American Indians and Baseball
Native Americans went through a great transition from being on their own continent and having their own way of life to being told how to live and pushed off of their ground. Throughout time, the natives were forced onto reservations and had a tough time getting off. They were pushed to give up their language and customs by the colonists. The lives of those that lived on reservations were almost always ones of poverty. Soon, Native-Americans were in a vicious cycle where it became nearly impossible to get off of the reservation and live a life without poverty. They needed something that would give them hope and a way to get off the reservation. Native Americans used baseball not only for a way to connect with Euro-American lifestyle, but also used it as a tool to succeed. Baseball changed the way Native American’s lived, but in the process, Native American’s changed the game of baseball and helped make it the great game it is today.
Native Americans often played sports and games. One game that Native Americans often played before being forced onto reservations was stickball. Stickball was a game that resembles nowadays lacrosse. It is known that this game was played in the 1630’s and maybe even before then. The game included 100-1,000 men on each team, playing to represent their tribe against opposing villages or tribes. They would play the game on a large plain in between the two villages or tribes and the goals ranged from five hundred yards to a couple miles apart. The entire native tribe or village would be involved in some way, and they took great pride in the games. This was a great pastime of the Native Americans, that is, until they learned to play baseball.
Baseball was introduced to Native Americans in the early 1800’s. Lewis and Clark are said to have tried to teach an early version of baseball to members of the Nez Perce during the explorers' trek across North America from 1804-06 (Kekis 2008). By the late 1800’s, teams were being formed all over, on and off reservations. Kids ran and organized their own teams all over the reservations. There were teams made up of all females as well. These teams, mainly the male teams, started out strictly playing other Indian teams, but eventually started playing many of the local white teams. The children playing the games would often use their own language throughout the games. Not only did this help them retain some of their culture that the white authority was telling them to renounce, but when playing ‘all white teams’ the language was comparable to “coach’s signs” because the other team could not understand them.
“Baseball was well on its way to being the clear national pastime at that time, and it soon became a way to assimilate the Native American children into Euro-American life,” said David Laliberte, a History Professor at St. Cloud State University, recipient of the McFarland-Society for American Baseball Research Award in August for his article, “Myth, History and Indian Baseball: An Unexpected Story of the Game in Minnesota.” It was in the early 1900’s when baseball became America’s National Pastime.
A huge part of early attempts for Native-Americans to get formal education, religious conversion and assimilation into white society was the playing of sports such as baseball at federally operated boarding schools. The government would round up the Native-American children from the reservations and put them into these boarding schools to “Americanize” them.
The government wanted the Natives to be able to contribute more to their society and this was there method of choice.
Over 100,000 Native-American children attended these boarding schools. There were over 500 boarding schools, the first being opened in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1879 (American Indians in Baseball). These schools created sports teams, the most common being baseball. Young people learn great life lessons through being on a team and the baseball teams at these boarding schools prepared them in a way to be successful, in life and in baseball.
People recognize Jackie Robinson for breaking the color barrier in baseball when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, but long before that Native-Americans had dealt with the same issue in the Major Leagues. In 1897, when he first started playing with the Cleveland Spiders, Louis Sockalexis suffered more than his fair share of racial slurs and insults. Louis Sockalexis became the first ever player of Native-American decent to play in Major League Baseball.
Louis “Sock” Sockalexis was a Penobscot Indian from Maine. Because he was a Native-American, he was often referred to as “Chief,” a name that nearly every known Indian ballplayer came to be called. Sock was discovered in amateur leagues by a college scout. He was offered the first college-athletic scholarship of which he accepted from Notre Dame. After college, Louis was drafted by the Cleveland Spiders, a National League team, and he jumped all over the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues.
Louis received a tremendous amount of racist insults. While receiving insults, he would often just smile at the aggressors in the stands. “If the small and big boys of Brooklyn find it a pleasure to shout at me, I have no objections,” Sockalexis told the Brooklyn Eagle during his rookie season. “No matter where we play, I go through the same ordeal, and at the present time I am so used to it that at times I forget to smile at my tormentors” (Kekis 2008). He just thought that the flack he took was part of the game and expected that he would receive it. Names were often shouted at him that was very prejudice. Fans would sometimes imitate war whoops and dances when Sock came to their town to play.
His club owners and the press were also a big part of the racial struggles Louis had. They would use him as a way to bring in more spectators, and in turn make more money off of him. “Sportswriters later blamed his rapid decline to a big ‘Indian weakness,’ the abuse of alcohol, which continued to perpetuate one of the most dominant and enduring Native American stereotypes, that of the drunken and lazy Indian” (The Story of Louis Sockalexis). His career was cut short because of an accident that occurred, where Louis jumped out of second story window while intoxicated and severely hurt his ankle. Louis died in 1913, and in 1915 the Cleveland Spiders ball team changed their nickname to the “Indians” in memory of him. To this day the ball team is named the Cleveland Indians.
