On Fenway's 100th Birthday, We Recall the Life and Times of Louis Leroy, the Red Sox' First Native Player
On April 20, 1912, the Boston Red Sox moved into their new ballpark, Fenway, a new concrete-and-steel home whose "electronic" scoreboard was just as fascinating to the fans as the strange plank fence in left field (that would later become the Green Monster). The scoreboard was actually manually operated, with the ball-and-strikes calls and the out-of-town scores that were displayed on it relayed to the scoreboard keeper via telegraph. As the USA Today notes, at the time, this was a modern marvel.
As the Boston Red Sox prepare to face the New York Yankees today (they'll both be wearing their 1912 uniforms) in a game to commemorate the centennial anniversary of arguably the most famous ballpark in the world (Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnesssy calls it "the Sistine Chapel of baseball"), we wanted to reflect on the Red Sox first American Indian player, a man by the name of Louis Leroy, who played for the team in 1910, two years before the Sox moved to their new digs, when they played at Huntington Grounds.
According to Bill Nowlin of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), Louis Leroy was born on February 18, 1879 in Omro, Wisconsin. He was Stockbridge-Munsee, part of the Mohicans who relocated from New York's Hudson River Valley and Delaware to Wisconsin at the outset of the 19th century. SABR's Nowlin wrote a really wonderful piece on Leroy that we're highlighting here. We suggest you read his full story to get the full scope of the Leroy's remarkable life.
Leroy played his first baseball at the relatively late age of 15 on a team at the Keshena School in 1894, where he pitched. At 16 he was sent to the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent three years. Soon he was off to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. As Nowlin notes, Leroy played baseball at Carlisle for the famous coach Glenn "Pop" Warner for three years, from 1899-1901, where he garnered some attention from people in the big leagues.
Another aspect of Leroy's life at the time that Nowlin notes is how it was "apparently not uncommon for Indian boys to run off and join minor league or semipro baseball teams during the summer in order to make extra money. Leroy's school training was in the blacksmith shop, which probably was no nearly as much fun."
One of Nowlin's sources is Jeffrey Powers-Beck and his book The American Indian Integration of Baseball. While Powers-Beck was doing research for the book he found press clippings in the Baseball Hall of Fame files that seem to indicate Leroy coming to the attention of Boston player Jimmy Collins as early as 1899, when Leroy was at Carlisle. Collins had 'signing power' with the 1899 Beaneaters and wanted to offer Leroy a contract with the team, but Carlisle Superintendent Richard Henry Pratt shot down the 20-year old Leroy's opportunity, citing the young man's inability to accept outside work until graduation because "the U.S. government had a claim on the Indian."
Nowlin notes that every spring, Pop Warner wrote that Leroy, like clockwork, ran away from school as soon as the baseball season was over: "His escape schedule was like clockwork. Leroy was crazy about playing baseball and was always trying to land a job with a professional baseball team...and every fall, like clockwork, Leroy would return to Carlisle and beg to be able to re-enter the Indian school." One time Warner found Leroy in Boston, where Jimmy Collins, who was now managing the Boston Americans, had made an agreement with the young pitcher.
Nowlin notes how Warner could not be budged, however, and told Collins that Leroy was a ward of the school and had to finish his education. To hammer home this fact, Nowlin writes that Warner kept Leroy in a cell at the school and fed him nothing but bread and water...for 57 days. In 1901, from mid-June to early September, Leroy was kept on the "reservation" instead of pitching for the Boston Americans.
Leroy Leaves School
In 1902 Leroy was signed by the Buffalo Bison's manager George Stallings and pitched for the Eastern League team in 1902 going 13-5, and in 1903, finishing with a 7-7 record. He next went up to the Montreal Royals, where he got better, going 14-10 and then 18-12.
Nowlin includes some of the headlines from 1903 that Leroy's presence on the Royals generated, headlines that, sadly, are still not uncommon today. He was called "the little red man" in one, with a subhead reading, "Indian warrior cut down and scalped." Nowlin collected other phrases from the newspapers of that era, again they could be culled from today's editors, from Leroy being on the "warpath," with writer Powers-Beck stating in his book that Leroy suffered "crude caricatures and incessant war-whoops throughout his career."
What Nowlin focuses on is that Leroy never stopped working hard on his craft, becoming a complete pitcher, adding a curve and spitball to his repertoire. He also worked on his stamina, evidenced in an amazing feat that a pitcher today could never pull off—he won both games of a doubleheader for the Montreal Royals in 1904. Nowlin reports on a newspaper clipping from that day that stated Leroy had gone through "a siege of trial to become a professional baseball player, and his dogged persistence and determination are responsible for his being one of the stars of the diamond today."
To New York (and finally Boston)
Eventually Leroy, who Nowlin writes was "inevitably nicknamed 'Chief'" was purchased by the New York Highlanders (who would become the Yankees). He appeared in 11 games for the Highlanders, two as a starter, and compiled a 2-0 record with a 2.22 ERA in 44 2/3 innings. Unfortunately New York sent him back to the Montreal Royals, where Leroy, a bit dejected, didn't pitch his best and put up a 6-14 record.
Leroy eventually pitched for the Boston Red Sox at the outset of the 1910 season (they had changed their names from 'Americans' to Red Sox in 1908). He pitched in only one game for the Sox, and gave up seven hits, 9 runs, walked two and gave up one homerun. It should also be noted his team allowed five errors, according to Baseball-Reference.com. At 31-years of age at the time, Leroy had been pitching most of his life.
Nowlin writes that eventually Leroy lived in Gresham, Wisconsin, playing semi-pro ball while he "farmed, did lumber work, and became involved in some of the tribal affairs of the Stockbridge." Leroy moved to a two-story log cabin on an expanded reservation in Bowler, Wisconsin, with his second wife, where he "talked baseball and tribal politics" until he died of liver cancer on October 10, 1944.
A remarkable life, beautifully captured in this remarkable online biography by Bill Nowlin.
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