Baseball's League of Nations:
A Tribute to Native American Baseball Players
April 1 - December 31, 2008
A game of sandlots and stick bats, and
many a child’s dream of standing on home
plate and hitting one out of the park
Whatever the exact origins of the sport, since the early 19th century, baseball has been one of our Nation’s most popular spectator sports. In its early years, the game was played by amateurs who formed small-town teams and clubs. Although popular legend credits Abner Doubleday with the invention of the modern-day game of baseball, there is some evidence that the true father of baseball was Alexander Cartwright who formalized a list of rules in 1846. The first recorded baseball game took place in 1846 when Alexander Cartwright’s Knickerbockers lost to the New York Baseball Club at a game in Hoboken, NJ.
By 1857, twenty-five teams sent delegates to a convention held in the Northeast. The following year, the National Association of Baseball Players was formed. During the turmoil of the Civil War, participation in baseball slowed dramatically, but by the end of the war its popularity was greater than ever with over one hundred clubs sending delegates to the 1868 convention.
In 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first professional team and in 1871, the National Association became the first professional baseball league. This marked a change in the game because now players on semi-pro and professional teams were paid.
NATIVE AMERICANS’ INTRODUCTION TO BASEBALL
For Native people, sports are an important part of traditional society. Athletic prowess, sportsmanship, competitiveness, and spirituality are intertwined with various sporting activities. “Ball” games were always extremely popular among Native Americans. Team sports such as lacrosse, Shinny Ball, Double Ball, and Long Ball emphasize the importance of strength of both the body and mind and of leadership and responsibility to others. Baseball became another venue for enhancing and demonstrating skill and dexterity.
Native people were introduced to the game of baseball in a variety of ways. With the arrival of Europeans to North America came the introduction of formal education and Christianity to the Native Americans. An integral part of early attempts at non-Native education and religious conversion of Natives was the playing of European sports such as baseball. Explorers Lewis and Clark are said to have tried to teach an early version of baseball to the Nez Perce Indians during their two-year trek across North America from 1804 to 1806. Native American prisoners of war at prisons such as Fort Sill, Oklahoma played baseball during the late 1800s. Troop L, 7th US Cavalry was organized at Fort Sill in 1890 and was made up of Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache soldiers, many of whom were also prisoners of war. Well-known Apache warrior Geronimo played baseball while imprisoned at Fort Sill.
For many Native American children, exposure to baseball came with their relocation to off-reservation Government Boarding schools. For white administrators of boarding schools, baseball demonstrated the success of their assimilationist techniques, but for Native children, success in baseball became a source of community and personal pride and freedom from the boarding school regime.
From the boarding school baseball teams to the community baseball clubs, to the Major Leagues, Native American players have excelled at the game and their exploits on the baseball diamond rank with the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
This exhibit, “Baseball’s League of Nations”, is a tribute to the many Native American baseball players who triumphed over racism and adversity to become role models for other Native children and who helped mold “America’s Pastime” into the popular sport it continues to be today.
BOARDING SCHOOL BASEBALL
The first federal Boarding school was opened in Carlisle, PA in 1879. Administered by ex-Army Captain, Richard H. Pratt, the school was a forum for Pratt to obtain his goal of “killing the Indian, not the man’. These militarily run schools were designed to assimilate Native children through methods that today might be considered brainwashing. Many children were forcibly taken far from their homes, their hair was cut, and they were dressed in military uniforms and made to follow strict rules. They were forbidden to speak their languages, allowed no privacy and taught that the Indian ways were “savage” and inferior to the White man’s ways. In some instances, Native parents sent their children willingly to boarding schools, believing the experience would benefit their sons and daughters by giving them an education and opportunities to be successful off the reservation. More than 100,000 native children attended the 500 boarding schools that followed the opening of Carlisle. By the 1930s many of the schools were closed, but a number were still maintained by missionaries and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Some of the brainwashing techniques had ceased by the 1930s, but the goal of boarding schools was still to “civilize” the Indian.
Baseball was another tool of assimilation for the boarding schools. Organized sports with strict rules could be utilized to train Indian students to be more “civilized’ and act like white children. In sports, however, this idea of assimilation backfired somewhat. For Native children, baseball and other sports at boarding schools became a way to escape from the otherwise harsh environment they were living in. Team sports and group activities at the boarding schools fostered cooperation, which in its way undermined the act of trying to assimilate the students. Playing baseball was a means to celebrate their athletic prowess and competitive spirit. It was also an opportunity to free themselves from the daily control over every other aspect of their lives. Many of the better players had opportunities to join professional baseball teams, giving them a means of earning money and gaining recognition for their accomplishments.
