Fans of the Cleveland Indians may have heard that their team was named in honor of one of franchise’s early fan favorites, Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian. But probably not even the most knowledgeable Indians fans know that “Chief” Sockalexis attended Notre Dame, briefly.
Sockalexis, one of the first Native Americans to play major league baseball, was born in 1871 on a reservation on an island in the Penobscot River of Maine. Like George Washington at the Potomac with his silver dollar, legend has it that young Louis could heave a baseball across the Penobscot to the mainland, a distance of 600 feet.
Sockalexis first played college baseball in Maine and then at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. When the Holy Cross coach accepted a position at Notre Dame, Sockalexis moved with him, arriving at the University in February 1897 at age 25.
In his 1993 book about religion and sports, Notre Dame Odyssey, author Herb Juliano recounts how Sockalexis, an outfielder, traveled with the Notre Dame baseball team in 1897 to play an exhibition game against the professional New York Giants at the Polo Grounds. In his first at-bat, he faced Amos Rusie, “The Hoosier Thunderbolt,” whose fastball was so harrowing it supposedly was responsible for the pitcher’s mound being moved back from 50 feet from home plate to the still-regulation 60 feet, 6 inches.
Sockalexis was not shaken. He stepped up and pounded Rusie’s first pitch over the heads of the outfielders and raced around the bases for an inside-the-park home run. A sportswriter dubbed him “the Deerfoot of the Diamond.”
A month after enrolling at Notre Dame, Sockalexis left to attend the training camp of the Cleveland professional franchise, then known as the Spiders. He made the team and never returned, playing 66 games that year, batting .338 and stealing 16 bases.
The next season his average sunk to .224, however, and he played in only seven games his final season, batting .273. Tragically, Sockalexis died on Christmas Eve of 1913 of heart disease complicated by tuberculosis.
Though not a Spider for long, Sockalexis was fondly remembered by Cleveland fans, who, when he stepped up to bat, would reportedly chant, “Sockalexis! Sockalexis! Sock it to ’em, Sockalexis!”
The Spiders were later renamed the Naps in honor of future Hall of Famer Napoleon Lajoie. But in 1914, when Lajoie was released, a Cleveland newspaper held a contest urging fans to submit ideas for a new name. “Indians” was suggested by a fan as a tribute to the late Sockalexis.
At least that has long been the official story. Some Native American and civil rights groups suspect that this explanation is a fabrication designed to sanitize a name — and the team’s grinning, ruby-skinned mascot, “Chief Wahoo” — that they view as racist.
The Indians recently revised the team history in their media guide to state that the team’s owner solicited sportswriters to ask fans for their favorite nickname, and the name Indians was chosen. Whether it was anyone’s intention to honor temporary Domer Louis Sockalexis or just to follow in the footsteps of Indian-themed nicknames like that of the Boston Braves — who went from last place to winning the World Series in 1914 — is a matter for speculation.
According to the Indians’ official website, Sockalexis was inducted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame earlier this year, along with his second cousin, marathon runner Andrew Sockalexis, who placed second in the Boston Marathon in 1912 and 1913 and fourth in the 1912 Olympic marathon in Stockholm.