AUGUSTA, Maine — Representatives of the Maine’s American Indian tribes are ramping up their campaign to gain public recognition and respect for two cousins from the Penobscot Nation who they claim have been largely forgotten or ignored by sports historians.
That campaign moved to Augusta on Wednesday when the House approved two resolutions honoring Louis and Andrew Sockalexis for their historic athletic feats during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
One of the resolutions urges the Major League Baseball to formally recognize Louis Sockalexis as the nation’s first American Indian professional baseball player and chastises both the Cleveland Indians and Sports Illustrated for perceived slights against both Sockalexises and native people in general.
“The Sockalexis cousins have been continuously and blatantly overlooked for their achievements,” Rep. Wayne Mitchell, the Penobscot tribal representative, said during a speech on the House floor. “It is a shame that it became necessary for us to present these resolutions today, but these two men have never been celebrated for their athletic feats.”
Louis Sockalexis played three seasons for the Cleveland Spiders between 1897 and 1899, batting .338 and stealing 16 bases during his initial season. Throughout his brief career in the Major Leagues and during his college years as a star player for both Holy Cross and Notre Dame, he was the subject of anti-Indian racism and taunts.
Ed Rice, author of the book “Baseball’s First Indian, Louis Sockalexis,” credited Sockalexis on Wednesday with breaking what he called the “red” color barrier decades before Jackie Robinson became the first black player in professional baseball. He describes Sockalexis as a “5-tool baseball player” for his ability to excel at hitting, fielding, running and other skills.
Rice, a Bangor native who now lives in Canada, also wrote a second book on Andrew Sockalexis, who finished second in the 1912 and 1913 Boston marathons and was a member of the 1912 U.S. Olympic team.
The joint resolution on Andrew Sockalexis recognizes him on the 90th anniversary of his death as “one of Maine’s great athletes.”
The resolution on Louis Sockalexis, however, takes a much stronger tone. It urges the National Baseball Hall of Fame to recognize Sockalexis as the first American Indian player, a title which is in some dispute.
It also calls on the Cleveland Indians — which Rice and others contend changed its name to the Indians in 1915 to honor Sockalexis — to drop the use of its mascot, “Chief Wahoo.” The Penobscot Nation first submitted a petition to the Cleveland Indians in 2000 urging them to stop using what they said was a racist and disre-spectful mascot.
Last, the resolution takes Sports Illustrated to task for omitting Louis Sockalexis’ name from a 1999 list of the 50 greatest athletes from Maine — an omission that both Rice and Mitchell see as yet another example of disrespect or racism for the Penobscot athlete.
“It’s time to dispel all of these myths,” said Mitchell, who remembers as a child trying to replicate Louis Sockalexis’ feat of throwing a ball across the Penobscot River. “It’s time to recognize these athletes for who they are. For so long, these people were buried at the bottom of the heap.”