Baseball is an important community activity. From its earliest forms called “town ball”, “old cat”, “stick ball” and “round ball; baseball has entertained participants and spectators alike. Baseball was played in schoolyards, in fields, on city streets, and vacant lots. Many American towns organized baseball or softball teams that would compete against neighboring communities for the sheer enjoyment of the game. These games were an opportunity to visit with friends and neighbors, enjoy the outdoors, and root for a favorite team or player.
Native American communities were no exception when it came to the popularity of community baseball games. Most Iroquois communities fielded teams that would travel to other Iroquois communities in New York and Canada or play non-Native teams in surrounding towns. At times, non-Native players would join Native teams. The level of play of these community teams would be on par with today’s semi-professional teams. At Six Nations Reserve in Ontario each of the Longhouses had a baseball diamond. The Seneca Community at Allegany has always had an interest in sports. In Oneida, Wisconsin in the 1920s, tavern owner Mark Powless also managed and was part owner of a baseball team that competed against semi-pro state teams. His team included a number of ex-big league players.
William Metoxen, Oneida relates a story from his childhood of visiting relatives in Kansas. They attended a picnic where they watched a baseball game between a traveling Negro team and the local ball team of Circleville, Kansas. At Onondaga the lacrosse players would play for the baseball team when the lacrosse season ended.
MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL
Major League baseball teams have included Native American players on their rosters since Louis Sockalexis became the first Native American to play in the Majors in 1897. There is some controversy over whether Sockalexis was the first. From 1887 to 1890 James Madison Toy played with Cleveland and Brooklyn teams. Toy was said to be of Sioux ancestry although he did not publically acknowledge his Native Heritage. In 1903 Charles “Chief” Bender became the first Native player in the American League and would later become one of only two Native Americans elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1959, Zach Wheat, a Cherokee outfielder for Brooklyn Superbas was inducted. Since 1903 there have been more than 47 Native Americans in the Major Leagues and countless others playing in the Minors.
In 2007 the spotlight focused on Native Americans in baseball because of two rookies, Joba Chamberlain and Jacoby Ellsbury, who excelled in their Major League debuts.
RACISM, STEREOTYPES, AND SPORTS MASCOTS
"Redskin", "'Chief", “Heap-Big Injun", "Cut-eater", and "Copperhead" are just a few of the racial slurs that were hurled from the stands at Native American baseball players. Chants of "Back to the reservations”, "Dog Soup" and "Whoop, Whoop" greeted Native players when they stepped on to the baseball field.
Native players were faced with racism from their sports opponents as well as their own teammates. In John Meyer's first game as a catcher, his own pitcher ignored his calls for pitches and the opposing team’s pitcher threw a ball at his head.
Native American baseball players were constantly confronted with the Image of the "drunken Indian". Louis Sockalexis dealt with alcoholism throughout his baseball career. His struggles with liquor did not escape the fans or the media. Fans taunted him about his love of firewater, his teammates blamed his troubles with alcohol on their losses, newspaper articles labeled him "a signal member of a class of lifelong drunkards", and he eventually left baseball to return home to Maine. Other Native players dealt with the stereotype of the abuse of “firewater" even if they didn't suffer from alcoholism. When Moses Yellowhorse was traded by the Pittsburgh Pirates it was reported that he "went the way of all bad injuns" - implying that alcohol was the reason for the trade.
In the early 1900s newspapers like the Cincinnati Enquirer, New York American, and Sporting Life published caricatures of the Native baseball players of the time. The Philadelphia Enquirer portrayed Charles Bender with a feather in his cap and a tomahawk on his belt while he hypnotized an opposing player with the “Indian Sign” while exclaiming "Ugh! "
Articles describing the exploits of Native American players often featured an abundance of stereotypical phrases and descriptions. “The Big Chief La Roy himself- he who spurned the delicious Boston bean - for the first time since his return led his tribesmen into the fray to the beat of tom toms by Clarke… They lifted the scalp of Richter, lefty twirler of the Kentucks, in the seventh after a blood-curdling fire dance about the bases, started by La Roy" - "'Colonels Are Scalped by Saints," St. Paul Pioneer Press, May 16, 191 0
Most players who did not hide their Native Identity were referred to as "Chief, Nicknames such as "Indian" Bob Johnson,, "Chief" Bender, "Super Chief" Allie Reynolds, and Louis "Little Chief" Leroy were commonplace. The only way to avoid the stereotypical nicknaming was to downplay their Native ancestry.
Images of Native Americans have been used as mascots for years on sports teams. "Chief Wahoo" of the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves' tomahawk are just two of the many images that reinforce the stereotypes of the “Savage Indian" and "Fierce Warrior". These images also perpetuate the myth that Native Americans only exist in the past and give them no relevance as contemporary people with distinctive cultures.