We had a funeral for a friend last month. Even though he was 84 and had been in declining health, there’s still sadness over losing someone that so many knew and loved. My friend Bob was a Meskwaki Indian. The Meskwaki Nation is part of the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi. The People of the Red Earth.
In life, he was what us baseball people would call a five-tool person. He was smart, funny, good-looking, friendly and trustworthy. There are other good qualities of a person, of course, but you get the general idea. Bob, who also went by the name of Chief, had a huge personality. A lot of people say about a loved one, “He never met a stranger.” With Bob, that was very true.
Several years ago, his oldest son stopped in a sports bar in Miami for a quick, after work drink. The bartender had a Michigan football game on. My friend asked the bartender, why the Michigan game? The bartender replied, I’m from the Midwest originally and still follow the teams. The rest of the conversation went like this:
My friend: I’m also from the Midwest.
Bartender: where from?
Iowa? I knew a guy from Iowa. He called himself the Chief.
Yeah, that would be my father.
My friend called his father and the three of them had a great laugh about the chance meeting. Bob truly never knew a stranger. At the funeral, Bob’s nephew sang a Meskwaki funeral song, while beating a small drum. It was beautiful and haunting and moving.
In the following days, I found myself wondering how many Native Americans had played professional baseball? There’s been a lot of press given lately to alumni of the Negro Leagues, and rightfully so. But not much has ever been written about Native American ballplayers. November was Native American History month. I had no idea. It doesn’t get the media coverage that it should.
For the next two weeks, I’m going to cover this fertile ground. Records are spotty, but there appears to have been at least 53 players with some degree of Native American ancestry who have played professional baseball. Here are the stories of some of them.
Part One: The Ancients
Sockalexis, from the Penobscot tribe, is often noted as being the first person of Native American ancestry to play Major League Baseball. His career spanned from 1897 to 1899, as an outfielder with the Cleveland Spiders of the National League. Joe Posnanski has written about Sockalexis several times and his is an amazing story.
A terrific athlete, Sockalexis played for Holy Cross College, and briefly, Notre Dame, before signing with the Spiders in March of 1897. He made his major league debut less than a month later. He got into 66 games that first season, and hit well, slashing .338/.385/.460.
However, he had a drinking problem which would surface from time to time, and ultimately derail a promising career. He only appeared in 21 games in the 1898 season and his batting average dipped to .224. The Spiders released Sockalexis seven games into the 1899 season and his major league career was over. Sockalexis endured many racial taunts, war whoops and dances during his time with Cleveland. The Spiders eventually changed their name to the Naps (for manager Nap LaJoie) then in 1915 to the Indians, which many construed as a desire to honor Sockalexis. Whether this is true or not, I do not know. The Cleveland baseball team, now the Guardians, did erect a plaque honoring Sockalexis in the plaza beyond center field at Progressive Field.
Charles Albert “Chief” Bender
Bender was born in Crow Wing County, Minnesota as a member of the Ojibwe tribe. His name as a child was Mandowescence, which means “Little spirit animal”. He made his big league debut in 1903 at the age of 19 and quickly became the ace of the Philadelphia Athletics staff. Over his 16-year career, Bender posted a record of 212 wins and 127 losses. He often had to contend with chants of “Go back to the reservation.” To which he’d often reply, “Foreigners! Foreigners!”
Bender has been credited, correctly or not, with being the first pitcher to use the slider. He threw a no-hitter in 1910, was a member of three World Series-winning teams from the Athletics dynasty years and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953. He died at the age of 70, on May 22, 1954, before his induction ceremony.
John Tortes “Chief” Meyers
It seems like most early Native American ballplayers got stuck with the moniker of Chief. Some hated it, while others wore it with pride. Meyers’ mother, Felicite, was a Cahuilla Indian. Known primarily as Jack, he grew up in Riverside, California and used a faked high school diploma to get into Dartmouth. The college soon discovered the forged document, and Meyers elected to turn pro.
