Native Americans significant in baseball history

Native Americans significant in baseball history

Native Americans significant in baseball history
When Kyle Lohse toed the rubber for the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 3 of the 2011 World Series, it marked the first time that a Native American pitcher started a Series game since New York Yankees hurler Allie Reynolds won Game 6 in the 1953 Series. A member of the Nomlaki Wintun American Indian tribe from Chico, Calif., Lohse is one of three Native Americans currently playing in the major leagues.

Prior to Lohse, Yankees reliever Joba Chamberlain, a Winnebago Indian born in Lincoln, Neb., was the last Native American pitcher to appear in the World Series, making three relief appearances against the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2009 Fall Classic.

Boston Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, a Navajo from Madras, Ore., who finished second in this year's American League MVP voting, rounds out the list of Native Americans currently playing in the Major Leagues.

In conjunction with the 2008 exhibit at the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cave, N.Y., titled, "Baseball's League of Nations: A Tribute to Native Americans in Baseball," Chamberlain was interviewed by North Country Public Radio:

"It [his Native American heritage] was always a part of my life and it's always been significant, and as I've gotten older, it's become more significant," Chamberlain said. "As I got older, I appreciated it more. I think we all play a part from the beginning to the players playing now.

"Opportunities on the reservation are few and far between, so I think for kids to see that there are Native Americans out there that maybe had it different growing up, but still have a chance to play and can show that we are talented, it's good to see that there are some current players right now that can give hope and faith to those kids on the reservation. They should never lose hope of their dreams because their opportunities aren't as vast as they are in a big city. Kids seeing Jacoby and myself, doing as well as we are and being the people we are, is even more important. They can have people they can look up to, people can look up to him [Ellsbury] as a baseball player, and a person, and a Native American."

Approximately 50 Native Americans with certifiable tribal affiliations have played on Major League teams. Author of "The Native American Integration of Baseball," a seminal work on the topic, Jeffrey Powers Beck explained the criteria for being considered in his compilation of American Indians in Major League Baseball from 1897-1945.

"I included anyone in my book that listed a clear tribal affiliation on the questionnaires that they completed for Major League Baseball," Beck said. "That questionnaire collection is preserved in the Cooperstown Library. ... It is important to note that rules for tribal membership, especially involving matters like blood quartile, do change over time."

Definitions of what makes someone a Native American also vary from tribe to tribe. Blood Quantum Laws, established as far back as the 1700s in the United States, refer to the degree of ancestry of an individual or members of ethnic groups and were more commonly applied as a part of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 to determine native peoples' eligibility to receive benefits under treaties, but were also used as means of restricting the rights of those considered to be more than half of Native American origin. More recently, individual tribes have re-defined criteria for tribal affiliation.

Last spring, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies moved into their shared Salt River Fields at Talking Stick Spring Training complex, the first Major League facility built on Native American land.

Different types of ballgames have always been a part of Native Culture, but Native Americans were introduced to baseball in a variety of ways as the game was taking root throughout the United States. American Indian prisoners of war, including Apache warrior Geronimo, played baseball while being held captive in places like Fort Sill, Okla. Merchants and missionaries also brought baseball to the reservations just as early professional teams were being formed in neighboring towns and cities.

In the late 1800s, many Native teenagers were removed from their families' homes on reservations and sent to government boarding schools as a means of becoming acclimated to their changing surroundings. Baseball was included as part of the educational curriculum at places like the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, which founded its baseball program in 1886 and produced seven players who reached the Major Leagues.

In 1899, Glen S. "Pop" Warner was hired as the school's athletic director. Already a successful college football coach who would later create the youth football organization that bears his name, Warner's presence cast a spotlight on the Carlisle school. Carlisle's 1901 team included future big league pitcher Louis Leroy, (N.Y. Yankees, 1905-1906, Boston Red Sox, 1910), and Hall of Famer hurler Charles Albert Bender (Philadelphia Athletics, 1903-1917), more commonly known as "Chief" Bender. The "Chief" nickname was inappropriately applied to almost all of the first Native Americans to integrate the Major Leagues or play at any level of organized baseball in the late 19th and early 20th century. In fact, none of the dozens of Native Americans tagged with the moniker were actually chiefs of their tribes.

Other Major Leaguers to emerge from the Carlisle school include Frank Jude, (Cincinnati, National League, 1906) Mike Balenti (Cincinnati, NL, 1911, St. Louis, American League 1913), Jim Thorpe (NY, CIN, BSN, NL, 1913-19) Charles Roy (PHI, AL, 1906) and George Johnson (CIN, NL, KC, Federal League, 1913-15).

