The American Indian in the Major Leagues

This article was written by Stephen I. Thompson

This article was published in the 1983 Baseball Research Journal


During the long segregated era between 1887 and 1947, from the year that Moses and Welday Walker played for Toledo of the old American Association until the arrival of Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn, the most visible racial minority in major league baseball, apart from an occasional suspiciously swarthy Cuban, consisted of American Indians. While the very fact of their presence was an indication that they never faced the same level of prejudice and hostility endured by blacks, Indians nevertheless encountered (and sometimes still encounter) a considerable degree of discrimination. One of the most insightful chapters in Larry Ritter’s classic, The Glory of Their Times, is based on his interviews with Chief Meyers, the slugging catcher who played for McGraw’s Giants and, in the twilight of his career, for the Dodgers and Braves, from 1909 to 1917. Although he had spent several years at Dartmouth, and was therefore substantially better educated than the vast majority of ballplayers of that time, Meyers, a Cahuilla Indian from California, was treated as a “foreigner,” and an inferior foreigner at that. He answered with his bat, compiling a lifetime batting average of .291. His 1912 mark of .358 was second in the league only to Heinie Zimmerman’s .372.

Indeed, the nickname “Chief,” which was applied to virtually every Indian baseball player from the l890s to the l950s, is itself a subtle indication of racism. Although James Skipper’s 1981 Baseball Research Journal article on nicknames placed ‘Chief’ in the miscellaneous rather than the ethnic category, a glance through the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia reveals that almost every bearer of that cognomen in baseball history has been Indian – “Chief” Meyers, “Chief” Bender, “Chief” Yellowhorse, Allie “Big Chief” Reynolds, and so on. Many modern American Indians, who may be somewhat more sensitive in this regard than theft fathers and grandfathers, regard ‘Chief’ as a pejorative racial epithet; readers who do not have much opportunity to interact with Indians should be advised that calling an Indian “Chief” may tend to generate much the same reaction as calling a black man “Boy.”

So far as I have been able to determine, the first Indian to reach the major leagues, or at least the first to have any significant impact, was Louis Sockalexis, an outfielder with the Cleveland Spiders of the National League from 1897 to 1899. Sockalexis was a Penobscot from Maine, who, like Meyers, attended college — in this case, Holy Cross – before becoming a professional player. According to Bud Leavitt, author of a highly informative article on Sockalexis in the December 22, 1979 issue of the Bangor Daily News, he compiled batting averages of .436 and .444 in two years of college ball, while pitching three no-hitters and six shutouts. He captured the imagination of many fans when he broke into the majors in April 1887. Leavitt quotes a Boston newspaper account of this debut: “His batting was wonderful, his fielding marvelous, and his great speed permits him to steal bases at will.” In June he belted a home run off speedballer Amos Rusie of the Giants, one of the top hurlers of that era. Sockalexis went on to chalk up a batting average of .338 in 1897, while stealing 16 bases in 66 games. Sadly, in the following year he batted only 67 times in 21 games and his average declined to .224, and in 1899, his last year in the majors, he got into only seven games, batted 22 times, and hit 273.

This abrupt decline was attributable to the bane of many American Indians, then and now – alcohol. This is not the place for a lengthy discussion of the reasons for the extraordinarily high rate of alcoholism among Indians; suffice it to say that a huge scholarly literature exists on the subject, much of it dealing with the relative significance of physiological and socioeconomic factors, and that a consensus seems to have emerged in recent years that social causes are paramount. Indian drinking, in other words, is primarily a response to poverty, substandard living conditions, and economic despair. Whatever the reason, in Sockalexis’s case it destroyed the career of a man who, according to Hughie Jennings, the old Oriole and long-time Detroit manager (quoted by Leavitt): “. . .should have been the greatest player of all time – greater than

Cobb, Wagner, Lajoie, Hornsby, and any of the other men who made history for the game of baseball.”

