Monday, May 27, 2013

Native Americans in the Majors (Part II)

Zack Wheat
Wheat is one of two Native Americans in the Hall of Fame (Chief Bender being the other). His father was a descendant of Moses Wheat, a Puritan who fled England in 1635 and founded Concord, Massachusetts.  Wheat's mother is said to have been a full-blooded Cherokee. The multi-talented left fielder was hesitant to discuss his heritage with reporters, though attention was drawn to it anyway. A Sporting Life correspondent wrote in 1917: "the lithe muscles, the panther-like motions of the Indian are his by divine right."
Wheat was adept in every aspect of the game. He had plenty of speed, putting up double digit stolen base totals for seven straight seasons. In the outfield, he used that speed to cover a lot of ground, leading the NL in putouts four times. He currently ranks 18th on the all-time list in that category. At the plate, Wheat was a difficult man to dispose of, averaging just 1 strikeout per 16 at-bats while topping the .300 mark on 14 occasions. A left-handed hitter, he finished with a .317 lifetime average in 19 campaigns. He remains the all-time franchise leader for the Dodgers in doubles, triples and RBI. Additionally, he was well-liked by teammates. Casey Stengel, who played with Wheat from 1912-1917, described him as "one of the truest pals a man ever had and one of the kindest men God ever created."

Bob Johnson
Part Cherokee, Johnson avoided the handle of "Chief" but ended up being strapped with the moniker "Indian Bob." His older brother Roy signed with Detroit in 1929 and led the AL with 45 doubles that year. While Roy was capturing all the attention, Bob failed to make the majors in his first 4 professional campaigns. He finally landed in Philadelphia in 1933. During his ten seasons with the A's, Johnson was one of the most consistent performers. Sportswriter Red Smith labeled him "a first-rate outfielder with a powerful and accurate throwing arm." The statement was spot-on as Johnson's 184 career assists are tops all-time among left fielders. He was no slouch at the plate either, gathering no less than 21 homers and 92 RBI's every year from 1933 through 1941. He topped the century mark in RBI's in 7 straight seasons and was named to 7 All-Star teams. After '42, Johnson felt he was being underpaid and requested a trade. His power numbers tapered off in '43 with the Senators, but he found his stroke again with the Red Sox in 1944, leading the AL with a .431 on-base percentage. He drove in 106 runs while collecting 40 doubles that year. It was his last great season.

John Meyers
Though Meyers got saddled with the somewhat derogatory nickname of "Chief," he was able to rise above the stereotypes of  his era. One reporter wrote that Meyers had "a fund of information that runs from politics to Plato, a quick, logical mind, and the self-contained, dignified poise that is the hallmark of good breeding." A member of the Cahuilla Tribe, Meyers attended Dartmouth College until it was discovered that his high school diploma had been falsified. The school offered to admit him if he completed a preparatory program, but he chose a baseball career instead. Promoted to the majors at 28 years of age, he quickly became one of the best offensive catchers of the Deadball Era. He played for 3 teams between 1909 and 1917, spending most of that time with the Giants. He led the NL with a .441 on-base percentage in 1912 and finished with a career batting average of .291--exceptional for the time period. Meyers helped his teams to 4 post season berths, though he never played on a world championship squad. Defensively, he led the league in passed balls twice, but also topped the circuit in putouts five times and double plays twice.

Rudy York
York was listed as part Indian-part Irish, but he once joked that there was very little Irish in him. "I'm a Cherokee and I'm proud of it," he said after his retirement. "Of course, when I was in the big leagues, that didn't help me out much. Any time an Indian puts on a baseball uniform, he's twice as interesting a character as the other fellow." As a catcher/first baseman in the Detroit system, York's path to the majors was blocked by Hank Greenberg at first and Mickey Cochrane behind the plate. He was eventually promoted in '37 when Cochrane was seriously injured after being hit by a pitch. Though York was substandard defensively, he was such a productive hitter that the Tigers offered Greenberg a $20,000 bonus to move to left field. York took over the first base full-time in 1940. A seven-time All-Star, York finished as high as third in MVP voting (in 1943). In all, he had 6 100 RBI seasons and four 30-Homer campaigns.   

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