Louis Sockalexis, the first Native American to play in Major League Baseball, spent his entire brief career as a good, but troubled, player on a historically bad baseball team. A member of the Penobscot tribe, Sockalexis also faced racism and stereotyping from fans and the press. His experience foreshadowed what would happen 50 years later with Jackie Robinson.
Sockalexis played for three seasons, 1897 to 1899, with the Cleveland Spiders. Most baseball fans consider the 1899 Spiders as the worst team in MLB history, finishing 20-134. Sockalexis spent a mercifully short time with the team in 1899, but for all the wrong reasons.
But he could play. “He had more natural ability than any player I have ever seen, past or present,” Ed McKean, a former teammate of Louis Sockalexis, said about him in a 1914 interview, shortly after Sockalexis died.
Sockalexis had an impressive career batting average of .313 and stole 16 bases in 1897, his first and best year in the majors. However, as the first Native American player in the major leagues, he spent his career battling bigotry — a career cut tragically short by alcoholism. However, he endured to become a successful youth coach later in life.
Louis Sockalexis Early Life
Sockalexis was born in 1871 on the Penobscot reservation in Maine. He demonstrated athletic ability from an early age. He proved skillful at footraces and throwing contests and began playing semi-pro baseball in his late teens. In the summer of 1894, while playing ball at a seaside resort, he caught the eye of Mike “Doc” Powers, one of his teammates.
Powers, a future major leaguer himself, served as captain of the baseball team at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. He convinced Sockalexis to enroll at the college so he could play on the team.
At the College of the Holy Cross, Sockalexis also played football and ran track, but truly excelled on the baseball diamond. He hit .436 in 1895 and .444 in 1896, and a 413-foot-long throw he made from center field to the plate was an unofficial national record at the time. He was a good candidate for best college player in the country. In 1897, the Spiders signed him to a contract.
Louis Sockalexis Major League Career
Sockalexis made his debut on April 22, 1897, just a month after signing with the Spiders. He received a lot of attention when he joined the team. Some of that attention came from the fact people admired his skill. Unfortunately, some of it was negative attention because he was Native American.
The media played a role in the negative attention. Some sports writers began to refer to the Spiders as the Indians – not in a complimentary way – and many people bought tickets just so they could jeer at Sockalexis from the stands. Despite this backlash, Sockalexis kept his cool and remained a sensational player—at first. Tragically, however, he suffered from a drinking problem even before joining the Spiders, and as time went on, it got worse and worse.
Partway through the 1897 season, Sockalexis, drunk, either jumped or fell out of a second-story window, leaving him unable to play for a week. When he returned, he was seemingly intoxicated on the field and, in his stupor, allowed the Boston Beaneaters to score a home run. Frank Robison, the team’s owner, felt deeply embarrassed about what had happened, and suspended Sockalexis without pay.
The Notorious 1899 Season
Sockalexis expressed remorse and promised to change his behavior, but he still played very little for the rest of the1897 season and all of 1898. Then came the notorious 1899 season, at the beginning of which Robison bought the St. Louis Perfectos.
Robison transferred every star player from the Spiders – as well as anyone who showed promise – to St. Louis, leaving Cleveland with just the bottom of the barrel. He left Sockalexis, no longer considered a star, behind in Cleveland. After staying sober throughout 1898, he suffered a terrible relapse in 1899, and played many games drunk. Finally, after passing out on the field twice in one game, the Spiders let him go.
After the Majors: Success as a Coach
Sockalexis would spend the next few years a vagrant, spending some time playing for minor league teams, and some time in jail for public drunkenness and disturbances. Finally, he returned home to the Penobscot reservation. There, he finally managed to overcome his alcoholism.
He spent the last decade of his life teaching youngsters how to play baseball and piloting the ferry that went between the mainland and the island where the reservation was located. Five players he poached went on to play in the New England League. But his health was deteriorating quickly, and on Christmas Eve of 1913, he died of a heart attack while on a logging trip. He was 42 years old.
Cleveland’s new baseball team, a charter member of the American League in 1901, called themselves the Indians for many years, allegedly to honor Sockalexis’s legacy, despite the fact that when he was playing, those who used the nickname “Indians” meant it as a pejorative. The team faced harsh criticism from the Native American community not only for the name, but their mascot, Chief Wahoo. The team changed the name and began playing as the Cleveland Guardians in 2022.