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Sports Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 7, 2008
Beating prejudice, Natives make their mark on America’s pastime
By Jordan J. Michael
HOWE’S CAVE Forty-seven Native Americans have played in the Major League. They are being honored in an exhibit at the Iroquois Indian Museum that does more than collect artifacts; it explores a social history of those who endured prejudice for the love of the game.
The Native American baseball exhibit at the museum sprouted from a random discussion about a pair of current Major League Baseball players.
“Our office upstairs is very open and we usually speak our minds whenever possible,” said Stephanie Shultes, the museum’s curator. “One day, we started talking about Jacoby Ellsbury and Joba Chamberlain, two young major leaguers with Native backgrounds.”
Ellsbury plays outfield for the Boston Red Sox and is a Navajo. Chamberlain, a pitcher for the New York Yankees, is a Winnebago. Both players broke out in the 2007 season.
“The conversation ended up going deeper,” said Shultes. “One of our Iroquois educators, Mike Tarbell, used to be a great ball player. We decided to do a whole history of Native Americans in baseball. It was one of those things.”
A display of Chamberlain and Ellsbury open the exhibit. “We wanted to open with these two current players because it shows the viewer the presence of Native American culture in the majors today,” said Erynne Ansel-McCabe, director of the museum. “It shows that the culture still has a big impact in the game and always will.”
Baseball’s League of Nations: A Tribute to Native American Baseball Players, opened up on April 1 and goes till Dec. 31. “We have a benefit planned for Nov. 15. We have invited many past and present players. It’s going to be a big deal,” Ansel-McCabe said.
The first Native American baseball player to be signed to the majors was Louis Francis Sockalexis in 1897, by the Cleveland Spiders. The league has seen 46 players since then.
“There hasn’t been too many of them, but they certainly made their mark on the game,” said Tarbell. “Our people had a real physical lifestyle so they were good athletes. Baseball brought the nation closer together.”
The Cleveland Spiders eventually became the Cleveland Indians. Native Americans have mixed feelings about what the name “Indian” signifies. “The Atlanta Braves are included in this argument, too,” said Ansel-McCabe. “Some people say that it honors the culture and others say that it mocks it.”
A display showcases a bright red Cleveland Indians bobble-head doll next to readings of racism that the players endured. “Sockalexis was the first Native American in the pros and part of the Cleveland organization,” said Shultes. “They might have named the team after him. But you look at the mascot and see this goofy looking character. It’s a tough subject.”
Racism followed the Native athletes. Even their own teammates taunted them. “Everyone had to deal with the racism, even me,” said Tarbell. “I got used to it. I was a pitcher, so every hater had to face me. I made sure to strike all of them out. I threw that nasty curveball in there and just watched them look at it. The umpires would laugh.”
Native American players would be called “Redskin,” “Chief,” and “Copperhead.” The athletes were confronted with the image of the “drunken Indian.”
Sockalexis, in particular, had a drinking problem that did not escape fans or the media. His team blamed him for its losses and labeled him “a signal member of a class of lifelong drunkards.” He ended up leaving the game all together.
Native Americans loved the game and ignored the insults. “These guys knew that the opportunity was too great,” said Shultes. “They were making money playing a sport they enjoyed so they stuck with it, despite all the discrimination. They had strong souls.”
Two of the 47 players made it to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. The first was Charles Bender, of Ojibwe descent, in 1953. Zach Wheat was inducted in 1959.
Bender played from 1903 to 1925. He began as a pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics. He went 212-127 over his career. Bender threw a no-hitter in 1910 and had three complete games in the 1911 World Series.
Wheat, a Cherokee, played from 1909 to 1927. He was known as a “dreaded slugger” after spending some time on the Brooklyn Superbas as an outfielder. He had a 29-game hitting streak in 1916.
A handful of Native American players set records and had fruitful careers. “These guys had great pride,” said Tarbell. “They had no fear and wanted to go further than any Native had ever gone.”
Jack Aker, a Potowatomie, spent 11 seasons in the majors from 1964 to 1974. He pitched exclusively in relief and was one of the American League’s best closing arms. He played for both the New York Mets and the Yankees and had 123 career saves.
Bob Johnson, a Cherokee, arrived in the major leagues at the age of 27 as an outfielder. He held the Philadelphia Athletics’ franchise record for most home runs from 1942-to-1993. He was in a group that included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mel Ott, and Jimmie Fox, who had nine consecutive seasons of 20 home runs or more. He finished his career in 1945 with 1,283 runs-batted-in and a .296 batting average.
Third baseman and outfielder, Pepper Martin, of Osage descent, played with the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1930s. He topped the National League in steals in three different seasons and has the third highest World Series average of all-time at .418.
“Native American ball players were no joke,” said Tarbell. “We have the pitching glove of Moses Yellowhorse on display. That guy hit Ty Cobb right between the eyes with a fastball because he said Cobb crowded the plate too much.”
Tarbell has family ties with baseball. His great uncles Joe and Louis Tarbell played with Jim Thorpe on the Carlisle Indian School team in the early 1900s. Carlisle was one of the first Native American boarding schools in the country.
“The boarding schools were a big part of the Native American baseball equation,” said Shultes. “These schools were trying to change their heritage, which is horrible. But they found baseball.”
“I was really inspired by my great uncles’ playing ball. My family told me all these great stories,” said Tarbell. “One day, I was at a family picnic and I was playing catch. Someone said that I had a great arm.”
Tarbell fell in love with baseball. He spent the 1950s and ‘60s pitching the ball to batters at home plate. He played for the Syracuse Ramblers and semi-pro baseball teams. “Sometimes there wasn’t even fences on the field. You had to chase the ball wherever it went,” Tarbell said.
He was invited to play more serious ball when he was a sophomore at Onondaga Central High School. “I didn’t realize what prejudice was back then,” said Tarbell. “What I did know was that I had a chance to make it big. I had a good fastball and a crazy curve. I went 43-7 as a starter in school.”
Tarbell chose to focus on school and ended up in the Vietnam War. He came back with a thrown out arm. “I had a future in baseball before the war,” said Tarbell. “It was a baseball grenade that threw my arm out. No more pitching for me.”
Even though Tarbell had a sad end to his baseball career, the memories live on in the exhibit. “There’s a huge picture of my great uncle sitting on the wall,” he said. “This showcase of Native American baseball players brings back all the wonderful thoughts.”
A lot of research for the exhibit was done through the Hall of Fame, but most of the artifacts were found in different places. “The photos came from the Hall. Besides that, we went to Iroquois communities and asked if teams played baseball there,” said Shultes. “It was a year’s worth of work. We spread the word about this exhibit and people got really excited. This is different than anything we’ve ever done. It’s fun and people relate to it.”
“When this opened up, it was a very special moment,” said Tarbell. “We got beyond all the clay pots and stuff. This is just the beginning. It’s going to get bigger and better. This exhibit will travel. It’s nice to know that this all started close to home.”