The American Indians of America’s Pastime
By VINCENT M. MALLOZZI
Jacoby Ellsbury is beloved by Red Sox Nation.
He is also a member of Navajo Nation.
Ellsbury, whose mother is Navajo, is the first person from that tribe to reach the major leagues. He is among 47 American Indian baseball players whose contributions to the game, from its earliest innings, are chronicled in “Baseball’s League of Nations: A Tribute to Native Americans in Baseball,” an exhibit that opened April 1 and runs through Dec. 31 at the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cave, N.Y.
“Since this exhibit opened, we have had some of our largest crowds in recent years,” said Erynne Ansel-McCabe, the director of the 27-year-old museum. “People have been staying for hours, looking at artifacts and reading all about these players, many of whom suffered from the same kind of racial discrimination as American Negro league players.”
Pitchers Joba Chamberlain of the Yankees (Winnebago) and Kyle Lohse of the St. Louis Cardinals (Nomlaki) are the only other American Indians in the majors.
“I think it’s wonderful to have a place where people can go to see all the accomplishments made by these great players,” Chamberlain said Thursday while sitting at his locker at Yankee Stadium before a game against Toronto. “I can tell you that the three of us playing in the majors are all proud to be carrying on this great tradition.”
The exhibit’s roster includes Jim Thorpe (Sac/Fox), an outfielder for the New York Giants, the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Braves (1913 to 1919); Ben Tincup (Cherokee), a pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies (1914 to 1918) and the Chicago Cubs (1928); and Jim Bluejacket (Cherokee), who pitched for the Brooklyn Tip-Tops of the Federal League (1914-15) and the Cincinnati Reds (1916).
Moses Yellowhorse, a Pawnee, is considered by many historians to be the first full-blooded American Indian to play professional baseball. Yellowhorse, who was not-so-affectionately known as Chief, broke in with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1921. The next season, he hit Ty Cobb with a pitch between the eyes.
“This was probably as much a result of Cobb’s crowding the plate as it was a retaliation for his racist remarks,” is the explanation the museum provides from a Yellowhorse biography, “60 Feet Six Inches and Other Distances from Home” by Todd Fuller.
The exhibit also features two Hall of Famers: pitcher Chief Bender, an Ojibwe whose given name was Charles Albert and was considered the American League’s first Indian player when he broke in with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1903; and outfielder Zach Wheat, a Cherokee who starred for the National League’s Brooklyn Superbas early in the 20th century.
Bender finished his 14-year career with a record of 212-127, including a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians in 1910 and three complete games (two victories) against the Giants to help Philadelphia win the 1911 World Series.
Wheat batted .312 in 1916, hitting safely in 29 consecutive games.
The Iroquois museum features artifacts, some on loan from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which is 40 miles west in Cooperstown. There is a huge bat carved by Bender, a regulation bat autographed by Wheat and a baseball signed by Thorpe. A timeline traces the Indian presence in baseball.
The explorers Lewis and Clark tried to teach an early version of the game to the Nez Perce Indians during their trek across North America from 1804 to 1806. Indian prisoners also played baseball, the most prominent being the Apache warrior Geronimo at Fort Sill, Okla.
“For many Native American children, exposure to baseball came with their relocation to off-reservation government boarding schools,” the timeline states. “For white administrators of boarding schools, baseball demonstrated the success of their assimilationist techniques, but for native children, success in baseball became a source of community and personal pride and freedom from the boarding school regime.”
According to the timeline, Louis Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot tribe who was known as the deerfoot of the diamond, became the first Indian to play in the majors, in 1897. An outfielder, he played three seasons with the Cleveland Spiders, batting .313.
“There’s so much to learn about Native Americans in baseball, which is why I’m planning on visiting the museum once I get some free time,” Chamberlain said. “The one thing we do know is that everybody has obstacles, no matter their race or gender, and the beauty of baseball is that it is a sport filled with so many different people who have overcome those obstacles.”
Source URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/08/sports/baseball/08cheer.html?_r=1&ref=baseball&oref=slogin