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Native American Baseball Players, Part II

Part Two

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

You can read Part 1 of the series on Native American ballplayers here.

For many years the stories passed down in my family was that my great-grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian. She was gone before any of my generation or the generation above me were born, so stories were all we had. We knew she had dark olive skin and jet-black hair. We knew that the people in the town she lived in considered her to be Indian. The story goes that since she was Indian, she was made to wait outside the fence around the schoolhouse for my grandfather and his brothers and sisters when they got out of school. My grandfather also had the look: dark skin, jet black hair. One of my aunts tried working with the Cherokee Nation, but that yielded no answers. We had no birth certificate. We had no death certificate. For many years we proudly considered ourselves part-Cherokee.

A few years ago, my father took a DNA test. When the results came back, we were a bit shocked to find that he (and hence the rest of us) did not have any Native American blood. European and Irish. Well butter my butt and call me a biscuit. I will tell you that I was very disappointed. Being part-Cherokee was part of my life story. I was proud of that. It was part of my identity. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t.

That journey made me wonder about the validity of many who claim to be part Native American. I’d wager that there are a lot of people who think they’re part Native American who like us, might not be. We knew we had a lot of Irish. That part was almost a given, the red hair, the drinking, the fighting. Yes, every stereotype of the Irish, we had it. That part was easier to track, thanks to my mom, who is a genealogical wizard.

Reading about the history of Native American baseball players, I was struck by how many were from Oklahoma. Makes sense of course, with Oklahoma having been and still being one of the epicenters of Native American life in the United States. Allie Reynolds, Ryan Helsley, Dallas Beeler, Jim Gladd, Jess Pike, Cal McLish, Pepper Martin, Pryor McBee, Jim Thorpe, Bob Neighbors, Vallie Eaves, Euel Moore, brothers Bob and Roy Johnson, Art Daney and Emmett Bowles just to name a few Oklahomans with Native American ancestry who played major league ball. I finally stopped counting.

Several of these players had connections to the old Philadelphia-Kansas City Athletic teams including Pat Cooper got into 14 games for the Athletics back in 1946 and 1947 and Rudy York, who was part-Cherokee, and spent the last 31 games of his illustrious career with Philadelphia. As a rookie, York hit 18 home runs in the month of August 1937, which set a major league record. He hit 277 career home runs and was the only batter that Ted Williams, making a mop up relief appearance, ever struck out. He remains one of thirteen men to have hit two grand slams in the same game.

Just like the alumni of the Negro Leagues, there are many rich stories about players with Native American ancestry.

The Moderns

Portrait Of Indian Bob Johnson
Bob Johnson
Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Bob Johnson – Johnson, nicknamed Indian Bob, was part-Cherokee. He was born in Pryor, Oklahoma and enjoyed a terrific 13-year career. The bulk of his career with spent with the Philadelphia Athletics, a ten-year span from 1933 to 1942 that saw him slash .298/.395/.520 with 252 home runs, 1,040 RBI and 853 walks. An outfielder, Johnson was a machine at the plate. Even though he didn’t make his debut until after his 27th birthday, he still collected 2,051 career hits. The only other player to collect over 2,000 hits when making his debut after the age of 27 was Ichiro Suzuki, so that tells you what kind of hitter Johnson was. He was an eight-time All-Star and picked up MVP votes in six other seasons. He broke up three no-hitters in his career, garnering the only hit for his team. The guy could flat-out play, accumulating almost 56 WAR for his career. Had he broken into the league earlier, say age 23 or 24, he may have very well played himself into the Hall of Fame. He passed away July 6, 1982, at the age of 76.

White Sox Pitchers Laughing
Cal McLish, second from left
Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Cal McLish – McLish, named by his father, had one of the all-time great names: Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish. I’m not making that up. Like my grandfather, he had the simplest of nicknames: Bus.

McLish, who was part Cherokee, was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers prior to the 1944 season and at the age of 18, went straight to the majors. A right-handed pitcher, he got roughed up a bit that first season, only posting a 3-10 record with a 7.82 ERA. Uncle Sam called soon after, and McLish was sent to Europe to fight in World War II, causing him to miss the entire 1945 season.

He came back to Brooklyn for the 1946 season before being shipped to the Pirates as one of five players swapped for outfielder Al Gionfriddo and $100,000. Rumor has it that Gionfriddo carried the cash to Brooklyn in a briefcase. McLish spent most of 1947 playing for the Kansas City Blues before becoming a bit of a baseball vagabond. Along with Brooklyn, he spent time in Cleveland, Philadelphia (Phillies), Pittsburgh, both the White Sox and the Cubs and Cincinnati. In addition to Kansas City, he spent time in the minor leagues with Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and San Diego. The guy saw some country!

