The Rise and Fall of Louis Sockalexis

This article was written by Jay Feldman

This article was published in the 1986 Baseball Research Journal


A mixture of fact arid fiction surrounds the legendary Penobscot’s career. Although he was an instant success in his debut with Cleveland, his great start was negated by an old drinking problem.

 

  This is bounding Sockalexis,

  Fielder of the mighty Clevelands.

  Like the catapult in action,

  For the plate he throws the baseball,

  Till the rooter, blithely rooting,

  Shouts until he shakes the bleachers.

  “Sockalexis, Sockalexis,

  Sock it to them Sockalexis.”

                  – 1897 poem, author unknown

 

Every year the Cleveland Indians Media Guide contains a short item called “History of Cleveland     Names,” which traces the titles of Cleveland’s professional baseball clubs, beginning with the Forest Citys (1869) and continuing through the Spiders (1889), Blues (1900), Bronchos (1902) and Naps (1903).

The last- and longest- entry on the list reads: “1915 – INDIANS. (A local newspaper ran a contest and the name Indians was suggested by a fan who said he was doing it in honor of an Indian player named Luis [sic] Francis Sockalexis, who was known as the Chief – the first American Indian to play in the major leagues. He was born in Old Towne [sic], Maine in 1873 and played three seasons in a Cleveland uniform. In 1897 he hit .331, which was his best in the three seasons. The Chief died in 1913.)”

As interesting and informative as this brief history may be, it doesn’t begin to tell the remarkable and poignant story of Sockalexis’ meteoric big league career. Nor does it give any hint of the intriguing process by which, in the three-quarters of a century since his death, his life and deeds have taken on near-mythic proportions. Stories with little or no factual basis get repeated and embellished in a sort of historical folk-process version of the old party game of “Telephone” until Sockalexis takes on a Paul Bunyanesque aspect. In the legend of Louis Sockalexis, the threads of fact and fiction are intricately woven together into a tapestry of heroic dimensions, and while separating those threads is often difficult and sometimes impossible, one thing remains absolutely clear: Without question, Louis Francis Sockalexis ranks among the truly tragic figures in baseball history, a man of immense talent and unlimited potential whose “tragic flaw” led inevitably and inexorably to his downfall.

A Penobscot whose grandfather had been a tribal chief, Sockalexis was born on October 24, 1871 (not 1873 as indicated in the Indians Media Guide). He starred in track, football and baseball in high school and prep school, but it was on the diamond, where he batted left and threw right, that Sockalexis really shone. Possessed of a cannon arm, a powerful swing and blazing foot speed, “Sock” tore up the summer leagues around Maine in the early 1890s, and his reported feats from this period quickly took on a legendary quality: hitting a baseball the length of the Penobscot reservation (600 feet); throwing a baseball (1) over the top of a hotel tower, (2) over a ballpark grandstand and two rows of houses, and (3) across the Penobscot River.

It was in these summer leagues, supposedly, that an opposing manager named Gilbert Patten was so inspired by the Indian’s play that he used Sockalexis as the model for his enormously popular Frank Merriwell stories for boys, written under the pen name of Burt L. Standish.

Sock’s summer-league exploits also attracted the attention of fellow player Mike “Doc” Powers. Powers; who would later play with the Philadelphia Athletics, was then captain of the baseball team at Holy Cross, and he recruited Sockalexis for the college’s nine. Turning down an offer to play professionally in the New England League, Sock entered the Worcester, Mass., school in the fall of 1894 as a “special student.”

During his two-season college career, the bigger-than-life Sockalexis image continued to grow. In one game against Brown, he stole six bases (two for himself and four as a designated runner for an injured Holy Cross player). In another game he went 4-for-5 at the plate, including a home run that cleared the fence and broke a fourth-story window in the Brown University chapel. Against Williams College Sockalexis is reputed to have hit a ball over the center fielder’s head and scored standing up before the outfielder had even caught up with the ball. His overall batting average at Holy Cross was .444.

The stories of his Herculean throws from the outfield abound. One is described in the Worcester Telegram account of the `96 Holy Cross-Georgetown game: “The crowd went into ecstasies over many plays, but there was one which raised their hair. It was a throw by Sockalexis from center field which cut off a run at the plate. It was a magnificent liner from the shoulder passing through the air like a cannon ball and reaching home plate in plenty of time.” Another oft-repeated tale tells how, in a game against Harvard, a batter hit a ball well over the Indian’s head. The playing field had no fence, and the ball rolled beyond some trees into a tennis court.

Sockalexis, so the story goes, chased the ball down and threw a frozen rope to the pitcher, thereby holding the batter to a triple. After the game, two Harvard professors who were at the game measured the distance of the throw at 414 feet.

