Native American Athletes
Native American athletes and sports heroes include baseball players Louis Sockalexis and John “Chief Meyers, Billy Mays, Olympic Gold Medalist, all round athlete Jim Thorpe, who excelled in 11 sports, and many more. Profiles of native American sports heroes.
“Chief” John Meyers, a Cahuilla native American, was one of the most famous baseball players of all times. He was a catcher for both the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The most famous Cahuilla baseball player, “Chief” John Tortes Meyers, commonly known as “Jack”, was born July 29, 1880. His family moved from the Santa Rosa Reservation to Riverside when he was about 12 years old.
Prior to the 1890s, practically all Indian participation in non-Indian sports was restricted to boarding schools. By the late 1890s, Meyers’ talent stood out when playing baseball for Riverside High School.
After high school, he caught for various semi-pro teams, playing on reservation, town, and company teams around southern California and the Southwest.
In 1909, John Meyers was the first Cahuilla accepted at Dartmouth College, where his athletic abilities caught the attention of major league teams.
Meyers earned the starting catcher position for the New York Giants and was pitcher Christy Mathewson’s regular batterymate from 1910 through 1915.
In 1910, baseball became the “official” national pastime when President William H. Taft participated in a new American ritual: the head of state throwing out the first pitch to open the season. Meyers batted .332 in 1911, .358 in 1912, and .312 in 1913. The Giants won the National League pennant in each of those years.
“Chief” Meyers became known by teammates and opponents alike as best all-around catcher in the major leagues. Meyers and Babe Ruth were friends, even trading bats on one occasion. When Meyers was Olympian Jim Thorpe’s roommate in New York, another Native American by the name of “Chief” Charles Albert Bender (Chippewa) was pitching brilliantly for the Philadelphia Athletics. Fans applauded “Chief” George Howard Johnson (Winnebago), another Indian pitcher, who worked in both the National and Federal leagues.
Meyers still holds the major league record for most assists (12) in a six-game World Series in 1911. His overall batting average was .291, he earned three “Iron Man” titles, and was placed on Albert Spaulding’s Grand National All-American Baseball Team. He was traded to Brooklyn in 1916 and promptly wound up behind the plate in a fourth World Series, catching for the Dodgers.
His career ended when the United States entered World War I and Meyers joined the Marine Corps.
Until his death in 1971, Meyers often attended games in Los Angeles as a guest of the Dodgers and the Angels. He even made occasional road trips with the Dodgers at the invitation of owner Walter O’Malley.
During his career, John Tortes Meyers embraced his Indian identity while operating mostly in a white world. He also traveled to Washington, D.C. to negotiate for the establishment of the Santa Rosa Reservation.At a time when Native Americans were treated like second class citizens, the addition of John Tortes Meyers and Charles Albert Bender to the elite group of players on baseball cards is a testament to their success. In 1972 Meyers was inducted into the American Indian Sports Hall of Fame at Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas.
A federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled Friday that proceedings should begin to return the body of Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe to Oklahoma, a major step in a decades-long battle that Thorpe’s sons and the Sac and Fox tribe have waged to return his body to the place where he grew up.
Thorpe is buried in Jim Thorpe, Pa., a small town that renamed itself to convince his widow to bring his body there shortly after his death in 1953 in hopes of launching a tourism industry. Patsy Thorpe and city officials signed a contract and Thorpe’s body has lain in a mausoleum in a tiny park ever since.
But the 32-page ruling by U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo rejected the city’s bid to keep their namesake, ruling that the
federal Native American Graves and Repatriation Act mandated that the body be returned.
Caputo noted that his decision overriding the contract “may seem at odds with our common notions of commercial or contract law,” but said that Congress passed the law “against a history of exploitation of Native American artifacts and remains for commercial purposes.”
Thorpe, who was principally of Sac and Fox ancestry, played professional football and baseball and set Olympic decathlon records. In 1950, sportswriters named him the nation’s greatest athlete of the half century.
“This decision vindicates the basic human rights of Bill and Richard Thorpe and the Sac and Fox Nation,” said Stephen R. Ward, the lawyer representing the family and the tribe.
Sandra Massey, historic preservation officer of the Sac and Fox Nation in Stroud, Okla., said she was “all emotion.”
Michael J. Sofranko, mayor of Jim Thorpe, said the city was “disappointed” but had not decided whether to appeal.
Author: Neely Tucker
This article first appeared in the Washington Post
Although it was discovered in the 1960s that the first Native American in the major leagues was James Madison Toy, who played in the American Association in 1887 and 1890, the first man known and treated as an American Indian was Louis Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot tribe.