Louis left one lasting legacy, however. His last year in the majors, 1899, was also the last year for the Cleveland Spiders in the National League. The Cleveland franchise resurfaced in the new American League in 1901 as the “Bronchos,” became the “Blues” from 1902 to 1904 and then the “Naps,” after manager and Hall of Fame second baseman Nap Lajoie. Lajoie relinquished the managerial reins in 1909, although the nickname lingered until 1911 From 1912 to 1914 the team was known as the “Molly McGuires,” a sobriquet as deservedly forgotten as the Boston “Bees” and the Pittsburgh “Innocents.” In 1915 a Cleveland newspaper held a contest to select a new name for the club, and “Indians” was the landslide winner, inspired, according to Franklin Lewis’s team history, by the memory of Sockalexis’ one brilliant season.

Certainly the most famous Indian athlete ever to appear in the majors, although far from the greatest baseball player, was Jim Thorpe. Thorpe broke in with the Giants in 1913, stayed through 1915, came back up with the Reds in 1917, was traded back to New York the same year, and closed out his career in 1919 with the Braves. He was never more than a part-time player. The only year in which he appeared in more than 100 games was 1917, and he managed only a .231 batting average that season in 308 at bats. The fact of the matter is that, in spite of his incredible athletic prowess, Thorpe was a mediocre baseball player at best, who never learned to hit the curve ball; his lifetime average was a mere .252. Perhaps Ted Williams was right when he described hitting a round ball traveling 90 miles an hour with a cylindrical bat as the most difficult single feat in all of sports. In any event, it is ironic that it was baseball “professionalism” that cost Thorpe his Olympic gold medals, an injustice only recently rectified; the single sport in which he did not excel led to the forfeiture of his well-deserved rewards for performance in the others.

Although a fairly strong case could be made for the Hall of Fame candidacy of several Indian ball players – Meyers, Allie Reynolds, Bob Johnson, Rudy York — the only one thus far enshrined there is Charles Albert “Chief” Bender, the great pitcher of Connie Mack’s old Philadelphia Athletics. Bender, an Ojibwa (Chippewa) from Minnesota, attended the Carlisle Indian School. He arrived in the majors with the A’s in 1903 and stayed with them through the 1914 season, twice (in 1910 and 1913) winning more than 20 games. His best ERA, 1.58 in 1910, was, incredibly, only good enough for fifth in the league that year; Ed Walsh of the White Sox led with 1.27. Bender pitched in five World Series for Mack, compiling a 6-4 mark. His Series high point came in 1905, when he shut out the Giants, 3-0, on four hits. However, that was the only game won by the A’s in that classic, as Christy Mathewson chalked up three complete game victories without allowing a run. In fact, every contest in that five-game Series was a shutout, with Joe McGinnity, who had been Bender’s victim in game two, blanking Philadelphia 1-0 in the fourth game.

Bender jumped to Baltimore of the Federal League in 1915, returned to Philadelphia with the Phillies for the 1916 and 1917 seasons, and made a token one-inning appearance with the White Sox in 1925 at the age of 42. His career won-lost percentage (210-128, .621) and earned run average (2.45) would be somewhat improved if his woeful 1915 Federal League stats (4-16, 3.99 ERA) were dropped, but they are still somewhat marginal for a Hall of Famer. One suspects that his presence on the same pitching staff as Rube Waddell and Eddie Plank, both of whom were elevated to the Hall in 1946, seven years before Bender, and Jack Coombs, who has not been enshrined but perhaps should have been, played a part in his own selection.

In contrast with Meyers, Bender denied having been the victim of any discrimination during his big league career. In Touching Base: Professional Baseball and American Culture in the Progressive Era, Steven A. Riess quotes a 1910 Chicago Daily News interview with Bender in which the Indian states that: “There has been scarcely a trace of sentiment against me on account of birth. I have been treated the same as other men.” It may be noteworthy, however, that the interview in question occurred while Bender was still an active player, negotiating annual contracts and living from day to day with teammates and opponents who presumably read the newspapers – and at a time when according to Riess, “Baseball’s propagandists (were) effectively publiciz(ing) the Indian background of these big leaguers (Bender and Meyers) as proof of the sport’s democratic recruitment policies” Meyers, on the other hand, was interviewed by Ritter long after his career was over, when he was no longer potentially subject to any sanctions imposed either by management or by other players.

