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American Indians in Major League Baseball: Now and Then

Royse Parr

Society of American Baseball Research

Historically, the popular fascination with American Indian baseball players in the Major Leagues has contained an underlying strain of bigotry. Recently, however, sportswriters have been enthralled by the development toward stardom of three such baseball players—Kyle Lohse, Jacoby Ellsbury and Joba Chamberlain. And today researchers and fans can trace the development of American Indians in Major League Baseball from the game's early days to the present by using NewsBank's America's News and Readex's America's Historical Newspapers.

The first American Indian to play Major League Baseball in the 21st century was Kyle Lohse, a member of northern California's small Nomlaki Wintun tribe. In the first newspaper mention I found of Lohse—an October 22, 1994 article—he was throwing touchdown passes for the Warriors of Hamilton High School (Redding Record Searchlight, California). Lohse reached the Major Leagues as a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins in 2001. In 2008 he was an ace pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals of the National League.

During the 2007 season, Jacoby Ellsbury (Navajo) and Joba Chamberlain (Winnebago) joined the powerhouse Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, respectively, of the American League. They had met while still in the Minor Leagues and immediately developed a bond that extends beyond their shared American Indian heritage. Ellsbury and Chamberlain have stayed in touch since their first meeting.

Described as a cult hero who brings speed, defense and unbridled enthusiasm to the ball park everyday, Ellsbury was the first American Indian of Navajo descent to reach the Major Leagues. In the 2007 World Series he was a leading hitter and the centerfielder for the champion Boston Red Sox.

During the 2008 season, Chamberlain was transformed from a reliever to a starting pitcher on the proud Yankees' pitching staff. Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, he led his hometown University of Nebraska baseball team to the 2005 College World Series. He still has family on the nearby Winnebago reservation in northeastern Nebraska where his father Harlan, crippled from childhood polio, was born.

All three players are fiercely proud of their heritage. They focus their energies on trying to be positive role models for America Indian youth. Chamberlain frequently returns to the Winnebago reservation to encourage kids. Lohse and Ellsbury have often spoken to American Indian youth groups.

In seeking a comparable era when at least three renowned American Indians were simultaneously playing in the Major Leagues, it was helpful for me to search online newspapers from almost a century ago. America's Historical Newspapers provided me with more than 2,000 articles on three notable American Indian baseball players—Charles Albert "Chief" Bender (Chippewa), John Tortes "Chief" Meyers (Cahuilla band of Mission Indians) and Jim Thorpe (Sac & Fox). A fourth player, Zack Wheat, a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, downplayed his suspected American Indian origins (Cherokee) during and after his playing career.

Bender, who is also a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics of the American League in five World Series from 1905 to 1914. He heard war-whoops from the stands throughout his career and detested the nickname "Chief."

Meyers, an outstanding catcher, also disliked the nickname "Chief" and considered himself a "foreigner" in a strange land when he played in New York City. To him, the "Chief" epithet not only dishonored his American Indian identity but also degraded it in the manner of a mascot or a Wild West Show Indian. During this era, Wild West Shows were still touring the country, and the first Hollywood westerns depicting American Indians as savages were being produced.

Chief Meyers and Jim Thorpe bonded as teammates on the New York Giants—similar to the friendship of Ellsbury and Chamberlain almost a century later.

At the 1912 Olympics held in Stockholm, Sweden, Thorpe won both the decathlon and the pentathlon. King Gustave of Sweden proclaimed him "The Greatest Athlete in the World," but he forfeited his Olympic gold medals and his amateur status when it was decreed in 1913 that his playing Minor League Baseball in 1909 and 1910 made him a professional. Thorpe played in the Major Leagues from 1913 to 1919. In 1950, he was voted both the world's greatest athlete and the greatest football player of the first half of the 20th century.

Throughout his Major League baseball career, Thorpe was chastised by the press for his perceived inability to hit curve balls. In this regard, Chief Meyers came to Thorpe's rescue by stating that Thorpe was "no lemon." After he was farmed out temporarily to a Minor League team, Thorpe was demeaned as a "newspaper Major Leaguer" (San Jose Mercury News, July 21, 1915).

A highly acclaimed sportswriter of the era, Grantland Rice, penned the following bigoted words in his syndicated column, "The Spotlight", about Meyers, Bender and Thorpe: "A few years ago the noble redman was a big factor in our national game….The Giants had Chief John Tortes Meyers….The Athletics had Chief Charles Albert Bender pitching wonderful ball. Jim Thorpe was rising against the horizon as a coming star….There were others scattered here and there. But today the ancient curse seems to be following the first American. His baseball shadow seems to be cast in the sunset of a fading day….The old stars are passing and there are no new stars in sight to take their place" (Anaconda Standard, February 10, 1917).

Today, Grantland Rice's perceived curse has been lifted. The new American Indian stars—Kyle Lohse, Jacoby Ellsbury and Joba Chamberlain—are emblazing a new chapter in baseball history. Their athletic success should please their ancestors and encourage America Indian youth.

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