Native American Baseball Pioneer had Jesuit Connections

Louis Francis Sockalexis (1871-1913), known as “Chief,” wasn’t the first Native American to play in the major leagues (that honor goes to James Madison Toy in 1887), but he was the most famous in the game’s early years. Raised Catholic on the Penobscot Indian Reservation in Maine, a Jesuit working at the reservation put him in touch with the baseball coach at Holy Cross College in Worcester, where he played for two years. When his coach took a job coaching at the University of Notre Dame , Sockalexis transferred there. In 1897 he signed as an outfielder with the Cleveland Spiders. Much like Jackie Robinson half a century later, he endured racial slurs anytime he stepped up to the plate, not to mention war whoops and war dances. New York Giants manager John J. McGraw considered Sockalexis the greatest natural talent he had ever seen, but alcoholism cut short his playing career after only two years. Sockalexis spent his last years coaching baseball at the reservation where he grew up. When he died of heart failure on Christmas Eve 1913, at age 42, he had old press clippings in his pocket. By then the Spiders had been renamed the Naps for player Napoleon Lajoie. But after his Lajoie’s departure, a local paper asked fans to suggest a new name for the team. One reader suggested “Indians” as a tribute Sockalexis. A year late the team was renamed the Indians. The debate continues as to whether the team was renamed for him. (His cousin Andrew Sockalexis competed in the 1912 Olympics as a marathon runner.) McGraw said of him: “If Sock had stayed up for five years he could well have been better than Cobb, Wagner or Ruth.”

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