In 1897 Sockalexis followed Doc Powers to Notre Dame, where he was observed by Cleveland Spiders’ star and future Hall of Famer Jesse Burkett, who arranged a tryout with the National League club. Manager Patsy Tebeau signed Sock on sight for $1,500 a year.

Sockalexis was an instantaneous success. Before the season even began, he was a hero. The March 27, 1897 issue of Sporting Life contained this report: “SOCKALEXIS, THE INDIAN, came to town Friday, and in 24 hours was the most popular man about the Kennard House, where he is stopping. He is a massive man, with gigantic bones and bulging muscles, and looks a ball player from the ground up to the top of his five feet, 11 inches of solid frame work. In a letter to [Spiders’] President Robison, Mr. John Ward says: `I congratulate you on securing Sockalexis. I have seen him play perhaps a dozen games, and I unhesitatingly pronounce him a wonder. Why he has not been snapped up before by some League club looking for a sensational player is beyond my comprehension.’. . . They’re Indians now. There is no feature of the signing of Sockalexis more gratifying than the fact that his presence on the team will result in relegating to obscurity the title of `Spiders’ by which the team has been handicapped for several reasons, to give place to the more significant name `Indians.’

On the field Sockalexis was equally sensational. For the first two and one-half months of the season his name was in the headlines on a daily basis for his spectacular hitting and fielding, and he became the hottest gate attraction in baseball.

On June 16 the Cleveland club came to the Polo Grounds for the first time, and the park was packed with New York fans eager to see pitcher Amos Rusie even the score with Sockalexis. In their first meeting Sock had tagged the Giants’ ace for two hits. Rusie, who would later be elected to the Hall of Fame, owned the best curveball of the day, and the New York press had hyped the showdown for weeks. When Sockalexis came to bat in the first inning, a group in the bleachers rose to their feet and split the air with derisive war whoops. Undeterred, Sock smacked a Rusie curveball over the right fielder’s head for a home run, bringing the war whoops to an abrupt end.

On July 3 Sockalexis was hitting .328 (81-for-247), with 40 runs scored, 39 RBIs and 16 stolen bases. And then, suddenly, the bottom fell out. He did not appear in the lineup again until July 8; he played on July 11 and 12, not again until July 24-25 and after that only three more times the remainder of the season.

Hughie Jennings, another future Hall of Famer, would later describe our hero’s precipitous downfall in a series of syndicated reminiscences called Rounding Third (1926). “The turning point in his career came in Chicago,” wrote Jennings. “It happened as a result of a play in the opening game of the series. When Cleveland came to bat in the ninth, the score was 3-0 in favor of Chicago. Cleveland filled the bases with two out, and Sockalexis came to bat. He hit a home run. Then, in the home half of the inning, Chicago got two men on bases with as many out.”

The batter smashed a long drive to the outfield. It looked like a home run, but Sockalexis made an almost impossible one-handed catch of the ball. His home run and his catch enabled Cleveland to win, 4-3.

“After the game the Spiders ce1ebrated their unusual victory. Sockalexis, the hero of the occasion, was finally induced to take a drink by the jibes of his more or less intoxicated teammates. It was the first taste he ever had of liquor, and he liked it. He liked the effects even better, and from that time on Sockalexis was a slave to whiskey.”

Great tale that it is, there are only two small problems with Jennings’ story: (1) Except for a single grain of truth, it’s a total fabrication; (2) from 1926 on, everyone who wrote about Sockalexis took the Jennings fable as gospel, and with subsequent embellishments this concocted incident became one of the cornerstones of the Sockalexis legend – the unquestioned beginning of his swift and irreversible slide – and in this form it has survived to the present day.

To begin with, none of the three home runs Sock hit in `97 came against Chicago. The one shred of veracity in the story is traceable to three consecutive games played in St. Louis at the beginning of the season. The following game accounts from the May 8, 1897 issue of Sporting Life not only indicate where Jennings found his inspiration, but also show how outstanding Sockalexis’ play was.

St. Louis vs. Cleveland at St. Louis, April 29. The Browns pulled an apparently lost game out of the fire in the ninth inning. With the score 6-4 against them, they went in, and singles by Dowd, Turner, Hartman and Bierbauer tied the score. With the bases full and two out, Sockalexis made a great catch of McFarland’s long fly, which saved the game for his side. [The game ended in a 6-6 tie.]

St. Louis vs. Cleveland at St. Louis, April 30. The Clevelands won their first game this season, defeating the Browns by a score of 12-4. . . . Sockalexis knocked the ball over the center field fence, one of the longest hits ever made on the home grounds. [Since Cleveland never scored more than two runs in any inning of the game, Sockalexis’ round-tripper couldn’t possibly have been a grand-slam.]

