Friday, May 24, 2013

Native Americans in the Majors

Now that I've spent my last two blogs discussing current events, I'd like to get back to some historical topics. One subject that has always interested me is the contribution of Native American ballplayers over the years.

In 2011, right-hander Kyle Lohse started Game 3 of the World Series for the Cardinals. It wasn't one of his best outings, but the appearance was noteworthy nonetheless as Lohse was the first Native American to start a World Series  game since Allie Reynolds won Game 6 of the 1953 Fall Classic. Before Lohse, Joba Chamberlain--a Winnebago Indian from Lincoln, Nebraska-- made three relief appearances in the 2009 Series for the Yankees, yielding 1 run and 2 hits in 3 innings of work. As of 2013, Lohse and Chamberlain were still active along with Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who finished second in MVP voting during the 2011 campaign. Ellsbury, who hails form Madras, Oregon, is of Navajo descent.

Over the course of baseball history, roughly 50 American Indians with verifiable tribal ties have played at the major league level. Native Americans were first introduced to baseball while being held captive by U.S. troops. It has been reported that Apache warrior Geronimo played baseball as a prisoner. Merchants and missionaries later brought the game to reservations while the earliest professional teams were being assembled. Eventually, a handful of Native Americans aspired to the majors. 

It wasn't an easy road. There were no official segregation laws, but Indian players were widely discriminated against. The lucky few who made it to "The Show" were saddled with degrading nicknames ("Chief" being the most common) while being treated to abuse from fans. The first American Indian to make it to the majors was a man named Louis Sockalexis, who traced his lineage to the Penobscot tribe. A multi-sport star at Holy Cross college, he hit .338 in his 1897 major league debut, but his experience was less than blissful. A correspondent from Sporting Life wrote: "All eyes are upon the Indian in every game...Columns of silly poetry are written about him, hideous looking cartoons adorn the sporting pages...He is hooted and howled at by the thimble-brained brigade on the bleachers." Sockalexis accepted the reprehensible treatment with dignity. "No matter where we play, I go through the same ordeal," he told reporters. "I am so used to it that at times I forget to smile at my tormentors." Unfortunately, Sockalexis's story was one of tragedy as his heavy drinking led to a rapid decline. He was out of the majors by the end of the 1899 slate. He eventually turned his life around, but not before living as a vagrant for a period of time. 

Though making it to the majors is a significant accomplishment in itself, not all of the Native Americans who have worn major league uniforms over the years have met with great success at the game's highest level. There have been numerous standouts, however--A topic I would like to explore thoroughly in my next few posts. I'll start with one of the greatest pitchers of all-time. 

Charles Albert "Chief" Bender
An Ojibwe Indian, Bender made his debut in 1903 for the A's at the age of 19 and pitched spectacularly, gathering 17 wins while posting a 3.07 ERA. He gained wide acclaim for his coolness in big-game situations. Connie Mack once said of him: "If I had all the men I've ever handled and they were in their prime and there was once game I wanted to win above all others...Albert would be my man." Bender lived up to that billing by participating in five World Series, three of which were won by the A's. He notched a 6-4 record overall with a stingy 2.44 ERA. The reliable right-hander had 2 devastating pitches in his repertoire, a lively fastball and a sharp-breaking curve. He also threw a submarine fadeaway pitch that moved away from lefties like a screwball. Battling injuries throughout his career, he posted impressive statistics. Between 1907 and 1911, his ERA never exceeded 2.16 and for 3 straight seasons, it was below the 2.00 mark. He won 212 regular season games in all, averaging 18 victories per year over 16 seasons. Though Bender was treated relatively well by contemporaries, he told writers in 1905 that he resented the bigotry of the era. "I do not want my name to be presented to the public as an Indian, but as a pitcher," he said. The nickname of "Chief" followed him to the grave--literally. It is inscribed on his tombstone.

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