Penobscots seek recognition of athletes

Posted July 28, 2009, at 8:32 p.m.

INDIAN ISLAND, Maine — Tribal dignitaries and other members of the Penobscot Nation gathered Tuesday to honor the accomplishments of Penobscot athletes and first cousins Louis and Andrew Sockalexis.

The event targeted the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the magazine Sports Illustrated, and the Cleveland Indians baseball team for failing to appropriately recognize the two athletes.

Louis Sockalexis played for the Cleveland Spiders — later renamed the Cleveland Indians — from 1897 to 1899. He is often cited as the first American Indian to play in the major leagues, breaking the color barrier 50 years before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was born on Indian Island in 1871 and died in 1913.

Long-distance runner Andrew Sockalexis finished in second place during the 1912 and 1913 Boston Marathons and in fourth place at the 1912 Olympic games in Stockholm, Sweden. He was born on Indian Island in 1891 and died in 1919.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Rep. Wayne Mitchell, who represents the Penobscot Nation in the Maine Legislature, charged that Louis and Andrew Sockalexis have been “continuously and blatantly overlooked for their achievements” — the impetus for his sponsorship of two legislative resolves in their honor, which were approved during the last legislative session.

Mitchell’s resolve in honor of Andrew Sockalexis calls the runner “one of Maine’s great athletes, who brought much pride to the Penobscot Nation and to all the people of Maine.”

The resolve in honor of Louis Sockalexis calls on the Cleveland Indians to immediately stop using the “Chief Wahoo” mascot, a cartoonish caricature of an American Indian. Doing so would “demonstrate the team understands the disrespect this symbol represents to the Penobscot Nation, the citizens of Maine and the legacy of Louis Sockalexis,” the resolve states. The franchise ignored a 2000 request by the Penobscot Nation to discontinue the use of the Chief Wahoo mascot, according to the resolve.

Louis Sockalexis is often cited as the inspiration for renaming the Cleveland team, although the franchise has never confirmed that. Calls on Tuesday to the headquarters of the Cleveland Indians were not returned.

The resolve also urges the National Baseball Hall of Fame to formally recognize Louis Sockalexis as the first American Indian to play Major League Baseball, paving the way for others such as Charlie Bender, John Meyers and Jim Thorpe.

And it asks Sports Illustrated to “correct the oversight” that excluded Louis and Andrew Sockalexis from its 1999 list of the top 50 athletes from Maine.

Brad Horn, a spokesman for the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., said Tuesday that induction into the hall is reserved for the top 1 percent of all professional ballplayers.

“There are many who want to be honored but are not,” he said. The museum in Cooperstown seeks to tell the story of baseball using a timeline approach, he said, highlighting the most compelling moments in the history of the sport.

Louis Sockalexis may or may not have been the first American Indian to play in the major leagues, Horn said, but his contributions to baseball are well documented in the museum library.

At Sports Illustrated, a spokesman said the magazine has “a long history of covering race, ethnicity and culture through the prism of sports.” The magazine profiled Louis Sockalexis in a 1995 issue, he said, and has “great respect for the legacies of Louis and Andrew Sockalexis.”

Should the magazine publish a new list of Maine athletes in the future, he said, “we will certainly give them the utmost consideration.”

Local author and educator Ed Rice, who has written two books on Louis Sockalexis, spoke at length at Tuesday’s event on Indian Island, detailing a litany of injustices and inaccuracies in recognizing the contributions of the Sockalexis cousins. In addition to his interest in securing their place in athletic history, Rice is concerned that racism persists in Maine, including at some high schools that still use American Indian references in naming their athletic teams.

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