The American Indian Integration of Baseball

The American Indian Integration of Baseball

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The American Indian Integration of Baseball by Jeffrey Powers-Beck

For many the entry of Jackie Robinson into Major League Baseball in 1947 marked the beginning of integration in professional baseball, but the entry of American Indians into the game during the previous half-century and the persistent racism directed toward them is not as well known. From the time that Louis Sockalexis stepped onto a Major League Baseball field in 1897, American Indians have had a presence in professional baseball. Unfortunately, it has not always been welcomed or respected, and Native athletes have faced racist stereotypes, foul epithets, and abuse from fans and players throughout their careers. The American Indian Integration of Baseball describes the experiences and contributions of American Indians as they courageously tried to make their place in America’s national game during the first half of the twentieth century.

Jeffrey Powers-Beck provides biographical profiles of forgotten Native players such as Elijah Pinnance, George Johnson, Louis Leroy, and Moses Yellow Horse, along with profiles of better-known athletes such as Jim Thorpe, Charles Albert Bender, and John Tortes Meyers. Combining analysis of popular-press accounts with records from boarding schools for Native youth, where baseball was used as a tool of assimilation, Powers-Beck shows how American Indians battled discrimination and racism to integrate American baseball.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803225091
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska Paperback
Publication date: 03/01/2009
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 656,564
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jeffrey Powers-Beck is a professor of English and assistant dean of Graduate Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of Writing the Flesh: The Herbert Family Dialogue. Joseph B. Oxendine is the author of American Indian Sports Heritage (Nebraska 1995).

Read an Excerpt

The American Indian Integration of Baseball

By Jeffrey Powers-Beck

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2004 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.

Chapter One

"Chief" - The American Indian Integration of Baseball

"No matter where we play I go through the same ordeal, and at the present time I am so used to it that at times I forget to smile at my tormentors, believing it to be a part of the game." Louis F. Sockalexis, Interview, June 19, 1897

They were called "Chief": the dozens of American Indians who played Major League Baseball from 1897 to 1945, the hundreds who played Minor League ball, and the thousands who played collegiate and semipro ball. While the story of the African American integration of baseball has been told in great detail, the story of the Indian initiation into professional baseball, starting with Louis Francis Sockalexis in the spring of 1897, has not yet been fully told. Although Indians did not face the same obstacles to participation in professional baseball as did blacks at the turn of the century, they too endured an integration experience that began with the derisive nickname of "Chief" and extended to many other forms of racism. In one chapter of Baseball: The People's Game, Harold Seymour began to tell that story:

Of the two races that fared worst in the United States, the blacks and the Indians, the Indians came off better as far as baseball was concerned. Unlike the blacks who, except for a short space,were barred from the House of Baseball until after World War II, the Indians at least had access to its basement, from which they could aspire to its upper story. For Organized Baseball accepted Indians and rejected blacks. Prejudice toward blacks was racial, but toward Indians it was mainly cultural.

And while Seymour and his spouse Dorothy Mills certainly deserve great credit for their seminal work, the analogy of "the House of Baseball," with the basement for Indians and the outbuildings for blacks, is misleading as well as illuminating.

With all respect to Seymour, the prejudice against American Indians athletes was both racial and cultural. Indian players were indeed recruited by professional clubs for their athletic talents and for their popularity as ticket-sales drawing cards, but even the Indians who reached baseball's "upper story" could not escape racism. The first ballplayers of the twentieth century to hear "Nigger!" from the stands of Major League stadiums were not African Americans but were Indians like John Meyers and Jay Clarke, and they also heard "Back to the Reservation!," "Dog soup!," and other jeers. The legends like Sockalexis, Jim Thorpe, and Charles Albert Bender and the overlooked veterans of many Minor League seasons, like Frank Jude, Louis Leroy, and Elijah Pinnance, were all submerged in the cauldron of racism, far different from the American myth of baseball's supposed "melting pot." These players triumphed in enduring the integration experience of name-calling, race-baiting, mob mockery, and mistreatment by players, managers, and fans, all part of the pervasive racism of America's "Progressive" Era.

