Published on Thursday, February 9, 2011
Baseball and The American Indian
By Lowell "Zeke" Ziemann
The Battle of the Little Bighorn is one of the most researched events in American history. But did you know this interesting sidelight? Baseball played a role in the history of George Armstrong Custer's Seventh Cavalry. The Seventh packed their bats and balls and scheduled games between companies of troops. Trooper Theodore Ewert, kept a journal in which he recorded scores of the games. It is not known if the Crow Indian Scouts employed by Custer participated, but one can be certain that the Sioux did not. They were resting up for a more important confrontation!
After the Civil War, fort commanders scheduled games with neighboring forts. Undoubtedly some Indian scouts participated in these contests. Occasionally games were held that pitted the soldiers against a team of captive Indians. Sitting Bull Junior, son of the famous chief umpired some games.
Early Native American's who were good enough to play professionally, suffered the usual taunts from bigots. Common were racial slurs "Dumb Indian", "Redskin", Kemosabee", and rowdy fans uttering "war whoops".
The Native American players often responded. Answering rowdy fans, Charley "Chief" Bender yelled, "You ignorant ill-bred foreigners! If you don't like the way I'm doing things out there, why don't you just pack your bags and go back to your own countries."
Later, the label "Chief" was crassly applied to almost all Native Americans players. Baseball has always had its "bench jockeys", and in this era applying any sense of modern "political correctness" would have been considered ridiculous. Razzing opponents, yelling obscenities and racial slurs was considered a part of the game. Italians were labeled "Dagos". Germans would answer to "Dutch" or "Kraut". Nicknames were derived from a player's appearance or heritage. Monikers such as Dummy, Rube, Daffy, Bonehead and Schnozz, now considered derogatory, were laughed off or simply accepted.
In the last 50 years baseball's rough edges have smoothed somewhat. By the 1950's Charley "Chief" Bender who was born on a reservation in Minnesota on May 5th, 1884, and lived until 1954, had mellowed. "The reason I went into baseball as a profession was that when I left school, baseball offered me the best opportunity both for money and achievement. I adopted it because I played baseball better than I could do anything else, because the life and the game appealed to me and because there was so little of racial prejudice in the game. There has been scarcely a trace of sentiment against me on account of my birth. I have been treated the same as other men."
From the 1920's to the 1960' several "all-Indian" teams toured small towns all across the Country. The famous Jim Thorpe was the biggest draw. He played for several traveling Native American baseball teams in the 1920's.
The most famous barnstorming Indian club was Guy Green's "Nebraska Indians". The majority of Green's players were American Indians, but a few "palefaces" were needed to fill out the roster. Games were held on all kinds of fields from parking lots to "watch your step" cow pastures.
Fifty men, with more than a trace of Native American blood, have played in the Major Leagues.
Most baseball historians agree that the first American Indian to play in "The Show" was Louis Sockalexis. From the Penobscot Tribe in Maine, Louis or "Socks", as he was nicknamed, was an outfielder for the Cleveland Spiders from 1897 to 1899.
Socks began his career with great fanfare. However, excessive drinking cut short a promising career in the game he loved. He went back to Maine and became a wood cutter. When he died, at age forty-two, some old clippings from his career were found in his shirt pocket. A definitive biography of his short career and tragic life was written by David Fleitz.
Twenty-two tribes have sent at least one player to the Majors. The Cherokee tribe has contributed the most, with sixteen. The Choctaw tribe has sent five players to the Majors, and the Chippewa four.
Thought to be the first Major League player with pure Indian heritage was Chief Yellowhorse (Pawnee). He pitched for the Pirates in 1921 and 1922.
Two Hall of Famers are included among the fifty Native American players: Chief Bender (Chippewa) and Zack Wheat (Cherokee). Bender, who pitched primarily with the Philadelphia Athletics, won 212 games while losing only 127 during a 16 year career that began at age eighteen in 1903. After his playing years he coached and managed, including a stint at the US Naval Academy.
Wheat, an outfielder, played for 19 years beginning in 1909. For many years, he was with the old Brooklyn Robins and was a teammate of future Yankee manager, Casey Stengel. Wheat's had a .317 lifetime batting average.
Three Native American players are active today. They are Kyle Lohse (Nomlaki Wintun), a pitcher for the Cardinals, Jacoby Ellsbury (Navajo), an outfielder for the Red Sox, and Joba Chamberlain (Winnebago), who pitches for the Yankees.
Other recognizable baseball names with Native American heritage are Jim Thorpe (Fox & Sac), Pepper Martin (Osage), Rudy York (Cherokee), and Allie Reynolds (Muscogee).
Thorpe was recognized as the supreme athlete of his day. He played major league baseball for eight years, pro football for eight years and was an Olympic Decathlon champion. Red Smith, the famous sportswriter, called him "the greatest athlete of his time and maybe any time."
Pepper Martin, the "Wild Horse of the Osage", was a free spirited character. He and Dizzy Dean the ringleaders for all sorts of wacky antics commonly associated with St. Louis Cardinals famous "Gas House Gang". Author Lee Allen described Martin as a, "A chunky, unshaven hobo who ran the bases like a berserk locomotive, slept in the raw, and swore at pitchers in his sleep."
Rudy York played 13 seasons in the Major Leagues, primarily with the Detroit Tigers. The big first baseman batted in over 100 runs six times. On July 7th, 1946, Rudy hit two grand slam home runs in the same game.
Allie Reynolds pitched five years for the Cleveland Indians and eight for the New York Yankees. His lifetime record was 182 wins and only 107 losses. He received the "Jim Thorpe Lifetime Achievement" award, and the stadium at Oklahoma State (where he attended on a track scholarship) is named after him.
The Arizona Diamondbacks salute Indian heritage with an annual Native American Recognition game.
Author's note: A primary source of data and quotes for this article come from Baseball-Almanac.com.
David Jordan, Larry Gerlach, John Rossi, Tim Wolter, The National Pastime, SABR, Inc., 1998, pp.26-27.
Jonathan F Light, Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball, MacFarland & Co., Inc, 1997, pp. 486,487.
David Fleitz, Louis Sockaxis, the First Cleveland Indian, McFarland & Co., 2002
Mark Alveraz Mark Rucker, Tom Shieber, Baseball for the Fun of It, SABR, 1997, pp 48-49. Lee Allen, The National League Story, New York: Hill and Wang, 1961
Lowell Zeke Ziemann is a semi-retired mathematics teacher, coach, and financial planner. He has had a life-long interest in the Old West and is a member of the Wild West History Association. He also creates Western wood carvings and authors Western short stories. Seven of his stories have been published on line. He lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with his wife Jean and their two dogs, Goldie and Katie.