September 24, 2018
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Demise of Cleveland’s ‘Chief Wahoo’ opens the door for proper recognition of Maine’s Sockalexis

Mike Groll | AP
Mike Groll | AP
A baseball card featuring Louis Sockalexis is on display at the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cave, N.Y., Aug. 6, 2008. A Penobscot from Maine, he's considered the first player of Native American descent to make it to the major leagues. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
By Ed Rice, Special to the BDN

Thanks to the courage and persistence of just one man, the end of the appearance of Chief Wahoo on the playing uniforms of the Cleveland Indians will finally end but, sadly, not until the start of the 2019 season.

While I’m not sure Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, knows anything about the history of Louis Sockalexis, I do know he cared enough to make a stand against an image that many people believe is the most racially insensitive logo/mascot in use in America today.

Bravo, commissioner Manfred.

For this was not a perspective shared by his predecessor, Bud Selig, a card-carrying brother in the team owners membership club, who could not have cared any less what the Dolan family did to make money inside the gates of Cleveland’s Progressive Field, or Paul and Larry Dolan, who make a fortune (and will continue to do so) on Chief Wahoo merchandise.

But, I guess, if you’re faced with the threat to have the 2019 All-Star Game, scheduled for Progressive Field, stripped away from you, you can develop some “social consciousness.”

Still, none of this decision-making has anything to do with the continuing disrespect to Louis Sockalexis.

Sockalexis, a Penobscot from Indian Island, Maine, was the first known Native American to play professional baseball when he briefly starred with the then-Cleveland Spiders in 1897. And, without question (because it is documented right in the pages of the Cleveland Plain Dealer), he inspired the nickname in spring training of 1897 that the Cleveland professional baseball team officially adopted in 1915. Additionally, he is an unappreciated civil rights figure who faced extreme racial prejudice in the 1890s and led the pioneer movement of Native Americans to play the game, which included John Meyers, Hall of Famer Charlie Bender and the most famous American Indian athlete of all time, Jim Thorpe.

So, today, I come once again to the Cleveland organization with a plea. I come not only as the author of a 2003 biography on Sockalexis, but as a man who, despite my disagreement with the nickname and logo, has continually tried to assist the team in properly recognizing Sockalexis.

It began in 1999 when I assisted then communications director Robert DiBiasio, correcting errors for the Sockalexis biography in the annual team media guide. And it continued in 2014 when I assisted present communications director Curtis Danburg, on both text and images related to Sockalexis, in team literature and even around the ballpark.

With the deserved demise of Chief Wahoo isn’t it, at long last, time to show Sockalexis some proper respect?

This isn’t just a problem in Cleveland.

Consider Sports Illustrated. It had published a list of the 50 greatest athletes from Maine (January, 2000). It left Louis Sockalexis completely off the list. And it compounded the insult by naming people like L.L. Bean, for inventing rubber boots, and a high school kid, for making the luckiest of half-court shots to win a state basketball championship. This is the same national magazine that, after being told articles it had published on Sockalexis in 1973 and then again in 1995 were both riddled with factual errors and absurd myths responded to me, through its spokesman Scott Novak, that it had “done the story” and had no interest in correcting anything it gotten wrong.

Consider the Baseball Hall of Fame. President Jeff Idelson and his executive administrative staff contend they “don’t have the space” in their exhibition halls to celebrate the names and faces of Sockalexis and the other pioneer Native American players, who suffered through extreme prejudice. This, even though the hall, of course, celebrates the very same history for African-American, Hispanic/Latino and women players.

When I appeared at the hall in 2009, with a panel featuring two distinguished Native American speakers, to make our case for respect owed these players, Idelson walked out of the session after barely 10 minutes, stating he had a fundraising call to take.

And, yes, of course, we have to consider the Cleveland baseball team, which historically has used the Sockalexis name as some kind of footnote-to-history, merely to justify its continued use of an inappropriate nickname and highly controversial logo.

Just a walk around the grounds of Progressive Field makes very clear the continuing failure of the team to properly honor Sockalexis:

— A statue exists for Larry Doby, the second African-American to play in the major leagues, but there is no statue for the first-known Native American player, the man who inspired the team’s nickname.

— Instead of a portrait inside the park of the young, vital, five-tool player Sock was, the team instead presents, in one of the concourses to purchase concessions, a giant photograph of the sad, broken-down old man Sock became, taken one year before his death.

— While the team gift shop offers wave after wave of caps, jerseys and bobblehead dolls featuring the likeness of Chief Wahoo, there is absolutely nothing with the name of Louis Sockalexis or about him for fans to purchase.

At the very least, I’m hoping the Cleveland organization will step up to the plate and want to help in this way to more properly recognize Louis Sockalexis: In my home state of Maine, I am spearheading a drive that will kick off shortly to build a proper memorial to him. We have created a board of directors, composed of 50 percent participation by Native Americans, and are currently securing non-profit status.

Donations may be made by writing a check to “Louis Sockalexis Monument,” and mailed, in care of either Ed Rice or Theodore Bear Mitchell, to: P.O. Box 318, Old Town, Maine 04468. For more information, email the campaign at: louissockalexismonument@gmail.com.

Retired journalist and college instructor Ed Rice, of St Andrews, New Brunswick, is the author of “Baseball’s First Indian, Louis Sockalexis: Penobscot Legend, Cleveland Indian.” Rice has a website at www.sockalexis.net


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