Category Archives: Anecdotes

Baseball’s American Indian Heritage Should Not be About Wrong vs Right

Cleveland Indians Earl Averill and Odell Hale c.1937 (source: Baseball Hall of Fame).

Now that all of the Major League teams have held their home-opening games and festivities and the 2017 season is well underway, the return of the so-called ant-racism protests against certain symbolism and iconography (that is represented within sports – baseball in particular) is infiltrating the enjoyable aspects of the game. There is a smattering of protests that occur annually (sometimes persisting throughout entire sports seasons) by small groups of people who find ways to be offended by the names and logos that represent professional teams. In the National Hockey League, the “offensive” teams are the Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Eskimos. The National Football League has the Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins. Major League Baseball’s hot-button teams are the Atlanta Braves and the 2016 American League Champion Cleveland Indians.

A close-up of Odell Hale’s (of the Cleveland Indians) left sleeve showing an older “Chief Wahoo” logo patch in 1937 (source: Baseball Hall of Fame).

Opening day in Cleveland last week, fans were subjected to a handful of people of various ethnic origins (including American Indian) who assailed (verbally and physically) with their disdain for both the team name and logo. Being a traditionalist, changes to team names and logos – especially historic ones –  driven by contrived offense, stir up negative reactions within me. To avoid the tiresome debate about the honoring origins of the team name and logo (and the detractors who persist in suggesting both to be racist despite the history surrounding the Cleveland players – such as Louis Sockalexis and Al Bender), I will try, instead to highlight an aspect of baseball history that has a military connection.

When I talk to my children about history and how racism is an ill that has existed within man almost since creation, I try to take them away from present-day and infuse context into the discussion. It is far too easy to condemn people, when looking back from present-day and current situations, as racists solely based upon behaviors, activities or geography. The written word from other eras is often mistaken as racist due to the lost meanings of terms and phrases as they existed in time. Just listening to my kids interact with their friends can lead to a wealth of misinterpretation as their language lexicon is far different from that of my generation. Rather than to open ourselves up and apply understanding of that time, it is far simpler to judge a person for their skin color and gender and demonize them accordingly. How ironic that we employ racism as a means to eradicate racism. It can only be seen as a shifting of (perceived) power rather than seeking equality and balance and a harmonious society.

Apache baseball team that beat the U.S. Cavalry team in the 1890s.

I recently began watching Ken Burns’ fantastic Public Broadcasting series, Baseball which I haven’t seen since the series originally aired in the early 1990s. As I was watching the first episode, Inning One: Our Game which covered the origins of the game from the mid-19th century leading up to the 1880s, a small snippet of the show covered a game that took place at a western fort in Oklahoma. What caught my attention was the mention of a baseball game that was played between the Army and an Apache team (who were considered prisoners of war and were detained at the fort) who featured a former warrior and chief of note, the great Geronimo. As I have written previously, the game transcends all bounds; time, generations, geography and even former combatant foes.

The great Apache, Geronimo, circa 1898.

When considering the ramifications former adversaries from two vastly different cultures engaging in a game, it is hard to imagine that there was anything but bitter feelings between the two opposing sides. Racially-charged epithets could have been exchanged between the two teams and it is possible that neither was aware of what was said due to the language barriers. In the years following this game and the wider adoption of the game within the American Indian communities, baseball stars would rise from the reservations and the Carlisle Indian Industrial School (Indian children were taken from their families to educate and assimilate them to Western culture). As Indians made their way onto professional rosters and they proved successful and even garnered fan-followings, depictions of the players and their on-field actions could be perceived (by today’s standards) as derogatory (as noted by Royse Parr in his article, American Indians in Major League Baseball: Now and Then).  Not to diminish the Parr’s assertions that Indian players detested nicknames of “chief” which detracted from the term’s cultural significance and belied the ignorance of the people who casually expressed them. These were the times and society has progressed since those days.

When looking at the root issue of the protests at Progressive Field, we must also acknowledge that there is a significant portion (90%) of the American Indian community who do not find the team names, mascots and logos offensive, according to the 1994 Annenberg Public Policy Center and 2016 Washington Post polls. In a span of nearly a decade and a half, nothing has changed in terms of finding the names offensive. In fact, outside of the handful of people in Cleveland, there are several Indian groups and tribes who support the allegedly derogative team names.

Guy W. Green’s Nebraska Indians (source: Dispatches from the LP-OP)

American Indians have been substantial contributors to the game almost since they were introduced to it. Considering the likes of the modern game’s early stars:

