The team that gave joy to my youth
A life-long Cleveland Indians fan looks back—and forward.
I’m in my eighth decade of being a fan of the baseball-team-soon-to-be-formerly-known-as-the Cleveland Indians.
The lately departed Chief Wahoo was a friend of my childhood. I have vivid memories of seeing baseball through the eyes of a child — though my first memories are not of seeing games but of listening to Jimmy Dudley call them on the radio.
When I first saw games, Black players were a given. To me Larry Doby was not a pioneer. I didn’t know he was the first Black man to play in the American League. To me he was the splendid centerfielder of my beloved Indians. Satchel Paige, whom Cleveland legend Bob Feller called the best pitcher he ever saw, was just a former player who had done well on the 1948 team that won the World Series (still its last). I had no clue the incomparable Satchel Paige had then been the oldest rookie in Major League history, having starred for three decades in the Negro Leagues.
“To me Satchel Paige was the splendid centerfielder of my beloved Indians.”
And I didn’t hear of Louis Sockalexis until I headed to New England to the College of the Holy Cross. Sockalexis was a legendary baseball player at the Cross. An article on the website of the Society for American Baseball Research indicates that he “may have been the best college player in the country.”
After two years at Holy Cross, he followed his coach to Notre Dame. He was not there long. Accounts of his life vary considerably in detail and accuracy, so this Holy Cross grad will cast no aspersions on that school to the west.
Pertinent to the rise and fall of Chief Wahoo, however, is the fact that Sockalexis was a member of what is now the Penobscot Nation (formerly the Penobscot Tribe of Maine), whose website proclaims the nation “one of the oldest continuously operating governments in the world.” When Sockalexis joined the National League’s Cleveland Spiders in 1897, he could lay claim to be the first Native American to play Major League Baseball. And he played it well. So well that some accounts indicate the Spiders were informally called the Indians, a name later adopted officially by the Cleveland club by then in the American League.
“When Sockalexis joined the National League’s Cleveland Spiders in 1897, he could lay claim to be the first Native American to play Major League Baseball. And he played it well.”
Sockalexis’ career was cut short by injuries and declining health (he suffered from tuberculosis). Literally adding insult to injury, Cleveland’s owners bought another team and moved the Spiders’ best players including Cy Young (baseball’s all-time winningest pitcher) to it. The injured Sockalexis was left behind with the Spiders, who in 1899 went 20-134, a record that still stands as the worst ever in Major League Baseball.
Sockalexis died in 1913 at the age of 42.
He was a real person. Chief Wahoo, though he brought cheer to my childhood, is not.
I could argue that names and mascots shouldn’t offend people. But they do. And part of it is connected to a people’s status. Native Americans live with the results of broken treaties and promises. The Penobscots aren’t ever again to possess what is now much of the state of Maine.
“I could argue that names and mascots shouldn’t offend people. But they do. And part of it is connected to a people’s status.”
People of Irish ancestry probably couldn’t care less about leprechauns in South Bend or shamrocks with the Boston Celtics. But the days of “Irish need not apply” are long behind us. Those scars have for the most part healed. For some peoples that is not true.
Admittedly, as Cleveland looks for a new name for its baseball team, I have a soft spot for “Socks” to remember Louis Sockalexis or “Satchels” to honor Satchel Paige.
Early betting money seems to be going on “Spiders.” Some wonder about the wisdom of bringing back the name of the worst team in history. But Clevelanders can have an attitude; I can hear them saying, “Wanna make something outta it?”