While Major League Baseball had no official segregation policy regarding the participation of Native Americans, the integration and inclusion of indigenous people in professional baseball was a painstaking and arduous process, not dissimilar to what Jackie Robinson and the other first African Americans to enter the Major Leagues would later endure. There was no watershed moment or barrier breakthrough, but 50 years before Robinson officially became Major League Baseball's first African American player, Louis Sockalexis arrived on the scene as the big league's first high-profile American Indian, and the first of many to be referred to as "Chief."

Born on the Penobscot Indian reservation near Old Town, Maine, Sockalexis excelled in baseball, football and track at the College of the Holy Cross, where he hit .436 and .444 during the 1895 and '96 seasons before transferring to Notre Dame. During an exhibition game between Notre Dame and the Major League New York Giants at the Polo Grounds in the spring of 1897, Sockalexis homered off future Hall of Famer Amos Rusie, and in a harbinger of things to come, was on the receiving end of racially motivated heckling from fans, players and members of the press.

Sockalexis made his big league debut with the Cleveland Spiders on April 22, 1897, and immediately endured the same kind of racial baiting that Robinson and the first wave of African American players to break into the big leagues would be subjected to in the late 1940s and early '50s.

An account of Sockalexis' early experience in Cleveland was chronicled in columns written for the Sporting Life newspaper by Elmer E. Bates and published in May of 1897:

"War whoops, yells of derision, a chorus of meaningless 'familiarities' greet Sockalexis on every diamond on which he appears. In many cases these demonstrations border on extreme rudeness. In almost every instance, they are calculated to disconcert the player ... It was during a pandemonium of 'ki yis' directed to his ears that he yanked down the drive that saved Thursday's game, and it was to the accompaniment of a thousand derisive voices that he banged the ball to the fence Friday for a home run ...

"All eyes are on the Indian in every game. He is expected not only to play right field like a veteran, but to do a little more batting than anyone else. Columns of silly poetry are written about him, hideous looking cartoons adorn the sporting pages of nearly every paper. He is hooted at and howled at by the thimble-brained brigade on the bleachers. Despite all this handicap, [Sockalexis] has played good steady ball."

Sockalexis hit .338 in 66 games during his rookie season, but was slowed by an ankle injury in July from which he attempted a hasty return and never fully recovered. Seeing only sparse playing time over the next two seasons, Sockalexis compiled a .313 lifetime batting average during his abbreviated three years in the Major Leagues.

The first Native American to be inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Charles Albert Bender, is credited with creating the pitch known as the slider or nickel-curve. If not its inventor, Bender was certainly its first master practitioner.

A citizen of the Chippewa tribe, Bender was born in Crow Wing County, Minn., and is one of seven Major Leaguers to emerge from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pa.

Spending 13 of his 16 Major League seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics, Bender's 212 wins rank him third in franchise history. He pitched in five World Series for the Athletics, earning Philadelphia's only victory against the New York Giants in 1905, and went on to throw three complete games in the Athletics' defeat of the Giants in the 1911 Series. Bender pitched a no-hitter against Cleveland in 1910, and three times led the American League in winning percentage (1910, '11 and '14). Long-time Philadelphia Athletics' manager Connie Mack said of Bender: "If I had all the men I've ever handled, and they were in their prime, and there was one game I wanted to win above all others, Albert would be my man."

Bender also was on the receiving end of racially-motivated taunting, rattling him enough to yell back at hecklers: "You ignorant, ill-bred foreigners. If you don't like the way I'm doing things out there, why don't you just pack up and go back to your own countries!" Despite the indignities, he felt that being a Major League player afforded him more opportunity than he might have found in any other profession.

"The reason I went into baseball as a profession was that when I left school, baseball offered me the best opportunity for both money and achievement," Bender told the Chicago Daily News in October 1910. "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 scarcely been a trace of sentiment against me on account of my birth. I have been treated the same as other men,"

Bender's teammate at the Carlisle School, and fellow big league alumni, Louis Leroy, pitched only briefly in the Majors, but enjoyed a lengthy and successful Minor League career. A Seneca Indian born in Omro, Wisc., Leroy enrolled at the Haskell Institute, a government boarding school in Kansas, when he was 16, and three years later transferred to Carlisle. While at Carlisle Leroy made numerous attempts at running away from school and eventually jumped to the Minor Leagues, signing with the Class A Buffalo Bisons of the Eastern League in 1902. After compiling 58 wins in four Minor League seasons, Leroy made his big league debut with the New York Highlanders (soon to be the Yankees) in 1905, earning a complete-game victory over the Chicago White Sox in his first start.

Leroy was named to the Highlanders' big league squad again in 1906, and won the two games he started before being sent back to the Minors because the New York club was overloaded with talented pitching. Leroy would briefly return to the big leagues four years later, pitching four innings for the Boston Red Sox in 1910. In the 15 Major League games that Leroy appeared in, he compiled a 3-1 record with a 3.22 ERA over 72 innings. However, in his distinguished 18-year, Minor League career Leroy would rack up 249 wins and pitch 3,875 innings, a number achieved by less than 50 Major Leaguers.

