleveland Spiders of the National League (at that time the only major league) came to see the young outfielder in action. He signed Sockalexis on the spot for a yearly salary of $1,500.
In his first major league season Sockalexis batted .338, with 94 hits in just 66 games. "His fielding was spectacular, his base running supreme, and an ease and grace marked his playing which rarely, if ever, has been equaled," wrote one New York writer. A Boston reporter agreed: "His batting is wonderful and his great speed enables him to steal bases at will."
But as his athletic performance improved, Sockalexis moved closer to his demise. During one dramatic game with the Chicago White Sox, he hit a grand slam in the ninth to put the Spiders ahead by a run. Then, in storybook fashion, Sockalexis made a game-saving catch. Afterward, teammates and fans carried him off the field and demanded that he lead them in a drinking fest to celebrate the victory. Sockalexis had never tasted alcohol before, but as the months went by, he fell under its spell.
His drinking led to a sharp decline in his play. At one point Cleveland manager Patsy Tebeau grew so desperate that he promised to pay Sockalexis $16,000 over the next two seasons if he cleaned up his act. Sockalexis tried but could not oblige. He finished the 1897 season with 16 errors and was released the following year after hitting just .224 in 21 games. By 1899 Sockalexis had drunk himself out of major league baseball and after that season the Spider owners sold the franchise rights to the National League so they could concentrate on running the St. Louis Browns. The following year the league shut down the Cleveland team. Sockalexis would work at odd jobs until his death in 1913 at age 42.
In 1901 Cleveland received a charter franchise in the new American League, and over the next decade and a half the team went on a name-changing spree, becoming, in succession, the Blues, the Broncos, and the Naps. But Sockalexis remained so securely in the hearts of Cleveland baseball fans that they honored him posthumously. When a new owner took over in 1915, a local newspaper ran a team-naming contest. The winning entry was Cleveland Indians. The fan who had come up with the name said it would be a lasting tribute to Sockalexis.
Sockalexis was beloved outside Cleveland, too. Joe Giovanetti, who is of Native American descent and teaches Native American studies at Humboldt State in northern California, says, "Sockalexis was viewed as a precious extension of the tribe. As a baseball player he was a sacred and meaningful foundation for the Indian community. He was more than just someone who picked up a ball and a bat."