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Jackie Robinson is famous for breaking baseball’s racial barrier in 1947, when he started a game for the Brooklyn Dodgers and became the first black player in the major leagues.
You might argue that the same honor should go to Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian from Maine who began his own professional career 50 years earlier.
Sockalexis was born on the Penobscot Indian Reservation in Old Town in 1873. His father, Francis, was the chief of the tribe. Louis had immense athletic prowess on his side, and became a star player at Old Town High School. Soon he moved on and played for several college teams, including Harvard and Holy Cross.
He also had several things going against him, according to “Magnificent Mainers” by Jeff Hollingsworth (Covered Bridge, 1995).
First, his father did not approve of baseball. In fact, the chief hated the sport so much that he actually travelled to Washington and sought an audience with President Grover Cleveland, hoping the president might talk some sense into the boy.
The press got hold of the story, and the Maine congressional delegation arranged a meeting. Francis Sockalexis met with Cleveland for an hour, but the president informed him he could not order Louis not to play baseball. Francis returned home disappointed, and Louis’s career was saved.
Next, Sockalexis faced racial discrimination as he travelled with the Cleveland Spiders, who offered him a professional contract in 1897. It was just 21 years after the Battle of Little Big Horn, not every American was thrilled by the first Native American in the major leagues.
Sockalexis, however, deserved to be there. He hit a home run on his very first pitch, and racked up a .338 average in his rookie year. He stole 16 bases and was nicknamed was “The Deerfoot of the Diamond.” John McGraw, manager of the Giants, called him “the greatest natural talent I have ever encountered in this game.”
Sadly, Sockalexis burned out quickly.
He injured his leg the following year and did not perform as well. Then, after a great play in the outfield, his teammates introduced him to alcohol. Soon he was racking up giant bar tabs that he could not pay, and his drinking affected his play even further. By 1899 he was down in the minors, and eventually he was out of baseball forever.
Sockalexis’ sad decline included an arrest for vagrancy in Massachusetts, and a life of obscurity doing blue-caller jobs back in Maine. He died of a heart attack in the woods just after his 40th birthday, and was buried on Indian Island in the Penobscot River.
Although mostly forgotten as a player, Sockalexis’ legacy lives on.
When Cleveland got a new team in 1915, the fans voted to it Indians in honor of the star player from Maine. While native team names have become controversial in recent years, I hope the Cleveland Indians stick around.
If not, maybe they could be the Cleveland Penobscots, or the Cleveland Sockalexises.
Topps honored Louis Sockalexis of Maine with his own baseball card in 2003.
Zac McDorr is the founder of the Bath Maine History Center on Facebook.You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.