The good conduct and performance of Bender and Meyers probably helped other Indians reach the majors. In fact, Mack was so pleased with Bender he gave Louis Bruce, a Mohawk from New York State, a chance at several positions with the A’s in 1904. But Mack thought the little fellow (5’5” 145 lbs.) was not aggressive enough and sent him to the minors, where he played for a numbers of years. He later became a Methodist minister, and lived to be 91. In 1905,

the New York Highlanders (Yankees) recruited Louis LeRoy, a Seneca, from the Carlisle Indian School. He pitched parts of three years with the Highlanders and Red Sox. Later he was a star hurler with St. Paul in the American Association where, in 1910, he appeared in 60 games and pitched a no-hitter. Ben lineup, a full-blooded Cherokee, was described as the “millionaire Indian” when he broke in as a pitcher with the Phillies in 1914. It was a misnomer; he did own 500 acres of land in Oklahoma, but there were no oil wells on it. After military service in World War I, he spent 13 years with Louisville, where one of his star teammates was outfielder Joe Guyon, a Carlisle alumnus of the Thorpe era, who also played pro football well enough to achieve the Hall of Fame. Moses Yellowhorse, a full-blooded Pawnee, was a fan favorite in Pittsburgh, where he pitched in relief in 1921-22. His name was proposed for the Pirates’ new stadium in 1970, but Three Rivers was selected.

Elon Hogsett, a Cherokee from Kansas, had a long minor league apprenticeship before the Tigers brought him up late in the 1929 season. The stocky southpaw hurler with “the sugarbowl haircut” shut out the Browns in one of his first starts on September 22 and went on to a ten-year career in the American League. He was a moderately successful relief hurler and pitched in the 1934 and 1935 World Series for the Bengals. He talked very little and had an ideal roommate in Charlie Gehringer, a “notorious nontalker.”

There were several part-Indians who made names for themselves during the Depression Years. They included Pepper Martin, who was called “The Wild Horse of the Osage.” the Johnson brothers. Roy and Bob, John Whitehead, the White Sox hurler called “Silent John,” and slugger Rudy York, the part-Cherokee from Alabama.

Probably the most prominent Indian player of the post-World War II years was Allie Reynolds, the fine Yankee pitcher of the late 1940s and early l9SOs. Reynolds, part-Creek, was born in Bethany, Oklahoma, outside of Oklahoma City, in 1915. His father was a minister, which meant, in that pre-Little League era when aspiring young players acquired most of their early experience in weekend sandlot games, that he was forbidden to play on Sundays. He attended Oklahoma A & M University (now Oklahoma State) on a track scholarship. In these days when Cadillacs and sports cars seem to materialize mysteriously in the garages of many star college athletes, Reynolds recalls somewhat wryly that the term of his scholarship required him to work half-time for the magnificent hourly wage of 20 cents.

In addition to running in the l00 and 220 yard dashes and throwing the javelin on the track team, Reynolds played three years of varsity football as a collegian, and says that he once threw a football 97 yards in the air. With some pride he quotes Clarence Gallagher, former A & M and Olympic wrestling coach, who called him the greatest natural athlete he had ever seen. At that time baseball was the only professional sport that offered any genuine career opportunity, however. When Reynolds was approached by a Cleveland scout, Hank Iba, legendary A & M basketball coach, helped him negotiate a $2,000 signing bonus – big money in 1939. After a couple of years in the minors, he was called up by Cleveland late in the 1942 season, pitching five scoreless innings in two games, and was to remain in the majors continuously through 1954. He recalls that his first big league start, in 1943, was a shutout of the Yankees in old League Park.

Reynolds put in four solid seasons with the Indians — chalking up an 18-12 mark in 1945 with a fifth place club – but his glory years were in pin stripes. The trade that took him to the Yankees was one of the blockbuster deals in baseball history, and one of the few that can genuinely be said to have helped both teams — Allie Reynolds for Joe Gordon in October of 1946. Almost certainly, Cleveland would not have won the 1948 pennant without Gordon’s bat (32 home runs, 124 runs batted in, a .280 average) and his steady glove at second base; equally certainly, several of the Yankees’ record run of five consecutive pennants from 1949 to 1953 would have eluded them without Reynolds on the mound.

