Will Baseball HOF Finally Start Honoring the Game's Native Pioneers?
The stated mission of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, in Cooperstown, New York, is “to preserve history, honor excellence and connect generations.” It fails on all three counts where Native American players and history are concerned.
For even as its exhibition walls feature portraits of pioneer players and time-lines for Afro-American players, Hispanic players and women players, no such recognition and celebration exists for the American Indian pioneer players – who actually broke the first color barrier. Indeed, the only Indian player acknowledged anywhere in the hall is Charles Albert “Chief” Bender…and he is an inductee as one of the game’s greatest pitchers.
In fact, until inspiration struck in the summer of 1966, the hall failed equally dismally where Afro-American players and history were concerned. It was then that legendary player Ted Williams used his own induction to give one of the shortest acceptance speeches in its history – but one of the most important ones. Williams beseeched the hall to begin inducting the truly great members of the Negro Leagues, wonderful players whose only “shortcoming” was being the victims of racism and being ostracized from Major League baseball. The very next year the hall began the process of admitting players like Satchel Paige, one of the greatest pitchers of all-time, and Josh Gibson, one of the greatest catchers of all-time and, perhaps, the greatest home run hitter of all-time.
Now, the Baseball Hall of Fame, like Major League Baseball and like American society itself, annually pats itself on the back for its recognition of Jackie Robinson, the anointed “one” to receive all the praise and recognition as the symbol of the fall of insidious white racism while the truly greatest of the black players continue to trail far, far back in his wake. But at least they are in “the wake” of Robinson; for at the hall of fame, Native Americans are for all intent and purposes invisible.
In 2003, with substantial researching assistance from Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) member Richard B. “Dixie” Tourangeau of Boston, I published my book, Baseball’s First Indian, Louis Sockalexis: Penobscot Legend, Cleveland Indian. In 2005, and again in 2009, I spoke at the Baseball Hall of Fame as part of its annual symposium on the game, where researchers and authors present papers and talks on various historical and societal topics related to the game.
In 2005, I tried to make the case that Louis Sockalexis deserved recognition as the first-known American Indian to play Major League baseball and a man who also deserved recognition for enduring oppressive prejudice from players, fans and the sole medium that existed – newspapers, comparable to that endured by Robinson, and for breaking the first color barrier. In 2009, at the invitation of Baseball Hall of Fame Librarian Jim Gates, I formed a panel – featuring Native American academicians Joseph Oxendine and Michael Taylor, as well as myself – to look at a variety of issues related to Native Americans and the American sporting society but to also essentially answer the question “How do we determine who was or wasn’t an Indian in baseball’s earliest days?”
Because I believed that Gates and Tim Wiles, chief of research at the hall, would sincerely listen to and appreciate information that might make such determinations a little more clear, I was delighted with the opportunity to try to help the Baseball Hall of Fame correct what I felt was a terrible oversight: the complete lack of respect or even mention of American Indian pioneer players, starting with Sockalexis, and including Charlie Bender, John Meyers, Jim Thorpe, Moses Yellowhorse and the others who broke a color barrier, endured horrific racial prejudice and led the way for others of their race just like Robinson did, just like Clemente did.
Certainly the Society of American Baseball Research – like the hall of fame – needs a collective bat-to-the-head on the matter; members like Peter Morris and others ingloriously race to publish their findings the moment they find a “possible” American Indian background for players from the 1870s and 1880s, like Tom Oran, Joe Visner or James Madison Toy, without any regard for several important criteria.
1. Was the player listed in the American census as American Indian?
2. Was the player registered with a tribe?
3. Did the player, indeed, acknowledge being a member and connecting directly with any Native American community?
4. And, more significantly to the point, did the player make “known” his roots so that his playing peers, the fans and the media were aware of his race?
No evidence from SABR or anyone else has been brought forward answering these questions for Oran, Visner or Toy, yet that hasn’t stopped SABR members and others from attempting to strip Sockalexis from the title of “first”; looking at photographs of Visner and Toy should be enough to make that last point more clear. Both have Caucasian facial features and bountiful facial hair that would quite easily allow them to “pass” for white; of course, from his portrait Sockalexis is easily identifiable as Native American, and he is most definitely both listed on the U.S. census and registered with his Penobscot tribe. And he always claimed the reservation on Indian Island just across the Penobscot River from Old Town, Maine as his home community.