Apart from Seymour's pioneering chapter, historians and scholars of American Indian studies have seldom documented the history of American Indians in collegiate or professional baseball. In a classic ethnological study, Stewart Culin briefly noted that Navahos imprisoned at Bosque Redondo in 1863 had incorporated elements of baseball in their own game of aqejólyedi (run around ball), and social historian Patty Loew has recently written of the rich baseball traditions among the Lake Superior Chippewa. Many studies of government boarding schools have, however, recognized the prominence of athletic programs at those schools: Michael C. Coleman included sporting activities such as baseball among the "extracurricular activities" that "motivated even students who were critical of the [boarding] school" to continue their education; Genevieve Bell indicated that Carlisle Indian Industrial School's athletic accomplishments "became symbols of the institution and the focus of pride for students and former students alike"; and John Bloom reported that sports in boarding-school athletic programs "created a context for the celebration of intertribal cooperation and identity, sometimes on a scale rarely ever seen before." But it is a rare study like Seymour's chapter or Ellen Staurowsky's 1998 article, "An Act of Honor or Exploitation?," that actually treats the history of American Indian players in professional baseball. Staurowsky's study of Louis Sockalexis examined the renaming of the Cleveland Naps in 1915 as the Cleveland Indians and found that team officials did not, as once claimed, conduct a fan contest to rename the team or single out Sockalexis for honor. Since Staurowsky's article, several biographies have broken the silence about the pioneering feats of American Indian athletes in professional baseball. Todd Fuller's Sixty Feet Six Inches and Other Distances from Home, a life of the Pawnee pitcher Moses Yellow Horse, was published in 2002 by Holy Cow Press of Duluth, Minnesota. In this colorful if eccentric biography, Fuller includes his own poems alongside Pawnees' stories about the Pirates relief pitcher. Sixty Feet Six Inches perpetuates the common misconception that Yellow Horse was the "first fullblood Indian in [the]Major League," but it still makes a very valuable point: "YellowHorse's story, like that of other Indian ballplayers, touches on [significant] aspects of American culture and history, including assimilation, identity, and survival." Later in 2002 came three notable biographies of Indian baseball players: David L. Fleitz's Louis Sockalexis: The First Cleveland Indian, Royse Parr and Bob Burke's Allie Reynolds: Super Chief, and Patrick and Terrence McGrath's Bright Star in a Shadowy Sky: The Story of Indian Bob Johnson. Fleitz's biography is especially important as it tells the story of the Cleveland outfielder who began the American Indian integration of Major League Baseball. Fleitz examines both Sockalexis's meteoric rise and sudden fall in historical detail, praising him as a "pioneer" of integration, as "the first non-Caucasian in the National League," even while recounting his struggle with alcoholism. Although Fleitz is concerned with Sockalexis primarily as a ball player and only secondarily as an integrator, his biography is well documented and points up the need for a fuller study of the American Indian integration of baseball. This introductory chapter, which is historical and documentary in nature, will show that professional baseball was a crucible of both racial and cultural prejudices for the first generations of Native players, and this crucible was often heated by the educational programs of federal Indian boarding schools. In documenting the American Indian integration of baseball, this book uses newspapers, periodicals, correspondence, interviews, and early Indian school accounts to examine the relationship of baseball and American Indian identity. This first chapter will provide contexts for the study of the American Indian integration of professional baseball, focusing especially on the federal boarding schools, Indian baseball traditions, and Sockalexis's integration experience. The second and third chapters will examine the institutional history of Indians playing baseball in more detail by focusing on the Carlisle Indian Industrial School's baseball program - a school that sent seven players to the big leagues - and on baseball's best Indian barnstorming team, the Nebraska Indians. Later chapters will document the lives of three stars (Bender, Meyers, and Thorpe, chapter 4) and three forgotten heroes of baseball's Indian integration (Louis Leroy, chapter 5; George H. Johnson, chapter 6; andMoses Yellow Horse, chapter 7). An epilogue provides a final commentary on the long shadows of anti-Indian caricature, which stretch across baseball history from Sockalexis's debut in 1897 to the Chief Wahoo logo of today's Cleveland Indians.


At the turn of the twentieth century, William A. Phelon, a Chicago baseball writer, glibly hailed the segregated sport's power to transcend all economic, social, and racial differences: "Do you wish to see the one spot where the nations meet and mix on equal terms, where pride of race and birth and ancestry are laid aside? ... Go to a ball park." For Phelon, the crowded baseball stadium was the epitome of the American melting pot. Yet, when the same writer described American Indians in baseball, he did so in combative terms with the stereotype of the "stone-faced Indian":

The Indian, sad, morose, receives applause Without a smile upon his Sphinx-like face, And, inwardly, thinks he gets even when He draws big wampum from the pale-skinned race!

When Native Americans played ball outside of reservation and Indian school fields in this era, they often faced large raucous crowds and choruses of war-whoops, "ki-yi-yi's," and screams of "Redskin," "Indian," and "Back to the Reservation!" Rudy York, a slugger of Cherokee heritage, who was described disparagingly in newspapers as "part Indian, part first baseman," noted aptly, "Any time an Indian puts on a baseball uniform he becomes about six times as much of a character as any other player." Sadly, the popular fascination with American Indian players was countervailed by a harsh strain of anti-Indian bigotry. So York added, "All an Indian's got to do is be seen drinking a beer and he's drunk."

