Moses YellowHorse, Pittsburgh Pirate

This article was written by George Skornickel

This article was published in The National Pastime: Steel City Stories (Pittsburgh, 2018)

Moses YellowHorse was 23 years old when he made his major league debut in 1921 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Said to have been the first full-blooded Native American to play in the majors, the Pawnee may also have been the darkest-skinned major leaguer since the color line was drawn in the late 19th century. Certainly no big-leaguer before him had a name that sounded more Native American than Moses YellowHorse. From Jim Thorpe and Chief Bender to Louis Sockalexis, who helped put the “Indian” in the Cleveland Indians, indigenous people had been sporadically represented on the rosters of major league teams since before World War I.

Moses attended the Federal Indian School at Chilocco, Oklahoma, where he honed his baseball skills by throwing stones at rabbits and squirrels for the cook pot. At the age of 19, in 1917, he was playing both varsity and semipro ball. By 1920, he helped pitch the Little Rock Travelers to the Southern Association championship with a record of 21 wins and 7 losses.

On September 16, YellowHorse’s contract was purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Sporting News reported: “The sale of Moses Yellowhorse was rather un-expected, not that the Indian is not worthy of advancement, but it was generally expected that the young Pawnee would be allowed to spend another season here.”[fn]The Sporting News, September 16, 1921.[/fn] The Pawnee Chief’s writer wrote, “YellowHorse is sure to make good. He is a close student and soaks up every ounce of information that is given in a wise manner. The Indian will keep National League batters swinging with one foot free when he is on the mound. He has terrific speed, but wonderful control of it. He also has a good curve ball and controls it equally as well as his fast one.”[fn]“Pirates Pawnee pitcher went ‘way of all bad Injuns,” Sports Collectors Digest, March 4, 1994: 60.[/fn]

Later it was revealed that the purchase of YellowHorse by the Pirates was a ruse to prevent his being drafted from Little Rock. The Pirates were to return him to the Travelers for the 1921 season, but YellowHorse pitched so well in spring training that manager George Gibson insisted on keeping him for the season, whatever the price that might be asked for his release. Gibson’s judgment seemed justified. YellowHorse demonstrated in his brief trials that he was worth it to a club that needed just one more winning pitcher to make it a pennant favorite.

Although Native people were not formally banned from baseball, Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss’s signing of YellowHorse flew in the face of tradition. From time to time a few Native people—like Thorpe, Bender, and Chief Meyers—had made it to the majors, but because of their mixed ancestry, the color line had not been invoked.[fn]William Jakub, “Moses YellowHorse: The Tragic Career of a Pittsburgh Pirate,” Pittsburgh History, Winter 1995/96.[/fn] So how did Moses YellowHorse, “as dark as the previous night’s lunar eclipse,” gain entry in the league?[fn]Todd Fuller, 60 Feet Six Inches And Other Distances from Home (Saint Paul, Minnesota: Holy Cow! Press, 2002), 142.[/fn]

For one thing, Dreyfuss was a powerful force, and Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis was intrigued by YellowHorse’s American Indian heritage.[fn]”Mose J. Yellowhorse, Pawnee baseball player,” AAA Native Arts,[/fn] Landis’s fascination with YellowHorse was so great that in the spring of YellowHorse’s first season with the Pirates, the commissioner summoned manager Gibson and YellowHorse to his chambers. After their meeting, highlighted by a question and answer session, Landis was impressed by the Pirates’ latest addition.[fn]Pittsburgh Gazette, April 21, 1921.[/fn] Many newspapermen were impressed by him too. The Sporting News reported, “Fandom here has gone wild with Moses YellowHorse, the young Indian slabman, who has been used to date only as a relief artist. They like the young Indian’s actions, and are convinced he is going to shine when given the right opportunity.”[fn]Pittsburgh Gazette, April 21, 1921.[/fn]

Other writers were mixed in their reviews. One anonymous scribe in the March 19 Sporting News wrote, “Pirates are comparing Moses YellowHorse, the Indian pitcher Barney Dreyfuss brought from Little Rock, to Chief Bender. All he lacks is Bender’s size, stuff and disposition. He’s an Indian, with two legs and two arms, not a bad pitching prospect at that, however, but hardly a Bender.”[fn]The Sporting News, March 19, 1921.[/fn]

A Pittsburgh tradition was born with YellowHorse’s penchant for successful relief pitching appearances. It wasn’t long before fans began to chant, “Put in YellowHorse” whenever the starting pitcher faltered. The chant became so ingrained during his short career with Pittsburgh that it survived him by many years. Jim Nasium, a Sporting News writer, related in a 1926 column that during a lecture at the nearby University of Pittsburgh, a professor became lost in his notes, confused, and tongue-tied, and that his stammering was interrupted by a student who yelled, “Put in YellowHorse.”[fn]The Sporting News, March 19, 1921.[/fn]

In a July 5 game against the Cardinals, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound reliever suffered an arm injury that required surgery and shelved him for two months. His 5-3 record helped the Pirates finish in second place, four games behind the New York Giants. Had he been healthy, he might have significantly altered their finish, but he was sorely missed by the Pirates and the fans.

