America celebrates its sports heroes like perhaps no nation ever has; elevating them to near godlike status, especially those who make the superhuman look ordinary. But sometimes those heroes are ordinary themselves, battling the same demons that the rest of us do. And sometimes we honor them for that, too.
This is the Forgotten History of the All-American Prodigy.
He was a natural, as gifted an athlete as anyone had ever seen. Why, when he was just a boy, they said he could throw a baseball clear across the Penobscot River and could hit it even farther. Yes sir, Louis Sockalexis was destined for greatness on the diamond.
But he was an Indian, and Indians just didn’t play baseball; not professionally, not in college, not anywhere. Anywhere that mattered, anyway.
Because of that prejudice, as great as Louis was, he never got to play much farther away from the river he used to toss a ball over as a boy. He was 21 now, and stronger, faster, and just plain better than anyone else in the small county league he played in.
As the 1893 season rolled around, there was an excitement building. The Holy Cross University baseball team would be barnstorming the area and playing a few teams in the county league. Louis was ecstatic; he would show those fellows that he was every bit as good as they were. Better, even.
And he did. He was stronger, faster, and just plain better than all of them. Holy Cross’ best player, catcher Doc Powers, was in awe. He didn’t care that Louis was an Indian; he was the greatest baseball player he ever saw. Louis would be coming back to Holy Cross with the team. Doc wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Louis accepted, enrolled at the University, and almost immediately became the best athlete there. He played football, ran track, and, of course, dominated on the diamond. He hit home run after home run and made impossible throws from the outfield. He was, at long last, fulfilling his destiny.
But just under the surface, Louis was struggling. He was homesick, and the racist taunts from opposing fans broke his heart. He began to drink. As he got even better on the field, the taunts grew more hateful. He drank more.
When his coach accepted a new job at The University of Notre Dame, Louis and his friend Doc followed him. But Louis’ demons followed him, too. As Doc signed a professional contract, Louis was kicked out of school following a drunken barroom brawl.
Still, the legend of Louis Sockalexis had preceded him, and the National League’s Cleveland Spiders signed him to a professional contract just a month later, making him the first Native American to play professional baseball.
He was an immediate sensation. His towering home runs and impossible throws from the outfield made him a fan favorite, and he batted .338 as the Spiders climbed from last place to National League contenders.
But the racist taunts followed Louis in every visiting ballpark. With every home run he hit, they grew louder. With every impossible throw he made, they grew more personal. And he took them more personally than ever before, especially since the hate directed at him even extended to his teammates and manager, Patsy Tebeau. The press even derisively dubbed them “Tebeau’s Indians.”
His team saw the name as a badge of honor, and while they rallied around Louis, he retreated once again to the bottle. His drinking grew more frequent. He began showing up to games smelling of liquor. He couldn’t hit or make even easy throws.
On the Fourth of July, he even badly injured his ankle while drunkenly leaping from a second-story window at a brothel. When he returned to the lineup, he just wasn’t the same. He could still hit, but his defense became a liability.
He retreated even further into the bottle; his alcoholism consumed him. The prodigy was long gone, now he was a just a broken man who played just a handful of games over the next two seasons.
By the turn of the century, he was out of the National League.
The Spiders moved on, of course, and found a new prodigy: A fan favorite with a cannon arm and great bat named Nap LaJoie. He was so beloved that the team even called itself “The Cleveland Naps.”
He starred for them for a decade, as Louis spiraled further into alcoholism, dying broken and alone and mostly forgotten on Christmas Eve, 1913.
The following baseball season would be Nap LaJoie’s last in Cleveland, and the team had a unique problem: It couldn’t still call itself the Cleveland Naps with Nap LaJoie now playing for the Philadelphia Athletics. What would its new nickname be?
The sportswriters who followed the club had a suggestion. The Boston Braves had just won the National League, so why not tap into some of that good luck and call back to one of the more fun and entertaining seasons that anyone could remember—when the team rallied around their young phenom, the very first Native American to ever play professionally, the tragic superstar who conquered the diamond but couldn’t conquer his own demons?
They made sure the legend of Louis Sockalexis would live on. The team became the Cleveland Indians.