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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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Major League Flannel in the Foxhole?

As we draw to a close of what has been an exciting baseball season at both the major league and minor league level (at least it has been for me and the teams that I follow), I am reminded that I have experienced some success of my own in acquiring selected military baseball items. I have been fairly silent with regards to writing (on this blog) and I thought that today would be a great time to pick things back up.

Overall, my collection has experienced growth, mostly with vintage photographs, since I last posted and a few of my subsequent post will be dedicated to discussing the various acquisitions. I was also successful in obtaining one uniform set while missing out on another, very special (and very complete) baseball uniform (still another post will be forthcoming to discuss these).

I have yet to dive down into the researching (the subjects of today’s post) beyond some cursory investigations. One (or both) of the photographs that I acquired recently tell a bit of a story about the connection between the major leaguers and their transition into the ranks.

United States Army Air Force ballplayers. There is a hodgepodge of uniforms on display in this image. In addition to the Cincinnati and "M" jerseys, the player in the front row (2nd from right) is wearing a uniform with thin, double-piping). The player in the bomber jacket (front row, far left) is wearing a 6 panel hat with piping outlining each panel.

United States Army Air Force ballplayers. There is a hodgepodge of uniforms on display in this image. In addition to the Cincinnati and “M” jerseys, the player in the front row (2nd from right) is wearing a uniform with thin, double-piping). The player in the bomber jacket (front row, far left) is wearing a 6 panel hat with piping outlining each panel.

The Cincinnati uniform in question. Is this from the MLB Reds team or, perhaps the University of Cincinnati Bearcats? Note the uniform features (lettering, lettering arch, piping trim placement and size).

The Cincinnati uniform in question. Is this from the MLB Reds team or, perhaps the University of Cincinnati Bearcats? Note the uniform features (lettering, lettering arch, piping trim placement and size).

When the (first) photo of the Army Air Force team arrived, I carefully examined it and noted that one of the players in the team was wearing a uniform with “CINCINNATI” stitched across his chest. The uniform was a dark shade of wool flannel (obviously gray) and piped in a darker contrasting material. This man’s uniform stood out against the others as it was one of two that was not a simple, plain gray flannel ensemble.

I wanted to see if I could pinpoint the uniform as the National League team, the Reds or rule it out as, perhaps, one from the University of Cincinnati. I turned to the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Dressed to the Nines (uniform database) to search Reds’ uniforms from the 1930s and 1940s to find a match. Keeping in mind the features of the Air Force player’s uniform (block letters, single thick piping on the edges, sleeves and around the collar), I was unable to match the uniform. Cincinnati’s 1930s road uniforms had letters that had serifs and the piping appears to be thin lines. The block lettered jerseys from the 1940s and war years had the correct lettering and yet lacked piping altogether.

Judging by the parked heavy bomber (perhaps a B-17) and the close proximity combined with the landscape, I am betting that this photo was taken somewhere in England in 1943-1945.

Judging by the parked heavy bomber (perhaps a B-17) and the close proximity combined with the landscape, I am betting that this photo was taken somewhere in England in 1943-1945.

Paying close attention to the details of the photo, one must scan each player for specific elements that can help to identify where and when the photograph was taken which may give more research guidance when attempting determine facts (such as the identity of the two notable jerseys). In this photo, I can see the chalk-lines of the baseball diamond (in front of the team), the flat landscape along with a heavy bomber in the back ground. The close proximity of the aircraft to the ball field leads me to believe that the location of the photo is England (experience scouring a lot of photos helps to recognize familiar features).

Matching the facts of the photo, I may now attempt to identify one or more of the players. Scouring Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball in Wartime site (which has an extensive database of players), cross-referencing names and searching for player photographs (using Google). It is tedious work but the payoff is rewarding. So far, I have had no such success in identifying anyone, let alone the “Cincinnati” player.

The second photo that I acquired is also something of a mystery. When I purchased it, the seller listed the image as being from World War II. When I saw the listing, I knew that the photo and the uniforms (worn by the players) were from 1910-1920.  The handwritten information on the reverse identified the players as being from the U.S. Navy Bureau of Navigation (which would have been based in Washington D.C.; specifically, at the Washington Navy Yard).

This photo was most-likely shot during the Great War, if not a year or two earlier.

This photo was most-likely shot during the Great War, if not a year or two earlier.

Close inspection of the background of the image failed to reveal (to me, at least) anything that would indicate or confirm a specific location. In viewing the main subjects of the image, I focused on the players and their uniforms. Jerseys were dark and pinstriped possessing a darker trim along the button edge, collar and sleeve cuffs. The sleeves are all 3/4 length (some players have them pulled above their elbows). Their caps are short billed, low crown and appear to have eight panels (versus the normal six of later years) and a small white “W” on the front panel. One player stands out from the rest in that his uniform is significantly lighter in color (with the same construction features) yet different in that it has a large “C” on the left chest and a small white “C” on the front panel of a six-panel cap that is trimmed in white piping.

My first reaction to the odd uniformed player was that he is wearing a Cleveland Indians (or Cleveland “Naps” as they were named from 1903-1914) uniform. Again I went back to the HoF uniform database and conducted a broad search (1910-1925) in hopes to narrow this uniform down. The results were close but not definitive. Clearly the ball cap is very much the same as the 1917 Cleveland road cap, but the uniform more resembled the home uniform of the same vintage with the exception of the trim on the sleeves. In some of the photographic examples, I have discovered that in 1916, the Indians wore the dark cap (with white piping) with the pinstriped white home uniforms. My “Cleveland” player lacks the player-number on the left sleeve as seen in the 1916 photo above.

This style of collar began to appear with the New York Giants in 1906 and became more commonplace by 1911 across most teams. The 3/4 sleeve was a departure from the full-length long sleeves of the late 19th century. These uniforms also feature pinstripes and a darker material that follows the button strip and continues upward and around the collar.

This style of collar began to appear with the New York Giants in 1906 and became more commonplace by 1911 across most teams. The 3/4 sleeve was a departure from the full-length long sleeves of the late 19th century. These uniforms also feature pinstripes and a darker material that follows the button strip and continues upward and around the collar.

Regarding the rest of the team’s uniforms. the white “W” appears to vary from cap to cap in size and placement and, since doesn’t directly correlate to what is written on the back of the photo (“U.S. Navy Bureau of Navigation”), it could stand for the unknown team name or simply, “Washington.”

Since this photo is very clearly earlier than World War II, there is no reason to search (as with the above photo) for any correlation to MLB players going to the military (times were different) from the their professional careers and there is some data available to pour through on the Baseball Reference site. Turning to Baseball in Wartime, Bedingfield has, for WWI, a list of ball players who were killed or died during their service. Of those, five served in the Navy, none of which were major leaguers.

In both photographs, the (seemingly) major league uniforms could be the result of major (or minor) league teams donating uniforms to the armed forces for recreation use as they are past their serviceable, professional lives. I will continue to research both of these photos and hopefully uncover details as they become available or surfaces in the coming years.

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