The 1911 World Series was just the eighth fall classic to be played between the American and National Leagues, and the first to feature Native American players on each team. In his ninth big league season, Bender had emerged as the ace of the Philadelphia Athletics' staff, leading the American League in winning percentage for the second consecutive season, while posting a 17-5 (.773) record. He also won two of his three starts in the Series, including the clincher in Game 6 while extending his streak of seven consecutive complete games in World Series play (he would set a still-standing record of nine straight).

Opposing Bender's Athletics, New York Giants catcher John Tortes Meyers, was among the first 10 Native Americans to break into the big leagues. A member of the Cahuilla tribe born in Riverside, Calif., Meyers played his way up through the ranks of high school ball, semi-pro teams in Arizona and New Mexico, Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and the Minor Leagues. Meyers made his big league debut in 1909, after hitting an astonishing 29 home runs during the month-long Spring Training season. Meyers hit .332 in 1911, .358 in '12 and .312 in '13, as the Giants reached the World Series in all three seasons, prompting manager John McGraw to call him, "the greatest natural hitter in the game."

Meyers' .291 career batting average is the highest among catchers to play in the "dead ball" era (1900-1919), including Hall of Famer Roger Bresnahan. Outspoken on Indian affairs during and after his playing days, Meyers chronicled his own career as a columnist for the New York American newspaper from 1912-14.

In a column on teammate Jim Thorpe, Meyers wrote: "It would be false modesty on my part to declare that I am not thoroughly delighted with the fact that my race has proven itself competent to master the white man's principal sport."

Two years after his death, Meyers was inducted to the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan.

Despite retiring from the Major Leagues in 1927, former Brooklyn Dodgers outfielder Zack Wheat still holds Dodgers club records for hits, (2,804) singles (2,038) doubles, (464) triples, (171) total bases, (4,003) at-bats, (8,859) and games played (2,322).

He was born Zachariah Davis Wheat in Hamilton, Mo., to a Cherokee mother and a father descended from Puritans who fled England and founded Concord, Mass., in 1635. Wheat's father died when he was 16 and the family moved to Kansas City, where he played second base for the semi-pro Union Club. In order to help provide for his family, two years later, Wheat signed a $60 per-month contract with an independent league team in Enterprise, Kan., and later played for Minor League clubs in Fort Worth, Shreveport and Mobile, where he was discovered by a scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Wheat hit .304 in 26 games in September of 1909 and moved into the starting lineup the following year, leading the National League with 156 games played. Wheat hit higher than .300 in 14 of his 19 seasons, leading the league with a .335 average in 1918 and finished with a .317 career mark. Wheat became the second Native American elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1959.

Still considered by many to be the "world's greatest athlete," Jim Thorpe was a multi-sport star, capturing gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, one year prior to his Major League debut as an outfielder with the New York Giants. Maternally descended from the Sac and Fox Nation, Thorpe had an Irish father and was born in Prague, Okla.

Thorpe also attended the Carlisle school, but played only briefly on its baseball team in 1909, concentrating more on football and track; he also played lacrosse and was a competition ballroom dancer. As a baseball player Thorpe did not live up to the lofty expectations bestowed upon him by McGraw and the New York press, as he struggled through his first three seasons with the Giants. He did excel at the Minor League level, compiling a .320 batting average over parts of seven seasons and hit .327 in his final major league campaign, splitting time between the Giants and Boston Braves in 1919.

Many of the early Native American players to reach the Majors were afforded more opportunities in the Minors. George Howard Johnson, a member of the Ho-Chunk or Winnebago Tribe from Winnebago, Neb., was among the early group of players to be referred to as "Chief."

Johnson achieved a bit of trivial baseball fame as the pitcher who gave up the first home run hit at Chicago's Wrigley Field as member of the Federal League Kansas City Packers on April 23, 1914. Johnson made his big league debut with the Cincinnati Reds in 1913 and compiled a 17-17 record, showing flashes of brilliance with nine shutouts in his three big league seasons with the Reds and Kansas City (the Federal League was considered Major League at the time). Johnson racked up 125 wins during eight Minor League seasons with a 2.02 ERA and threw a no-hitter in his final professional season in the Pacific Coast League in 1917.

Although he pitched only two seasons (1921-1922) for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Moses J. Yellow Horse, (yet another player more often identified as "Chief") retained a cult-like status among fans in Pittsburgh for decades to follow. A Pawnee Indian, from Pawnee, Okla., Yellow Horse was educated at the Pawnee Agency School and the Chilocco Indian School, where he excelled in penmanship and was trained as a carpenter. He played sparingly for the Chilocco baseball team, mostly shagging fly balls during batting practice. Eventually he earned a spot as a starting pitcher during his senior year, during which he won 17 games without a loss. While pitching in a semi-pro league on Sundays, he was scouted and signed by Des Moines of the Class A Western League, and was later referred to the Arkansas Travelers, where he won 20 games in 1920, prompting his sale to the Major League Pittsburgh Pirates.

