The American Indian Quarterly 25.4 (2001) 508-538
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The American Indian Integration of Baseball, 1897-1945
They were called "Chief": the dozens of Native Americans who played major league baseball from 1897 to 1945 and the hundreds who played minor league ball. Although the story of the African American integration of baseball has been told in great detail, the story of the Native American initiation into professional baseball, starting with Louis Francis Sockalexis in spring 1897, has not yet been fully told. American Indians did not face the same obstacles to participation in professional baseball as did blacks at the turn of the century, but they too endured an integration experience. 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. 1
While Seymour and his spouse Dorothy Mills certainly deserve credit for their seminal work, the analogy of the "House of Baseball," with the basement for Indians and the outbuildings for blacks, is as misleading as it is illuminating. 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 blatant racism. The legends like Sockalexis, Jim Thorpe, and Charles Albert Bender, and the overlooked veterans of many minor league seasons, like Louis Leroy, Frank Jude, and Elijah Pinnance, were subjected to a cauldron of racist abuse, far different from the American myth of baseball's supposed "melting pot."
Apart from Seymour's pioneering chapter, historians and scholars of Native American studies have seldom documented the history of American Indians in [End Page 508] baseball, collegiate or professional. In his classic 1907 ethnological study, Games of the North American Indians,Stewart Culin briefly noted that Navahos imprisoned at Bosque Redondo in 1863 had incorporated elements of baseball in their own game of "Aqejólyedi" or "run-around ball," and social historian Patty Loew has recently written of the rich baseball traditions among the Lake Superior Chippewa. 2 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." 3 Yet 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 Native American players in professional baseball. Staurowsky's study of Louis Sockalexis examined the renaming of the Cleveland "Spiders" in 1915 as the Cleveland "Indians" and found that Sockalexis was not even mentioned by team officials, let alone singled out for honor. 4
The following article, which is historical and documentary in nature, will prove 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 study uses newspapers, periodicals, interviews, and early Indian school accounts to examine the relationship of baseball and Indian identity.