Veteran Plain Dealer sportswriter Bob Dolgan recently debunked the popular myth that the team was named to honor Sockalexis in a 1915 newspaper contest. And a closer look at Sockalexis's record--both on and off the field--suggests that while he was no Albert Belle, neither was he a Native American role model. The butt of a cruel joke fostered by an over-commercialized sports culture is more like it.
Sock, as he was called by his teammates, was a Penobscot Indian from Old Town, Maine. He played for the then-Cleveland Spiders for just three seasons, 1897 through 1899, and was a standout for only the first half of his first season. His notoriety was such that fans and sportswriters nicknamed the team "Indians" shortly after his arrival. Still, of all the players on the roster, including Hall of Fame pitcher Cy Young, it seems strange that the one who became the team's namesake was apparently better friends with the local bartender than his coach or fellow players.
Sockalexis was big and fast. He stood five feet eleven inches and weighed 185 pounds, and according to team lore, could run the 100-yard dash "in ten seconds flat wearing a full baseball uniform." An outfielder, he batted left, threw right, and by all accounts posted impressive numbers in college.
Sockalexis's major-league career began in the spring of 1897, while he was still playing for Notre Dame. One night Sockalexis and a friend decided to have some fun, and after loading up on "Old Oscar McGroggins," went on a tear. In another version of the story, Spiders Manager Patsy Tebeau went to South Bend specifically to sign Sockalexis, plying him with drinks in the process. Whatever the circumstances, the night ended with Sockalexis not only trashing a bar, but decking two cops. The story hit the papers, and Sockalexis was expelled. A few days later, after signing a $1,500 contract, he debuted in right field for the Spiders.
Sockalexis was well-received in Cleveland, drawing crowds that cheered his flashy catches and big hits. In a May 1 game against the St. Louis Browns, he had a triple, three singles, and two stolen bases. On May 7, he helped the team to a 7-6 win over the Chicago Colts with three singles, a triple, a walk, and a great running catch with the bases loaded. Sockalexis's salary was quickly raised to $2,400. But behind the scenes, his inability to say no to alcohol was taking a toll.
"When he began to drink and stay out all night, finding that fines and threats were useless, I promised him $6,000 the next year and $10,000 the season following if he would stay sober and play ball," Tebeau later told a reporter. "He promised, all right. But he couldn't let the strong stuff alone."
The Spiders did not play on Sunday, July 4. Sockalexis celebrated the holiday in his favorite way, and things went bad.
"He celebrated the Fourth . . . by a carousal during which he jumped out of the second story of a red-light place," Tebeau recalled. "His right foot was badly broken in the fall, but he bandaged it up and went with the other players to Pittsburgh that night. I went over the next day and hurried out to Exposition Park, and there in the bus was Sox, his broken foot swollen four or five times its natural size.
"I sent him back to his hotel in Cleveland, and a doctor put his foot in a plaster cast and ordered him not even to turn over in bed. But do you know that he would get up during the night and walk a block on his plaster foot to get a drink of whiskey?"
After that incident, Sockalexis played less and warmed the bench more. He appeared in a few more games, but did a lousy job both at the plate and in the field. After one particularly dismal performance, a Plain Dealer reporter wrote that Sockalexis played like he "had disposed of too many mint juleps previous to the game . . . a lame foot is the Indian's excuse, but a Turkish bath and a good rest might be an excellent remedy."
Finally, in early August, Sockalexis was suspended. Explained club official Frank Robison: "It was reported to me quite early in the season . . . that [Sockalexis] had been intoxicated, and I found on investigation and by authority which I could not doubt that the story was correct. I spoke to the Indian about it, and he . . . promised to abstain from then on. For a time I heard no more stories, but lately it has come to my ears that he has been drinking a good deal, and I received indisputable evidence today that he had been intoxicated two nights this week."
Sockalexis returned to right field for a short time at the end of the 1897 season and finished with fine numbers: 94 hits in 66 games for a .338 batting average. But for all intents and purposes, his career was over. In 1898, he played only 21 games and finished the season with 67 at bats and a .224 batting average. In his last season for Cleveland, Sockalexis played a mere seven games, scoring six runs in 22 at bats and posting a .273 batting average.
After an embarrassing two and a half seasons, Sockalexis was let go. He played for other teams briefly, but never stayed in one place for an extended amount of time. He died in 1913 at the age of 42, while working at a logging camp in Maine.
We may never know for certain the precise origin of the Indians' team name and whether it was meant to honor Sockalexis. But either way, he's not the typical hero that mom and dad would want Junior to emulate.
Lisa Foster may be reached at email@example.com.