Possessing a blazing fastball that reporters described with metaphors like "speed ball" and "smoke ball", Yellow Horse made his big league debut on April 15, 1921. He retired six straight Cincinnati batters in relief to earn his first save and began to develop his reputation as a shut down reliever.

Excited by their newfound star, Pirates fans whooped and hollered at the prospect of Yellow Horse appearing in games and, while some of the "Indian Yells" and "ki-yi-yi's" were directed at his race, there was also a genuine appreciation for his skill and ability.

"Bring in Yellow Horse," became a chant that would resonate in Pittsburgh for decades after his brief two-year career was over. His Major League line reads eight wins and four losses with a 3.93 ERA in 126 innings, but his lasting legacy is similar to his brethren as a pioneering Native American who made a name for himself in the Major Leagues. Yellow Horse was inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in 1971 and the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame in '94.

Most commonly referred to as "Pepper" Martin, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder, John Leonard Roosevelt Martin, a member of the Osage tribe from Temple Oklahoma was also known as the Wild Horse of the Osage, for his aggressive base running and all-out style of play. One of the more high-profile Native Americans to play in the Majors, Martin was a member of the Cardinals' "Gas House Gang" teams of the 1930s.

A four-time All-Star, he led the National League in stolen bases three times and posted a .298 batting average during his 13-year career. In perhaps his finest hour, Martin led all hitters with a .500 average, racking up 12 hits in 24 at-bats in the Cardinals' victory over the heavily-favored Philadelphia Athletics in the 1931 World Series. He was inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in 1992.

Slugging first baseman Rudy York made his Major League debut with the Detroit Tigers in 1934, and hit 277 home runs with 1,152 RBIs in his 13-year career. Born in Ragland, Ala., York's fractional Cherokee ancestry and inconsistent fielding contributed to making him an object of derision to sports writers who called him "part Indian and part first baseman." However, his skill with the bat earned him seven All-Star game appearances and garnered MVP votes in nine seasons. York led the American League with 34 home runs and 118 RBIs in 1943.

Keeping company with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mel Ott and Jimmie Foxx, Bob Johnson was the fifth Major League player to hit 20 or more home runs in nine consecutive seasons, accomplishing his feat during his first nine years in the big leagues with the Philadelphia Athletics.

Born in Pryor, Okla., Johnson made his Major League debut with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1905. One quarter Cherokee he was commonly referred to as "Indian Bob." A seven time All-Star, Johnson drove in more than 100 runs in eight seasons including seven in-a-row with a career-high 121 in 1936. During his 13-year career, Johnson clubbed 288 home runs, and 1,283 RBIs with a .296 batting average.

Among the most successful pitchers in World Series history, New York Yankees hurler Allie Reynolds' seven Series game victories are equaled only by Hall of Famers Red Ruffing and Bob Gibson and rank second only to Whitey Ford's 10.

Although Reynolds did not play baseball as child, claiming his minister father did not like the game, he excelled in football and track (as a javelin thrower) at Capitol Hill High School in Oklahoma City and attended Oklahoma A&M College (now Oklahoma State) on a track scholarship. He converted to a baseball player and pitcher when he was observed throwing the javelin by Oklahoma A&M's baseball coach. Reynolds made his big league debut with the Cleveland Indians in 1942, but received his big break when he was traded to the Yankees for future Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Gordon at the conclusion of 1946 season.

With the Yankees, Reynolds pitched for six World Series championship teams in seven years, including five in a row from 1949-53 during the Yankees dynasty days. During his eight seasons in the Bronx, Reynolds compiled a 131-60 record, for a remarkable .686 winning percentage.

Born in 1917 on the Indian reservation in Bethany, Okla., Reynolds' mother was a member of the Muscogee (Creek) tribe. During his time with the Yankees he was known alternately as "Chief" and "Superchief," a double entendre reference to his Native American origin and railroad train model in use at the time.

Former teammate Bobby Brown, said it was meant as a flattering term.

"Some of you are too young to remember, the Santa Fe Railroad at that time had a crack train [called the Superchief] that ran from California to Chicago, and it was known for its elegance, its power and its speed," said Brown, adding that Reynolds did not necessarily appreciate the nickname because of the true meaning of the "chief" title.

"We always felt the name applied to Allie for the same reasons. When we talked with him, we called him Allie ... But when he wasn't in the room, he was referred to as the Chief because we felt he was the one at the top, the real leader."

Reynolds is honored in the form of a bronze bust at the Bricktown Ballpark home of the Triple-A Oklahoma City Redhawks.

Charlie Vascellaro is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.