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Reading Baseball: Exploring baseball's Native American heritage

 
By Richard 'Pete' Peterson
updated: 11/16/2020 7:36 AM

This November, SIU has put together a series of programs to celebrate Native American Heritage Month, so I thought I'd add to the celebration by recognizing several of the outstanding Native American athletes who made an impact on baseball.

Unlike African-Americans, who were denied a place in our national pastime until Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Dodgers in 1947, Native Americans played major league baseball from its earliest days, though they were often treated as outsiders. A member of the Cahuilla tribe, John "Chief" Meyers, who was the catcher on John McGraw's great New York Giants teams of the early 20th century, said that he "was considered a foreigner. I didn't belong. I was an Indian."

Louis "Chief" Sockalexis is listed on Baseball Almanac's website as the first Native American to play major league baseball when he made his debut with the National League Cleveland Spiders on April 22, 1897. He had such exceptional physical skills that stories about his hitting and throwing rivaled the tall tales of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. Though a member of the Penobscot tribe in Maine, rumor had it that he was a direct descendant of Sitting Bull.

Described in the popular Sporting Life as "a massive man with gigantic bones and massive muscles," he was an immediate sensation with the Cleveland Spiders, but plagued by injuries and a drinking problem, he was out of baseball by 1903. His greatest contribution to baseball, however, came a year after his death, when a Cleveland newspaper held a contest to give Cleveland a different team name. Remembering the exploits of Louis Sockalexis, fans recommended that the team become the Cleveland Indians.

While Sockalexis was the stuff of legend, the greatest Native American athlete, and arguably the greatest athlete in American sports history, was Jim Thorpe, winner of the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics. A member of the Fox and Sac Nation, Thorpe was later stripped of his trophies and medals when it was discovered that he had played minor league baseball for $60 a month in the summers of 1909 and 1910. It wasn't until 1982, nearly 40 years after Thorpe's death, that the International Olympic Committee restored his trophies and medals and gave them to his family.

John Meyer, a teammate of Jim Thorpe with the Giants, said that Thorpe never forgot what they had done to him after the Olympics: "It broke his heart, and he never really recovered." Meyer remembered a night when Thorpe, "with tears running down his cheeks," woke him up and told him, "You know, Chief, the King of Sweden gave me those medals ... But they took them away from me, even though the guy who finished second wouldn't take them. They're mine Chief, I won them fair and square."

During his career with the Giants, John Meyer faced the great Philadephia A's pitcher Charles Albert "Chief" Bender in the 1911 and 1913 World Series. A member of the Ojibwe tribe, Bender, in 1953, became the first Native American elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Connie Mack, the winningest manager in baseball history, regarded Bender as his best pitcher under pressure, a view validated by his 5 World Series victories: "If everything depended on one game, I just used Albert, the greatest money pitcher of all time."

Bender hated being called "Chief," a moniker that he and other Native Americans often had to endure during their careers. He said that he wanted his name to represent him to the public as a pitcher, "not as an Indian." The moniker, however, haunted Bender to the grave. When he died in 1954, just after being elected to the Hall of Fame, the headline in The Sporting News declared, "Chief Bender Answers Call to the Happy Hunting Ground."

In Lawrence Ritter's acclaimed oral history "The Glory of Their Times," John Meyer remembered that in those days Native Americans were no better off than an oppressed minority. Frustrated in his later years by watching Native Americans mocked and killed in movie and television westerns, he saw himself in old age "like the venerable old warrior Chief of the Great Six Nations," who was witness "to many tragic things" but remained proud of his heritage.

• Reading Baseball is a series of stories and commentaries by Richard "Pete" Peterson, author of "Growing Up With Clemente" and the editor of The St Louis Baseball Reader. His essays appear regularly in the Times and on WSIU 91.9 FM. He and his son, Stephen, have a new book, "The Turnpike Rivalry: The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns," scheduled for release this month.