  • Louis Sockalexis – a Penobscot from Maine who played three seasons for the Cleveland Spiders of the National League (who would eventually, in a very round-about way transition to become the present-day Cleveland Indians who were so-named to honor the team’s former star from Maine).
  • Al Bender – an Ojibwe (Chippewa) from Minnesota, Bender was a favorite of his Philadelphia Athletics manager, Connie Mack. In one World Series, he pitched three shutouts and would retire with a mere 2.46 earned run average. He would spend his post-playing days as a coach in the minors and major leagues and even had a stint as the Naval Academy’s manager, posting a 42-34-2 record with the Midshipmen. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953, a year before his death.
  • Zack Wheat – a Cherokee outfielder who starred for Brooklyn for 18 seasons in the early 1900s and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1959. He still holds many of the Dodgers team batting records.
  • Jim Thorpe – a Sac/Fox from Oklahoma and direct descendant of the warrior Black Hawk who played for the Giants, Reds and Braves from 1913-19. Thorpe also played in the NFL and won gold medals at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics in the decathlon and pentathlon.
  • Rudy York – a Cherokee who as a rookie catcher with the Detroit Tigers in 1937 broke Babe Ruth’s record for most home runs in a month, hitting 18 in August, and also drove in 49 runs that month to break Lou Gehrig’s record by one. York finished his career with 277 home runs, 1,152 RBIs and a .275 batting average.
  • Pepper Martin – an Osage who starred at third base and the outfield for the Cardinals’ famed “Gashouse Gang” of the 1930s, and in 1931 was named the first Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year
  • Allie Reynolds – a hard-throwing right-hander of Creek descent who went 131-60 in eight years with the Yankees and finished his 13-year major league career in 1954 with a 182-107 record.

 

Negro and Major League star (and WWII Navy Veteran), Larry Doby’s uniform showing the current Chief Wahoo caricature.

As an American with Cherokee ancestry, I am not offended in the slightest by the names. I prefer to consider that the Native American men who played the game during Baseball’s terrible decades of exclusionary policies (against African Americans) ultimately served to pave the way for societal change. In the process of introducing baseball to Indians on reservations and with re-education centers (like Carlisle), the game worked against the establishment to dismantle systematic prejudices. I can’t help but think that Geronimo and his fellow Apache ballplayers from those Fort Sill games are smiling with the progress they brought to this land.

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My Jersey and The Duke

What better way to throw out the first pitch for this blog than to start out with an anecdote about baseball. This story is 20-plus years in the making and came full-circle this past Saturday.

I first discovered Ebbets Field Flannels (EFF) in 1989-90 while I was still serving on active duty. By 1991, I had made my first visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and was bitten by the vintage baseball memorabilia-bug after having viewed the relics of the past 150 years of the game that were on full display at the museum.

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1946 Montreal Royals road gray jersey (EFF).

At that time, I read an article in the local paper about a business that was specializing in recreating vintage baseball jerseys from the Pacific Coast League – having amassed a library of images and some examples of the uniforms from that league in it’s heyday. They had been expanding to other minor leagues of the bygone era creating reproductions from historic (and now, defunct) teams and their star players. being the Dodgers fan that I am, I pursued for my first EFF purchase, a 1946 Montreal Royals road jersey.

A few months later, I learned of one of my favorite Dodgers players, the Duke of Flatbush, Edwin “Duke” Snider, was appearing at a local autograph session along with a host of other legends of the diamond. Wanting to proudly display my Dodgers pride, I decided to don my Royals jersey rather than blend in with the typical double-knit clad baseball fans also in attendance.

While waiting in line for my moment with The Duke, I observed his fairly limited interactions with each autograph seeker. He would ask how they wanted their item signed and then follow-suit with his Sharpie. There were so many people in line, he began to move quickly while still seemingly enjoying the oft-repeated words from each fan. When it was my turn, he looked at me and before he could say anything, he did a double-take with his eyes locking onto the gray flannel and blue “Montreal” script emblazoned across my chest.

In seconds, a massive smile spread across his face. “Where did you get THAT?” he asked, excitedly. “I wore that jersey before I made it to the Dodgers!!” he continued. I told him that I was fully aware of his minor league record and then of Ebbets Field Flannels and what they make and sell.

Fast forward twenty four years.

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The Duke of Flatbush makes a leaping grab against the Bulova ad in right field.

This past weekend, my wife and I were enjoying the morning following our overnight date. Since we were in the city (over an hour’s drive from our home), I asked my beautiful wife if she would indulge me (it was my birthday, after all) with a visit to Ebbets Field Flannels.  Throughout the years, I have unhesitatingly surrendered a considerable amount of my income to fill my closet with jerseys, ball caps and t-shirts from this treasured establishment. Upon entrance, one is greeted by the larger-than-life photograph of Duke Snider making a leaping catch against the outfield wall of Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field.

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1918 Great Lakes Naval Station (EFF).

After shopping and selecting a ball cap (1918 Great Lakes Naval Station) to buy, I approached the counter to pay. As the gentleman was ringing me up, I re-told my Duke story to him. As he listened, he smiled and was compelled to tell me a story of Snider and EFF. He went on to relay an encounter (as told to him by another long-standing employee) when a call was received by a man who went by the name, Duke Snider. Apparently, this employee was unfamiliar with ballplayers and responded to the caller, “your name sounds a lot like a ‘baseball name.'” Apparently, the caller nonchalantly agreed and went on to place an order for a jersey. After the call, the employee told another colleague about the call to which that person responded with a face-palm (at the notion that someone associated with this company doesn’t know a legendary Dodgers player).

The employee went on to tell me that this encounter with Mr. Snider occurred sometime in 1991. He felt that it was entirely possible that my encounter with The Duke had prompted him to call and order his own EFF jersey.  This is merely speculation, but it is fun to consider.

I do have other such encounters that don’t quite fit the primary topic of this blog, but I might be so inclined to share them at some point.

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