He was just an average pitcher until the age of 32, when suddenly he blossomed, going 16-8 and 19-8 for Cleveland in 1958 and 1959. After his playing career ended, McLish had a long and well-respected coaching career with the Expos, Phillies, Brewers and Mariners. McLish passed away on August 26th, 2010, at the age of 84.

Jack Aker – Born of Potawatomi descent, Aker was originally signed by the Kansas City Athletics as an outfielder. After hitting just .208 at Class D Grand Island, the Athletics converted Aker to a pitcher. Aker, whose nickname was Chief, of course, was a sidewinding righthander who developed a devastating sinkerball. He made a rapid climb through the Athletics minor league system and made his major league debut on May 3rd, 1964.

He rapidly developed into one of the best relief pitchers in baseball. In 1966, he enjoyed his finest season, saving 32 games and posting an outstanding 1.99 ERA over 113 innings of work. The 32 saves were a major league record at the time. There should be an asterisk on that because any pitcher who could win 20 or save 33 games for those Athletics teams deserves special recognition. Aker stayed with the Athletics through their move to Oakland but had a series of run-ins with owner Charlie O. Finley based on Aker’s position as the union’s player representative. To spite Aker, Finley left him unprotected in the expansion draft, whereupon the Seattle Pilots snapped him up with the 24th pick. Royals General Manager Cedric Tallis had a near-perfect draft, but he did miss on a few players that could have helped the Royals, notably Lou Piniella and Steve Hovley, whom he both later acquired, and Mike Marshall and Aker.

Aker only played 15 games in Seattle before the Pilots shipped him to the Yankees. He played parts of four seasons in the Bronx and had some success, going 16-10 with 31 saves and a 2.23 ERA in 124 appearances. He concluded his career with stints with the Cubs, Braves and Mets before retiring at the age of 33.

After his playing days ended, Aker coached in the Mets and Cleveland organizations, before establishing the Jack Aker Baseball Academy, which he ran for twenty years. In 1997, President Clinton awarded Aker with a “Giant Steps Award” for his work with Native American children in Arizona and New Mexico.

Justin (Joba) Chamberlain – Chamberlain, a Nebraska native who grew up with his father on the Winnebago Indian Settlement, was a high school and American Legion star. He worked briefly for the Lincoln (NE) maintenance department before moving on to the University of Nebraska at Kearney. After his freshman season with the Lopers, he transferred to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where he helped the Cornhuskers reach the 2005 College World Series, a team that included Brian Duensing and Alex Gordon.

The Yankees selected Chamberlain with the 41st pick of the first round of the 2006 draft and Joba made a meteoric rise through the minor leagues. He made his debut with the Yankees on August 7th, 2007, and picked up his first win on September 5th in a relief appearance against the Mariners. He only allowed one run in 24 innings of work, striking out 34 while only walking 6 batters, with a fastball that often touched 100 mph.

The Yankees were so convinced that Chamberlain was going to be a star, that they turned down a trade proposal from Minnesota for Johan Santana. The Yankees jerked Chamberlain between the bullpen and a starter's role until Joba underwent Tommy John surgery in 2011. Chamberlain made a return from surgery in late 2012. In December of 2013, Chamberlain signed a free agent deal with the Detroit Tigers but could never recapture the magic of earlier in his career. He appeared in 99 games over parts of two seasons for the Tigers before being released. Toronto signed him, but soon released him. The Royals, steaming toward the 2015 playoffs and looking for veteran arms, signed Chamberlain on August 16th, 2015. He appeared in six games for the Royals, with little success, allowing five runs in 5.2 innings of work. The Royals left him off their postseason roster, but in a classy move awarded him a World Series ring. Chamberlain made 20 appearances for Cleveland in 2016 and made an unsuccessful comeback with Milwaukee before calling it a career at the age of 31. More recently, Chamberlain has done some analysts work for MLB Network.

There are many other stories of Native American ballplayers worth telling, from Johnny Bench to Jacoby Ellsbury. As all of you well know, the Cleveland team dropped their Indian nickname and will now go by the Guardians. Someday soon, the Atlanta Braves will follow, as will the Chicago Blackhawks and yes, eventually, the Kansas City Chiefs. I don’t have an opinion on this and even if I did, it wouldn’t matter. If Native peoples find these names offensive, then they should be changed. End of story.

Like their Negro League counterparts, Native American ballplayers have a rich and interesting history.