This was the first time that a team mascot was an Indian. Since then, many professional, collegiate, and high schools have had their mascot as Indians or Native-American tribes. Along with Cleveland, the other team in the Major Leagues today that has a Native-American mascot is the Atlanta Braves, which was formally the Milwaukee Braves. The Atlanta Brave’s organization set all of their Minor League team mascots as the Braves as well. Colleges around the nation have Native-American mascots, such as, the Florida State Seminoles and the North
Dakota Fighting Sioux. It does not stop with just baseball either. Teams, such as the Chicago Blackhawks (NHL) and Washington Redskins (NFL), represent themselves with an Indian mascot. This was all started with Louis Sockalexis and his contributions to baseball.
Since the late 1970’s, people have been raising arguments that sports teams, colleges, and high schools should not be allowed to have Native American mascots. They have claimed that it is offensive and that it has an impact on the way people treat Native Americans and the way that Natives see themselves. Since at least the 1970s, more than 600 colleges and high schools have changed their mascots in response (Wahlberg 2004). This brings about a few thoughts. Such as, if the first team named after an Indian was because of Louis Sockalexis, is it disrespecting him that people want to make it illegal to have Indian mascots unless it is a fully Indian team. Some would say that Sockalexis put in all that work and effort and was rewarded for it, and now people are trying to take away that reward. Others say that the name was given to the organization because the fans enjoyed it and it was used as a tool for marketing the team in hope to make for money for the organization directors (Staurowsky 1998). This has been a debate for the past 30 years and has many tangibles. As of now, there is no rule that says that a team cannot have a mascot of an Indian.
Another big-league player is “Chief” Charlie Bender. In 1903, he was the first Native-American to play in the American League. Bender, an Ojibwa, played for the Philadelphia Athletics for 11 seasons (Swift, 2009). Bender is known as the greatest Native-American ball player to date. Bender was a pitcher with a unique trademark delivery, many great pitches, and he introduced a pitch the game had never seen before. This pitch he came up with is thrown by almost every major league player today. The pitch is known now as a Slider. It gets its name from the movement of the ball when it slides, or curves, across one side of the plate to another while maintaining the same height off the ground. This pitch has changed the game, adding another off-speed pitch, or non-fastball, that if mastered can be a nearly impossible pitch for the batters to hit.
Chief Bender felt a little bit different about the racial side of the game than Sockalexis. Sockalexis merely expected the comments, while Bender said he did not feel they were said that often.
"The reason I went into baseball as a profession was that when I left school, baseball offered me the best opportunity both for money and achievement. I adopted it because I played baseball better than I could do anything else, because the life and the game appealed to me and because there was so little of racial prejudice in the game. There has been scarcely a trace of sentiment against me on account of birth. I have been treated the same as other men." - Chief Bender (Baseball Almanac)
He was known as “the coolest pitcher in the game.” His reputation as baseball’s great clutch pitcher in pennant races was confirmed by the five championships he helped his team win. Bender’s lifetime 212-127 pitching record, three seasons as a 20-game winner, and 1910 no-hitter game earned him his ticket to the Baseball Hall of Fame (Baseball Almanac). He is one of two Native-Americans to be admitted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, a group only 295 great players are a part of today.
The other Hall-of-Famer is Zack Wheat. Zack played during what is called the “Dead Ball Era.” It received its name because of the lack of power hitters and way of hitting. In those days, people played a lot of what we refer now to as “small ball.” This means there was a lot of bunting and strategic-placement hitting to try to advance base runners up a base, and not as much emphasis on trying to hit home runs. Although Wheat played great leftfield, he was known more for his hitting. He changed the style of hitting throughout baseball. He held the bat toward the end of the bat, which was new to the game. Most players in those days “choked up” on the bat a third to half of the way up the bat. With this new batting grip, it allowed for much more power hitting. With this technique, a new era of the game was born.
Before Wheat, there were not home-run hitters. Soon after Wheat introduced this new style, big name players like Babe Ruth entered the game and used this method to become the home run kings of the time. “The Babe” hit a record setting 29 homeruns in the 1919 season, which was a tremendous accomplishment of the time. The previous average for most homeruns in a season was around 10 (Oxendine, 1995).
Wheat played 17 seasons with the Brooklyn Superbas and ended his career with one season as a Philadelphia Athletic. He had a career batting average of .317. With his new style of hitting, he accumulated 2,884 hits, 132 homeruns, and 1,248 runs batted in throughout his 18 years in the Majors (Oxendine, 1995). These stats are what made him a worthy entry to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Zack Wheat changed the style of hitting by adding power hitting to the game, changed the fundamentals of the game, and made a huge impact on how we see baseball being played today.
Over 50 Native-Americans have played in the Major Leagues, including the currently-active Joba Chamberlin, from Winnebago Nation, of the New York Yankees and Jacoby Ellsbury, a Navajo, of the Boston Red Sox. They gained this opportunity from those before them who broke the barriers into the Major Leagues. People like Chief Bender, who went through the boarding schools and used it to their advantage with baseball.
Not only did baseball have an impact on many Native American lives, Native Americans had an effect on baseball. Teams’ names have been changed, racial barriers have been broken, new techniques were acquired, and the sport has become better because of Native-Americans. Native Americans went from being on their own continent, to being pushed onto reservations, into boarding schools, and then to using that to get to the Major Leagues. The benefits the game of baseball gained from the involvement of Native Americans is incredible. Baseball is America’s pastime, and it is a game that affects the lives of many.
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