A Baseball First

Posted July 30, 2009, at 10:43 p.m.

Today, players from Central American and Caribbean countries such as the Dominican Republic and Asian countries such as Japan and Korea regularly achieve greatness in U.S. professional baseball. Other than language barriers, the hurdles for making it in the big leagues are based on talent, not on the acceptance of one’s ethnicity. But it wasn’t always so.

One can only imagine what it was like for baseball pioneer Louis Sockalexis, who may have been the first Indian to play in the major leagues. And for his cousin Andrew Sockalexis, who was a stand-out long distance runner, twice finishing second in the Boston Marathon and placing fourth in the 1912 Olympics. Like others who broke new ground for their group, they had to endure, at the very least, stereotyping and persistent reminders that they were different, and at worst, outright hatred. Both men, from the Penobscot Tribe, competed in the early days of the 20th century.

In a press event this week, members of the tribe called for recognition of their achievements, singling out the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Sports Illustrated magazine and the Cleveland Indians baseball team.

The tribe might do well to narrow the focus of its outrage.

The hall of fame responded to a BDN reporter’s questions by noting that it honored only the top 1 percent of players. And the magazine pledged to consider the Sockalexis cousins — who were not included in a list of the top 50 Maine athletes in a 1999 article — for future stories. The magazine profiled Louis Sockalexis in a 1995 article.

The substantive beef the tribe has is with the Cleveland Indians, for whom Louis Sockalexis played from 1897 to 1899. Some say the team renamed itself from the Spiders to the Indians because of the play of Mr. Sockalexis. Regardless, what is shameful is the team’s use of a mascot called Chief Wahoo, which the tribe characterizes as a cartoonish caricature. It’s hard to disagree with that assessment.

As has been observed before, no one would tolerate a sports team named for other minority groups, nor would they tolerate a mascot with exaggerated physical features of those groups. So why are Indians treated differently?

Non-Indians may be able to shrug off the affront, but as with the state law forbidding the use of the word squaw, it seems reasonable to accept the word of the offended group that it is indeed offended.

Whether the Cleveland team comes to its senses about the mascot or not, Mainers should take pride in the achievements of Louis and Andrew Sockalexis, and in their tribe’s contributions to Maine’s heritage.

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