In baseball history a lot of great names have passed through Cleveland – names like Cy Young, Napoleon Lajoie, Bob Feller and Louis Sockalexsis.
You’re probably saying to yourself: Louis Who?
He was the American Indian the Cleveland baseball team reportedly named themselves after.
But, to quote Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changing. On July 23 the team announced their new name – the Cleveland Guardians.
The old name had long been a target for Native American activists who deemed the name offensive.
For years the team insisted it was named to honor Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot tribe of Maine, and was a tribute to him. But was it?
The Cleveland team was called the Naps in 1914 – after Lajoie, a member of the 3,000-hit club and who still holds the highest single season batting average (.424) of all time. But in 1915 they decided on the name change, Indians.
To honor Sockalexis, who played parts of three seasons and had a career batting average of .313 – with a career total of 115 hits?
No disrespect to Sockalexis, who was an outstanding athlete. When he was enrolled at Holy Cross he played baseball, football and track. In two seasons of baseball at Holy Cross his batting average over that span was an incredible .444!
Sockalexis transferred to Notre Dame in 1897 – but was soon expelled for alcohol-related reasons. A few months later he signed a professional baseball contract with the Cleveland Spiders. Among his teammates were future Hall of Famers Cy Young and slugging outfielder Jesse Burkett.
The fleet Indian quickly made his mark. In an early series against the New York Giants Sockalexis got the game-winning hit off of future Hall of Famer Amos Rusie. The next time the teams met, Rusie vowed to strike out “that damned Indian.”
But Rusie’s first pitch to Sockalexis was whacked for a home-run.
It looked like Sockalexis was on his way to stardom – until his career was derailed by what newspapers of the day called the “Indian weakness.”
After batting .338 in his rookie season (4th best on the team), stealing 16 bases and driving in 42 runs in just 66 games, the future looked bright for Sockalexis. Except for that incident on July 4, 1897. An inebriated Sockalexis leaped from the second story window of a brothel and damaged his ankle.
At first it looked like he would be just fine, as he ripped 9 hits in this next 18 at-bats. But soon the injury became more prominent.
In 1898 Sockalexis appeared in only 21 games and batted a meek .242. His speed was gone as he failed to swipe even one base. The ankle injury slowed him down and he became a defensive liability.
How bad did it get for Sockalexis?
The 1899 Cleveland Spiders hold the honor (?) of being considered the worst Major League baseball team ever – winning a pathetic 20 games all season! And Sockalexis’ star dimmed so badly that he was cut from the team after only seven games.
Which brings us back to 1915.
How likely was it that the Naps – named after one of the most beloved players of all-time – would suddenly decide to “honor” a disgraced former player who wasted all the talent and promise he once displayed?
Before you answer, consider one more thing: in all the newspaper stories of the day not a single one even mentioned Sockalexis’ name.
Sockalexis died on Christmas Eve of 1913.
So now everyone can root for the Cleveland Guardians – and Native Americans can enjoy the greatest Indian victory since the Little Bighorn.
John Christian Hopkins lives in Sanders, Ariz., with his wife, Sararesa. He is a veteran journalist – but never an enemy of the people – and a former nationally syndicated columnist for Gannett News Service. He is the author of many books, including “Carlomagno: Adventures of the Pirate Prince of the Wampanoag.” He is a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island..