Those of us who are old enough to remember Reynolds as an active player inevitably think of him in conjunction with Joe Page. Allie himself used to joke about being only a seven-inning pitcher, who relied on the ace left-handed reliever to come in and save the game for him. It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, to check the record book and discover that, in his premier season, 1952, he completed 24 of the 29 games he started – and this was long before the designated hitter rule. His 2.08 ERA led the league that year, and he registered 20 victories while losing only eight.

Reynolds today is a successful, happy, and mellow man. When I wrote him in 1982 requesting an interview, he replied that he would be glad to talk to me, but only after the end of quail season. I asked if he had ever been discriminated against because of his race, and his answer was that he was always too big to pick on; his playing weight was 210 pounds. Although he says that he never tried to hit a batter deliberately, he was a master of the high inside pitch with two strikes on the hitter. He recalls that the first time he faced his fellow Indian, Rudy York, a pitch got away from him and sailed behind York’s head. York, he says, did not get a hit off him for the next two years.

Unlike some other old-timers, Reynolds does not resent the high salaries made by modern players. Because training methods are improved, all athletes, baseball players included, are better today, he says. His own first major league contract offer, which he turned down, called for only $400 a month. One of the few college-educated players of his era, he served as American League player representative from 1951 to 1953. At that time the minimum big league salary was $7,000.

When he retired from baseball, Reynolds was offered a job as a money raiser for oil deals in his native Oklahoma. He didn’t enjoy being essentially a promoter, and after a couple of years he took a position with a small drilling fluids company. Within five years he had bought the business, and today is chairman of the board of what has become a flourishing concern. Although he freely admits that it was his baseball fame that got him his initial entree into the oil business, the impression you get talking to this remarkable man is that he would have achieved his current position, albeit perhaps a little more slowly, even if he had never played major league ball. His baseball background, did, of course, help him achieve the office of President of the American Association, which he held 1969-71.

In addition to this business activities, he is involved in various community affairs. An impressive new baseball facility at his alma mater, Oklahoma State, is named after him, and he was prominent in raising funds for its construction, contributing a substantial amount himself. As busy as he is, however, he took time to pay regular visits to another great player of the past, Lloyd Waner, in the nursing home where Waner was confined until his recent death.

A few years ago Reynolds was approached by some of his fellow Creeks and asked to run for the office of Chief of the Creek Nation. The Creeks, like many other contemporary American Indian groups, are divided into two major political factions, “traditionalists” and “progressives.” Reynolds lost the election, because, he was told, many of the old people thought he “lived too much like a white man.” His reply was that, “We live in a white man’s world, and I can deal with it a lot better than they can.”

It is interesting to contrast the careers, both in and out of baseball, of Louis Sockalexis and Allie Reynolds. Both were blessed with superb God-given athletic ability, and both were thereby enabled to secure far better educations than most young Indians of their respective times. Each then got off to an impressive start in major league baseball. Reynolds clearly could cope with this success, and was able subsequently to capitalize on his baseball renown to achieve prominence in the business world. Sockalexis had only one brilliant season, and then faded rapidly into obscurity; he died in 1913 at the young age of 42. Perhaps the social climate in the early 1940s, when Reynolds reached the majors, was somewhat more tolerant of minorities than it was in the 1890s, when Sockalexis made his debut. Sadly, however, one suspects that Reynolds probably represents an exception, and Sockalexis the rule. Baseball, like other professional sports, offers an avenue of social mobility to skilled athletes who, because they are members of ethnic and racial minorities, or just because they grow up in economically disadvantaged circumstances, might otherwise be doomed to lifetimes of poverty. A few, like Reynolds, are able to handle this sudden adulation emotionally and psychologically, and can take full advantage of the opportunities thus opened to them; too many more, as attested by recent revelations concerning alcoholism and drug abuse in professional sports, cannot – and become victims of the system and of their own success.

Baseball has given much to Allie Reynolds, and to Chief Meyers and Chief Bender and a handful of other Indian players, but they, and Louis Sockalexis, and Jim Thorpe, and Rudy York, and Cal McLish, and dozens of others, have given much more to baseball. It is a shame that their contribution has never been adequately acknowledged.

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