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.Born on October 24, 1871 on the Penobscot Indian reservation outside of Old Town, Maine, Sockalexis displayed incredible athletic talent in his youth.
Tales abounded of his great throwing arm, with descriptions of him hurling a baseball over 600 feet across the Penobscot River. He went on to become a star pitcher and outfielder at both Holy Cross and Notre Dame, where life and legend continued to intertwine.
One of his colossal home runs was estimated at 600 feet, while another reportedly broke a fourth-story window in the Brown University chapel. He stole six bases in one game; pitched three no-hitters; and one of his outfield throws, measured by two Harvard professors, traveled 414 feet on the fly.
Louis Sockalexis was signed to a professional contract in 1897 by the Cleveland Spiders baseball club of the National League and was an immediate success, hitting an impressive .338 with eight triples and 16 stolen bases in his first 60 games.
He appeared to be on target to fulfill the enormous promise predicted for him by New York Giants manager John McGraw, who described Sockalexis as the greatest natural talent he had ever encountered in the game. But his rookie season and his professional baseball career were soon ground to a halt.
A drinking problem that had begun in his college days resurfaced, and on July 4, 1897, during a party, an inebriated Sockalexis jumped from the second-story window of a brothel, severely injuring his ankle. He played only sporadically during the next two years, and his last game in the major leagues came in 1899 at the age of 27.
In his brief major league career, Sockalexis was a sideshow attraction. Tapping into a public consciousness that still remembered the Indian Wars of the 1870s, spectators for opposing teams were reported to have showered racial slurs and invectives on the Penobscot Indian when he stepped to the plate.
Fans imitated war whoops and war dances when Sockalexis came to town. He was exploited by those who had a business interest in baseball (i.e., the club owners and the press) and who, aware of the public’s great curiosity in Sockalexis, cultivated his Indian image for the purpose of selling tickets and newspapers.
Sportswriters later attributed his rapid decline to an inherent “Indian weakness,” the abuse of alcohol, which continued to perpetuate one of the most dominant and enduring Native American stereotypes, that of the drunken and lazy Indian.
Louis Sockalexis spent his final years on the Penobscot Indian reservation, teaching Native American boys how to play baseball. It was reported that when he died of heart failure at the age of 42 on October 24, 1913, his yellowed press clippings were found inside his shirt pocket.
Sockalexis was buried at the Old Town cemetery, with his name burned on a wood cross. In 1934, the State of Maine erected a stone marker on his grave.