St. Louis vs. Cleveland at St. Louis, May 1. Sockalexis covered himself with glory. In five times at bat he made four hits, one a three-bagger when the bases were full. [Cleveland won the game, 8-3.]

Obviously, Jennings rolled these three games into one and came up with his neat little fiction. Equally untrue, and much more to the point, is the notion that Sockalexis had never touched a drop of whiskey in his life. In fact, he had once been reprimanded by the Jesuit fathers at Holy Cross for imbibing, and his Notre Dame career had come to an unceremonious end when he was dismissed from the school after having been arrested for public drunkenness. And when Cleveland owner Robison finally reached the point of fining and suspending Sockalexis at the beginning of August, `97, he was quoted in the August 7, 1897 edition of The Sporting News as saying, “It was reported to me quite early in the season, soon after Sockalexis had been secured by the Cleveland club, that he had been intoxicated, and I found on investigation and by authority which I could not doubt that the story was correct. I spoke to the Indian about it, and he admitted that he had been in such a condition but pleaded extenuating circumstances and promised to abstain from then on. For a time I heard no more stories, but lately it has come to my ears that he has been drinking a good deal, and I received indisputable evidence today that he had been intoxicated two nights this week.”

So, rather than fitting the convenient racial stereotype of the red man who takes one drink and becomes an incurable, overnight drunkard, it is clear that Sockalexis was no stranger to alcohol. It seems, moreover, particularly when confronted by Robison, that Sock was able to keep his drinking under control, for until July 3 he was playing every day and doing a more than adequate job. What happened, then, to cause such a dramatic reversal in Sockalexis’ fortunes?

According to a story later told by manager Tebeau, Sock had “celebrated the Fourth of July by an all-night carousal in a red light joint” and had either jumped or fallen from a second-story window. (Larry Rutenbeck of Wichita, Kan., who has done extensive research on Native Americans in baseball, points out that Sock was known as “The Red Romeo” and further notes that he may have been attempting to elude the said establishment’s bouncer when he went out the window.) In the process, he hurt his foot, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer of July 6, 1897 mentioned the injury in noting his absence from the lineup the previous day.

In its July 13 edition under the headline, “A WOODEN INDIAN,” the Plain Dealer account of the prior day’s 8-2 loss to Boston reported that Sockalexis “acted as if [he] had disposed of too many mint juleps previous to the game. . . . Sockalexis . . . was directly responsible for all but one of Boston’s runs. . . . A lame foot is the Indian’s excuse, but a Turkish bath and a good rest might be an excellent remedy.”

The foot injury, then, which forced him out of the lineup, was in all probability the catalyst for Sockalexis’ hitting the skids. When he was playing every day, he was able to hold his drinking to a manageable level, but sitting on the bench, he could no longer keep it together. He played once in August and twice in September and finished the year with’ a .338 average.

In 1898 he played in 21 games and hit .224, and the next year made only seven appearances before being released. He bounced around the New England minor leagues for a time, being picked up and released by one club after another. On August 24, 1900, the Holyoke (Mass.) Times told how “Louis Sockalexis, the once famous National League baseball player, appeared in court this morning on a charge of vagrancy and was given 30 days in the county jail. . . . Sockalexis presented a sorry appearance. His clothing indicated that it had been worn for weeks without change. His hair was unkempt, his face gaunt and bristly with several weeks’ growth of beard, and his shoes so badly broken that his toes were protruding. . . he attributed his downfall to firewater. He said, `They liked me on the baseball field, and I liked firewater.’

Sockalexis eventually returned to the anonymity of the Penobscot community, where he played some recreation ball with local clubs. He died on December 24, 1913, at the age of 42, while working as a wood cutter on a logging operation.

In 1915 Cleveland’s new American League team adopted the name “Indians.” In 1934 the State of Maine honored Sockalexis with a formal ceremony to unveil a monument at his grave in the Penobscot tribal cemetery. In 1956 he became the first inductee into the Holy Cross Athletic Hall of Fame.

In Rounding Third, Jennings wrote, “Yes, he might have been the greatest player of all time. He had a wonderful instinct and no man seemed to have so many natural gifts as Sockalexis.” Given Jennings’ track record for accuracy, this may well be hyperbole. Even if it is a bit of an exaggeration, though, it says something essential about Sockalexis: The man had some ineffable quality that caused people to idealize and romanticize him and his exploits – he thoroughly captured the popular imagination. Louis Sockalexis was the stuff that legends are made on.

 

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