SOCKALEXIS, LOUIS FRANCIS "CHIEF" (24 Oct. 1871-24 Dec. 1913), a Penobscot Indian who played professional BASEBALL with the CLEVELAND SPIDERS from 1897-99, and is believed to be the first Native American to play Major League Baseball.
Sockalexis was born on the Penobscot Indian Reservation in Old Town, Maine, to Francis P. and Frances Sockabeson Sockalexis. He excelled in track, gymnastics, polo, skating, and baseball and attended Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., where he was a three-sport athlete, distinguishing himself most in baseball, hitting .436 in 1895 and .444 in 1896. He also played amateur baseball in Maine's Knox County League. He transferred to Notre Dame in Indiana, where he was expelled after a fight at a local tavern.
Sockalexis turned professional in 1897, joining the Cleveland Spiders as an outfielder. Regarded as an early “five-tool” player (run, throw, field, hit and hit for power), he hit home runs in his first 2 at-bats and batted .338 over 66 games. He so enthralled fans and sportswriters that the team was referred to in some instances as the Indians.
He appeared in only 21 games in 1898, hitting just .224, finishing his major league career after only 7 games in 1899, released by the team and unwanted by any other. (Following the 1899 season, the Spiders folded.)
Sockalexis returned to Maine, where he descended into alcoholism and lived an itinerant life. He played some semi-pro baseball and worked as a ferry pilot before finding work with a logging crew. He died of an apparent heart attack on Christmas Eve 1913 in Burlington while cutting down a tree. Sockalexis, who never married, is buried on the Penobscot reservation in Maine.
In 1915, the Cleveland American League baseball team needed a new nickname, having been known since 1905 as the Naps, in honor of player-manager NAPOLEON "NAP" LAJOIE. A summit was held between ownership and representatives of the city’s newspapers, and the name Indians was chosen. Contemporary accounts mentioned Sockalexis and the previous team’s brief time as the Indians, leading to a popular myth that the team was named for him, but there is no solid proof that was the case.
Updated by Vincent Guerrieri