Because of his long layoff, YellowHorse’s teammates voted him only a 2/5 share of their second-place money. Commissioner Landis overruled the decision and decreed him a full share.

Much blame for the failure to win the pennant was placed upon manager Gibson, who was accused of being unable to discipline his team. The press was rife with charges of heavy drinking against unnamed players. Bill McKechnie replaced Gibson as manager and Gibson warned McKechnie that he would have to keep an eye on roommates YellowHorse and Rabbit Maranville. Maranville gave YellowHorse the nickname Chief, and his first drink of whiskey.

YellowHorse had insomnia and couldn’t sleep in hotel rooms. McKechnie, in a stroke of genius, decided the best way to keep an eye on his two problem children was to have them room with him. McKechnie would rent hotel suites with three beds, taking the third himself.

As Pat Harmon reported in the Cincinnati Post and Times Star:

The first night on the road, McKechnie entered the suite about 9 p.m. only to discover YellowHorse and Maranville playing a game. They were standing on the window ledge, 16 stories above the ground, catching pigeons by scooping them off the ledge.

Maranville had made a bet with YellowHorse that he could get more pigeons in fifteen minutes than YellowHorse. Rabbit won 8-5. But the fun wasn’t over. McKechnie then opened a closet door. Out flew several pigeons. McKechnie immediately retreated and went to another closet to hang up his coat. “Don’t open the door,” Maranville warned. “The chief has his pigeons in there.” Following that incident, McKechnie got a room by himself.[fn]Pat Harmon, “Chief Yellowhorse and the Rabbit,” Cincinnati Post & Times-Star, April 24, 1964.[/fn]

Dissatisfaction with YellowHorse began to surface among Pirates fans after he got  injured and had surgery. His drinking problem had also become well known. An October newspaper account predicted that “as a pitcher and player his days are few.” Sadly, this was the same paper that earlier in the year had touted him the “best all-round player.”[fn]Jim Nasium, The Sporting News, 1926.[/fn] YellowHorse was not meeting the expectations of the owners, either. He did little to dispel stereotypes about Native Americans with his drinking and disruptive behavior

Years later, Tribal leader Earl Chapman told of YellowHorse drinking during the Pirates’ 1922 games. Not in the bullpen, but while he was pitching. According to Chapman’s tale, YellowHorse would signal the Pittsburgh groundskeeper that the mound needed more dirt. The groundskeeper would then come out and put shots of whiskey all around the mound. YellowHorse would then sneak shots without anybody noticing and—if you believe Chapman’s tale—he never got caught.[fn]Harmon, “Chief Yellowhorse and the Rabbit.”[/fn]

YellowHorse’s effectiveness both as a pitcher and a crowd pleaser waned as the 1922 season wore on. Alcohol had a definite deleterious effect on his performance. Both Dreyfuss and McKechnie were disheartened. Healthy except for a bout with tonsillitis that cost him a few weeks in early August, YellowHorse appeared in 28 games for Pittsburgh in 1922, all but four of them in relief. He compiled a 3–1 record and a 4.52 ERA.

In December, YellowHorse was traded along with three other players and $7,500 to the Sacramento Senators of the Pacific Coast League for pitching phenom Earl Kuns. The trade to Sacramento meant the end of YellowHorse’s career in the major leagues.

He played sporadically in the minors over the next two years. In 1923, as the ace of the pitching staff, he helped the Senators to a second-place finish. He ended the season with a 22-13 record and an ERA of 3.68.

YellowHorse injured his arm midway through the 1924 season. Other than a few games in 1926, that was the end of his time in Organized Baseball. At the age of 28, he returned home to Pawnee, Oklahoma.

YellowHorse was a barely functional alcoholic until 1945. He then spent time and energy with tribal concerns. He helped establish and coached in youth baseball, umpired for semipro games, and pitched from time to time. Much of his time was spent teaching Pawnee traditions, ceremonies, and language, which were disappearing. YellowHorse never abandoned his Pawnee heritage.[fn]Fuller, “60 Feet Six Inches,” 54.[/fn]

In 1935, a character based on YellowHorse appeared in the comic strip Dick Tracy. Cartoonist Chester Gould,who also grew up in Pawnee, always included aspects of his hometown in the comic. Yellow Pony was a hero who helped capture Boris and Zora Arson, two escaped convicts. His character, however, was portrayed in a racist manner, speaking in guttural, grunting, English. Initially introduced as a naive character, Yellow Pony developed into an ardent crime fighter, shooting villains and helping Tracy plot the capture of various criminals.

Moses YellowHorse “thought Yellow Pony was funny” and the portrayal, he said, “wasn’t a big deal.”[fn]Jakub, “Moses YellowHorse.”[/fn]

GEORGE SKORNICKEL is a retired educator who has been a Pirates fan for over 60 years. He is the president of the Forbes Field Chapter and has presented at SABR 44 in Houston and SABR 45 in Chicago, Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference in 2012 and 2014, the Frederick Ivor-Campbell 19th Century Baseball Conference in 2017, and the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture in 2017 and 2018. He has been published in the “Baseball Research Journal” and Sweet ’60: The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, and is the author of “Beat ’Em Bucs: The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates.” He lives outside of Pittsburgh in Fawn Township with his wife Kathy and two Labs, Maz and Dexter.