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What Might Have Been...
Steve Rushin
July 19, 1993
The annals of baseball are filled with twists of fate so tantalizing that sometimes you cannot help but wonder: What would have happened if...?
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July 19, 1993

What Might Have Been...

The annals of baseball are filled with twists of fate so tantalizing that sometimes you cannot help but wonder: What would have happened if...?

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Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian from Maine, was a boy of rare athletic ability. His right arm was a gun, he ran like a gale. He so electrified Maine's summer leagues that opposing manager Gilbert Patten, who would later write books under the name Burt L. Standish, modeled his Frank Merriwell character after the adolescent Sockalexis.

An outfielder, Sockalexis played college ball at Holy Cross and Notre Dame. At South Bend in 1897 he was spotted by Cleveland Spider star and future Hall of Famer Jesse Burkett, who arranged a tryout. The Spiders signed him on the spot, making him the first Native American in the majors. The Sock was a sensation in Cleveland, hitting .328 with 16 stolen bases as Independence Day 1897 rolled around. Alas, he celebrated the Fourth with "an all-night carousal, " as his manager, Patsy Tebeau, put it, and Sockalexis somehow spilled out of a second-floor window, badly injuring his foot. He played in only 21 games in '98, and just seven in '99, on a Spider leant that lost 134 times and has been called the worst major league team ever. By 1900 Sockalexis was out of baseball. Yet Hall of Famer Hughie Jennings, a contemporary, once wrote of the Sock: "Yes, he might have been the greatest player of all time." He might have been....

April 22, 1949, was a day of celebration at Spider Stadium. It was not just another Spider Opening Day; it was Louis Sockalexis Day. Nearly every one of the 86,288 fans on hand was wearing the eight-legged logo that has become ubiquitous in this part of the world (even today Spider merchandise is second in popularity in baseball only to that of the Atlanta Crackers—though the sales of both, of course, pale in comparison with those of the perennial merchandising titans, the Washington Pigskins of the NFL). On this day the Cleveland faithful had packed into the huge stadium to salute the greatest Spider of them all.

The agenda for the ceremony included the presentation of World Series rings to the 1948 Spiders, who had defeated the Boston Beaneaters four games to two, But then the stage was turned over to those Spider greats who had come to honor Sockalexis. The last speaker would be the 77-year-old Hall of Famer himself.

Jim Thorpe spoke first. "Every Native American who has ever played in the major leagues owes a debt to Louis Sockalexis." said Thorpe, who had been elected to the Hall of Fame six years alter the Sock. Sockalexis's old friend Jesse Burkett took the podium next. He talked of the time on June 16, 1897, when the Spiders, who were still in the National League then, faced the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds. When Sockalexis stepped to the plate in the top of the first, "a group of ne'er-do-wells in the bleachers stood up and started chanting derisive war whoops." recalled Burkett. "Sock dug in and hit a home run that landed deep in the scats in right. You can bet that was the last time anyone ever mocked Native American culture in a major league ballpark."

Next up was Nap Lajoie. He spoke of the 1908 season. when the Spiders, by then in the American League, had won the pennant by half a game over the Detroit Tigers, beating the St. Louis Browns on the last day of the season when Sockalexis, now a first baseman, made a diving stop to secure a 1-0 win. Lajoie told tales of the Sock's play during the '08 World Series, which the Spiders won by defeating the defending-champion Chicago Cubs. He ended his remarks by reciting the classic poem, inspired during that Series, about the greatest double-play combination of all time. Penned by Franklin Pierce Adams, a columnist and diehard Cub fan, the poem was chanted in unison by everyone in the stadium:

These are the saddest of possible words,
Turner-to-Lajoie-to-Sockalexis.
Trio of Spiders fleeter than birds,
Turner-to-Lajoie-to-Sockalexis.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Cubbie hit into a double,
Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble,
Turner-to-Lajoie-to-Sockalexis.

Then it was Tris Speaker's turn. The Grey Fagle, 61 years old, told of the legendary season of 1920. Sockalexis had retired by then and was the Spiders' first base coach. The Sock never thought he would play again, but on Aug. 16 fate intervened. Spider shortstop Ray Chapman was hit in the head and killed by a pitch from New York Yankee Carl Mays. "We were devastated," said Speaker. "We had lost not only our only shortstop but also a leader and a friend. We had nowhere else to turn. I knew Ole Sock was the answer." The ancient Sockalexis, now 48, came out of retirement and filled in at shortstop for the final 32 games of the regular season and helped bring another title to Cleveland.

Finally Sockalexis himself addressed the crowd. He offered just one anecdote: "In 1907 some newspapermen approached me with a proposal. They said they'd like to change the name of the club to the Red Socks, in honor of me." Sockalexis said, "I was polite, but I told them to go peddle that nickname somewhere else. I said, 'There will be only one club in Cleveland as long as I live, and that club will be called the Spiders.' "

With that the crowd erupted in applause. The feeble Sockalexis's final remarks could barely be heard above the ovation. As loud as he could, Sockalexis summoned all his strength and shouted, "I will always be a Spider."

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