He toiled in independent leagues and the minor leagues until finally getting his shot with the New York Giants in 1909 at the age of 28. A catcher, Meyers was a bit of a star right from the beginning. In his first six seasons with the Giants, he slashed .311/.385/.401 while collecting 655 hits in his first 730 games. He had a superb 1912 season, hitting .358 and finishing third in the MVP voting. His time with the Giants ended after the 1915 season and he closed out his career with stints with the Brooklyn Robins and the Boston Braves, retiring after the 1917 season at the age of 36, having appeared in four World Series. After his baseball career ended, Meyers joined the Marine Corp and served in World War I. Prior to his death in 1971, Meyers could often be found attending games of the Dodgers and Angels. He occasionally went on the road with the Dodgers as a guest of owner Walter O’Malley.
Thorpe, of the Sac and Fox Nation, was one of the greatest athletes of all-time. Thorpe was born and raised in what was then called Indian Territory but is now known as the state of Oklahoma. His native name was Wa-Tho-Huk – Path lit by great flash of Lightning. At the age of 16, Thorpe was sent to the Carlisle (PA.) Indian Industrial School. One of the coaches at Carlisle was the legendary Glenn “Pop” Warner. What are the chances of that happening?
Warner immediately recognized Thorpe’s athletic gifts. He was an immediate standout in track and field, and even though Warner was reluctant to let Thorpe play football, no one could stop him. He played running back, defensive back, placekicker, and punter and in 1912 led Carlisle to the National Championship. In 1912, he also became the first Native American to win gold at the Olympics, winning both the Pentathlon and the decathlon.
Baseball was probably Thorpe’s weakest sport. He signed with the powerhouse New York Giants and made his major league debut in 1913 at the age of 26. He played parts of six seasons, primarily with New York, but also saw time with Cincinnati and the Boston Braves. In 1917, he appeared in 103 games, which was a career-high. His career slash line was .252/.286/.362. Baseball is hard, even for someone who might have been the greatest athlete of all time.
Thorpe started playing professional football in 1913 with the Pine Village Pros, then made the jump to the Canton Bulldogs in 1915. In 1920, Canton was one of the original teams that formed the American Professional Football Association, which became the NFL in 1922. Thorpe continued to play professional football until the age of 41. After his athletic career ended, Thorpe appeared in several movies, but during the depression took on jobs in construction and as a barman, just to make ends meet. He lapsed into alcoholism and died on March 28, 1953, at the age of 65. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as part of the inaugural class in 1963. The Jim Thorpe Award is given annually to the top defensive back in college football.
Elon Chester “Chief” Hogsett
Hogsett, a left-handed submariner, was never a huge star. I included him because he was born in Ness County, Kansas, one of my old stomping grounds as a child. Hogsett claimed to have Cherokee ancestry. As a young man, he pitched for the Brownell, Kansas high school team and later attended Bethany College, where he played football, baseball and ran on the track team.
After bouncing around the minor leagues for several years, Hogsett was signed by the Detroit Tigers in August of 1929. He made his debut on September 18, 1929, and continued to play through the end of the 1944 season. Nine of those years were spent with Detroit. Hogsett also saw action with the St. Louis Browns and the Washington Senators. He worked primarily out of the bullpen for the Tigers but made 55 starts with the Browns over his two seasons in St. Louis.
After retiring from baseball, Hogsett and his wife Mabel moved to Hays, Kansas. I lived in Hays for two years during that time. Hays is a small city and I’m certain I probably crossed paths with Hogsett at some point. I would have loved to sit down with him and hear his stories. After all, this was a guy who pitched to several baseball legends, from Babe Ruth to Jimmie Foxx to Rogers Hornsby to Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio blistered him pretty good - 26 hits in 50 at-bats. Of course, DiMaggio hit just about everyone well. The Babe did well too, 13 hits in 27 at-bats. Hogsett worked in sporting goods and liquor sales after baseball. He passed away July 17, 2001, and the age of 97.
Dedicated to the memory of Robert Waseskuk