Starting with Sockalexis in 1897, many Indian players in professional baseball, especially those with clear affiliations with tribes and ties to reservations, were nicknamed "Chief." In addition to "Chief" Charles Albert Bender and "Chief" John Tortes Meyers, there were "Chief" Moses Yellow Horse, "Chief" George H. Johnson, "Chief" Louis Leroy, "Chief" Ike Kahdot, "Chief" Euel Moore, "Chief" Ben Tincup, "Chief" Elon Hogsett, "Chief" Pryor McBee, "Chief" Emmett Bowles, "Chief" Jim Bluejacket, and "Superchief" Allie Reynolds, among others. Historian John P. Rossi called the epithet "a perfect reflection of the naiveté and racism of the age." The adjective perfect sounds very much out of place with the noun racism, but there is no doubt of the racist effect of the epithet. Joseph Oxendine, the author of American Indian Sports Heritage and a Lumbee from North Carolina, was himself called "Chief" as a Minor League Baseball player in the early 1950s. He explains:

It is really used by non-Indians to say, "Hey, you're an Indian. Therefore, that's how I can define you and keep you in your place." ... They used to call me "Chief" because I was the only Indian in school [college].... Nobody believed that you were chief of a tribe.... Billy Mills, the long-distance runner, reacted very testily to people calling him "Chief." Most Indians do not want to be called "Chief" because it demeans the significance of the [tribal] chief, and it's a constant reminder, like saying, "Hey, Indian." You don't mind being known as an Indian, but you don't want it to be your whole identity.

In the early decades of the century, it appeared virtually impossible for a baseball player of admitted Native origin to be known popularly as anything but "Chief."

When, for example, Arthur Lee Daney, the Choctaw pitcher and Haskell Institute star, played for the Philadelphia A's in 1928, his coach Kid Gleason thought even "Chief Daney" didn't sound like enough of "an Indian name": "He said he was going to give me an Indian name. He said he once knew a pitcher named Whitehorn, so I became Chief Whitehorn." Most of Daney's teammates called him "Chief Whitehorn," except for Ty Cobb, who called him "Chief Coolem Off," a mocking reference to Daney's fiery temper as a young man. Certainly, the "Chief" epithet was not meant to honor American Indian identity but to appropriate and cartoonize it as an "Other" in the manner of the cigar-store Indian or the Wild West show Indian. Another example is the case of Elijah Edward Pinnance (Ojibwe), the first full-blood American Indian to play in a regular season game in the majors, a feat he accomplished on September 14, 1903, pitching for the Philadelphia Athletics at Washington against the Senators. On this occasion, "Chief" Pinnance received a second nickname, which mocked the pronunciation of his last name: "As soon as Pinnance stepped to the rubber he was christened 'Peanuts' by the bleacherites and this name will probably stick to him for all time." When Pinnance was asked by a Washington reporter about the new nickname, he deflected the question with a gracious but dark sense of humor: "Why should that name annoy me? I'll be roasted more or less, and from what I've been able to observe, the roasting process vastly improves the peanut." While many rookie players were subject to hazing in this period, the same newspaper story contained an astonishingly ignorant and racist comment about Pinnance and Bender by a "prominent [white] ball player": "I don't think it looks right for these foreigners to be breaking into the game." In effect, the racism of white fans, writers, and players had made foreign America's original peoples.


At the turn of the twentieth century, many American Indians commonly described as "Western Indians" or "Blanket Indians" still had limited access to Seymour's House of Baseball as a professional enterprise. Missionaries, traders, and neighboring baseball clubswere, however, introducing the sport on reservations, and some American Indians were taking to the game. In an admonition to the Dakota Association in 1887, Eli Abraham, a Santee Sioux, noted the fitness of Indian youths for both baseball and schooling: "Our boys like to take exercise in playing base ball, and I have noticed that when the base ball clubs of white young men from the towns around come in to play ball with them, the white young men get beaten; or when they try their speed with our boys in foot races, they also get beaten. And it seems to me if that our young men can be rightly instructed, they are sure to make progress." Likewise, "Apache Indians captured and jailed at Fort Sill with their famous chief Geronimo, played baseball under the watchful eye of Army guards." Yet not until Apaches like Asa Daklugie were transferred from Ft. Marion (a POW camp in St. Augustine, Florida) to classrooms in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, did baseball hold social and professional promise for them.


Excerpted from The American Indian Integration of Baseball by Jeffrey Powers-Beck Copyright © 2004 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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