Oran, Visner and Toy are not listed on the U.S. census as Native Americans nor are they registered with any tribe; further, there is no evidence any one of the three claimed connection with any American Indian community or, indeed, made “known” such a race connection at the time he played the game. Follow these guidelines and you should have no trouble identifying the pioneer players who meet specific qualifying standards and then develop a timeline and history for Native American players, adding anyone at any time that all criteria is met.
A few years after publishing my book I actually discovered a death certificate for Toy (which was said by his heirs not to exist, having been “burned up” in a Beaver Falls town office fire in the 1920s; however, Toy had died in 1919 in another community that was not his hometown). Toy and his heirs listed his race as “white.” So, all those baseball histories that dropped Sockalexis and began citing Toy as “the first” player of American Indian heritage clearly have done a great injustice to Sockalexis.
Thus, it was quite important to me to have not only Gates and Wiles present for our session on Native American issues and identification method, but also Jeffrey Idelson, the hall president, and the man who could give the marching orders to correct what is an obvious oversight at the hall.
Named president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, at age 43, on April 16, 2008, Jeffrey Idelson succeeded Dale Petroskey, a former member of the Ronald Reagan Administration who once forbade the cast of the film Bull Durham to have a reunion at the hall for no other reason than he feared the anti-Iraq war, left-wing views of cast members Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. Several entreaties I made on this matter to Petroskey went completely unanswered. Thus, I admit it; I was actually hopeful the youthful, former communications specialist from the greater Boston area who was a Red Sox fan like me would be far more receptive than Petroskey. Hell, he even answered my e-mail messages!
And I was very excited when I learned that, yes, Idelson would attend our one-hour presentation, scheduled as the very last presentation for the entire two and one-half day 2009 symposium.
Ironically enough, I had been the very last one to present back at the 2005 conference. In neither instance did I take offense; indeed, in both instances I really wasn’t concerned about the presence of the visitors and fellow presenters to the hall…No, I wanted, front and center, administration and staff of the hall itself: The more influential members of the hall, wearing their dark blue polo shirts with the Baseball Hall of Fame logo on it, the better!
And, yes, Idelson did come and shake hands with us and take a seat. Barely 10 minutes into the first presentation – with Lumbee Indian tribe member, author and Pembroke State University chancellor-emeritus Joseph Oxendine going over the specific criteria for how the hall could best identify who is and who isn’t an American Indian baseball player – Idelson got out of his seat and fled the hall, never to return.
It was explained to us that Idelson had to take “an important fund-raising call”… Excuse me, this couldn’t have been postponed?! We were in Cooperstown with the chance to speak for just that one hour. I still regard his behavior as very disrespectful to two Native American speakers and to me, especially considering the information we wanted to present.
Most ironically of all, the very model for the type of Native American pioneers exhibit the Baseball Hall of Fame should permanently offer to its public has actually been created – with the help of the Baseball Hall of Fame itself!
During the summer of 2008, the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cave, N.Y., just 40 miles east of Cooperstown, hosted an exhibit on Native American Pioneer baseball players, starting with Sockalexis, omitting Oran, Visner and Toy, and offering only players “known” at the time they played for being Indian. I gave a talk that summer on Sockalexis at the Iroquois Museum and, indeed, Gates not only attended the talk but invited me to create that very panel which appeared at the 2009 symposium.
According to Erynne Ansel-McCabe, director, of the Iroquois Indian Museum, the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum did charge her museum “their not-for-profit rate for a number of images, for $340 total – which just covered their expenses.” She added that the hall “loaned us items at no cost and all research assistance fees were waived as well.” She concluded, “The Baseball Hall of Fame certainly did not make money in the collaboration for this exhibit.”
The Iroquois Museum, according to Ansel-McCabe, spent “about $5000 which was a wash due to a grant we received from another organization.” She added that the exhibition ended on December, 2008, and then appeared in Stamford, Connecticut for showing through the spring of 2009. After that, the Iroquois Museum returned the loaned items and, today, the rest of the exhibit is stored in its archives.
How sorrowful is this? The National Baseball Hall of Fame provides the very materials it possesses itself but doesn’t see the value in presenting to its own visitors!
C’mon, Jeffrey Idelson: Why are there timelines and histories in the exhibition galleries of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum for the other races and minorities to break barriers but not for the actual first race to break the color barrier?
Journalist and college instructor Ed Rice of Orono, Maine, is author of Baseball's First Indian, Louis Sockalexis: Penobscot Legend, Cleveland Indian and Native Trailblazer, Andrew Sockalexis: Penobscot Indian who followed the Maine running path to glory and tragedy. He has a web site at Sockalexis.info.