A Native American from the Penobscot tribe, Sockalexis is often identified as the first person of Native American ancestry to play in Major League Baseball, though many conflicting reports exist. In some cases, Jim Toy, a catcher in the early American Association, is identified as the first person with Native American ancestry to play major league baseball. Author Ed Rice has disputed this, having found a death certificate for Toy stating his race as Caucasian, although birth records of the time are notoriously inaccurate. Also, Chief Yellow Horse, who played in the early 1920s, is noted as the first full-blooded American Indian to have played in the major leagues.
Louis Sockalexis was born on the Penobscot Indian reservation near Old Town, Maine in 1871. His grandfather was Chief of the Bear Clan. In his youth, Sockalexis' athletic talents were very noticeable. It was reported that Sockalexis could throw a baseball across the Penobscot River from Indian Island to the shore of Old Town. Additionally, it is said that Sockalexis and his father entertained crowds at the Bangor Race Track by playing catch across the entire track. He attended High School in Van Buren's St. Mary's.
After completing his secondary education, Sockalexis began his college career in 1894 at the College of the Holy Cross. While there, he participated on the school's baseball, football, and track teams. Sockalexis spent those summers playing baseball in the Trolley League along the coast of Maine. After the end of the 1895-96 baseball season, the Holy Cross baseball coach accepted a position at the University of Notre Dame in February 1897. When that happened, Sockalexis decided to transfer to Notre Dame. In his two season at Holy Cross, Sockalexis compiled a .444 batting average.
Sockalexis biographer Ed Rice challenges this entire Notre Dame-Giants account, since there is (1) no known newspaper account of it and (2) it sounds too remarkably like the account that actually occurred when the Cleveland team played the Giants for the first time in the Polo Grounds. In 1897, the Notre Dame baseball team played an exhibition game against the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds. In a sign of things to come, Sockalexis had to deal with taunts, racism, and insulting chants during the game. At the same time, sports writers in attendance insulted a delegation of Pensobscots who had come from Old Town to watch the game.
Amos Rusie, a future member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, pitched that day for the Giants; and, before the game, Rusie had promised to strike out Sockalexis. Things did not go well for Rusie as Sockalexis hit a home run following Rusie's first pitch. Here, Rice completely challenges the Notre Dame account: Why would Rusie promise to strike out the "damned Indian" as he characterized Sockalexis before he and the Cleveland team arrived in New York? When this incident occurred in the professional game, Rice and Society for American Baseball Research member Richard "Dixie" Tourangeau discovered Rusie had a reason to be upset with Sockalexis. It seems earlier in the 1897 season, New York had played a series in Cleveland; in the game Rusie pitched there, the game went into extra innings and Sockalexis got the game-winning hit off Rusie. This Notre Dame account hasn't been proven.
However, Sockalexis' career at Notre Dame was short. In an event that foreshadowed future problems, the University expelled Sockalexis not long after he arrived for his problems with alcohol. Although he played exclusively as an outfielder in the majors, Sockalexis played outfield and pitcher while at Notre Dame and Holy Cross.
On March 9, 1897, Sockalexis signed a major league contract with the Cleveland Spiders. Just a month later, on April 22, Sockalexis made his major league debut. Just a few months after he was expelled from school, his drinking problems resurfaced. On July 4, 1897, Sockalexis, in an inebriated condition, jumped from the second-story window of a brothel. He severely injured his ankle in the fall. Evidently, the injury affected his play. In the five games after the injury, he had nine hits in 18 at bats. However, his fielding was not very good. From July 25 until September 12, Sockalexis played in just one game. In that game, he committed two errors. In his first season with the Spiders, Sockalexis hit for a .338 batting average with three home runs and 42 RBIs. In 66 games that season, Sockalexis also had 16 stolen bases.
Burdened by his alcoholism, Sockalexis played just two more seasons of major league baseball. After a mediocre 1898 campaign, in 1899, a combined ownership cartel that controlled both the Cleveland Spiders and the St. Louis Perfectos engineered a 'trade' in which all of Cleveland's best players were assigned to St. Louis—in this way, the St. Louis team would have a shot at the pennant, while the Cleveland team would be allowed to languish. Sockalexis, no longer considered a star, was kept in Cleveland.
After playing just 7 games for what is often considered the worst team in major league baseball history, the Spiders released Sockalexis, and his major league career was over. Sockalexis finished his career in the minor leagues and returned to Indian Island to coach juvenile teams in 1901. Five players whom he coached went on to play in the New England League. However, his baseball career ended for good in 1903.
Sockalexis suffered from tuberculosis and heart trouble in his later years. On Christmas Eve, 1913, Sockalexis died in Burlington, Maine.
Although Sockalexis had a brief career, he faced many obstacles during his time in professional baseball. It was reported that fans of the opposing teams often shouted racial slurs toward him due to his Penobscot heritage. Additionally, fans imitated war whoops and war dances in his presence. Later, when sports journalists attributed his rapid decline to alcoholism, they identified the disease as the inherent "Indian weakness".
When the Cleveland Naps changed their name to the Indians in 1915, the franchise did so to honor Sockalexis. The Indians' official media guide says that the owners solicited sportswriters to ask fans for their favorite nickname, and the name Indians was chosen by a young girl who wrote to one of the sportswriters whose column requested suggestions. She specifically mentioned Sockalexis and his heritage. A brief story in the February 28, 1915, issue of the Plain Dealer states that the Cleveland Indians would wear the depiction of an Indian head on the left sleeves of their uniforms to "keep the Indians reminded of what the Braves did last year." Sockalexis had died two years earlier.
In recognition of his accomplishments, the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame has elected Sockalexis. He was joined by his second cousin, marathon runner Andrew Sockalexis, who finished second in the 1912 and 1913 Boston Marathons and in fourth place at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm.