American Indian World Serious Sports Heroes

By Roy Cook

The Baseball Almanac lists 50 full-blooded American Indian players who have played in the majors over the years. Seven of them are nicknamed "Chief." Two of them--Chief Bender and Zack Wheat--are in the Hall of Fame.

Louis Sockalexis was professional baseball's first American Indian player. He was born on Maine's Penobscot Indian reservation in 1871; his father was the tribal governor (1895-1896). Two years after Louis Sockalexis passed away the Cleveland Naps changed their nickname to the Cleveland Indians. Historians and experts said it was in honor of "Sock".

Charles Albert Bender was an Ojibwa Indian. He was born on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota, one of at least eleven children in his family. At age seven, he left home to attend boarding school in Pennsylvania. At thirteen, he enrolled in Carlisle Indian School, where he was a member of his school's track, basketball, football, and baseball teams.

Albert had a storied career as a pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies Major League Baseball franchise. Some of his notable accomplishments include nine complete games in World Series, including being the first to pitch three complete games in a single World Series, a no-hit game, and owning the best winning percentage in the American League in three separate seasons. After his shutout in the 1905 World Series brought him to national attention, he quietly stated his case to the press: "I do not want my name presented to the public as an Indian," he said, "but as a baseball pitcher."

His reputation was such that his long-time manager Connie Mack said about him, "If I had all the men I've ever handled and they were in their prime. And if there was one game I wanted to win above all others, Albert would be my man."

He transformed the game of baseball by inventing the nickel curve, or slider. This pitch is the major element in the arsenal of many pitchers today. But his impact was much greater than the creation of a new pitch.

Bender was often subjected to bigotry and racial taunts--consider that he arrived in the major leagues a mere thirteen years after the massacre at Wounded Knee. Bender handled such incidents with dignity and grace, and in the words of a teammate, was one of the kindest and finest men who ever lived.

Because of his exemplary life on and off the field, Charles Albert Bender was the first Native American inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame. He also paved the way for other Native Americans who played Major League baseball in the first half of the 20th century.

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. Lohse in an October 22, 1994 article said 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. Ellsbury is described as a cult hero who brings speed, defense and unbridled enthusiasm to the ballpark 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.

Also, the Marlins reliever, Brian Sanches is proud of his heritage and pleased with his success. But what's even more gratifying to him has been his perseverance, reaching the majors when there were many times he wanted to give up.

"There were countless times where I thought enough was enough, how much can a person take of this?" said Sanches, spent most of his professional career bouncing around the minors. "But I'd step back and regroup and keep inching along." Sanches is believed to be one of the few players in the majors classified as American Indian. The others are Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury and the New York Yankees' Joba Chamberlain.
He has dressed up in tribal costume for annual pow-wows and proudly checks the box on registration forms proclaiming him as American Indian.

Bobby Madritsch, Lakota Sioux, was born on Saturday, February 28, 1976, in Oak Lawn, Illinois. Madritsch was 28 years old when he broke into the big leagues on July 21, 2004, with the Seattle Mariners. His biographical data, year-by-year hitting stats, fielding stats, pitching stats (where applicable), career totals, uniform numbers, salary data and miscellaneous items-of-interest are presented by Baseball Almanac

It will take extra innings to find a comparable era when at least three renowned American Indians were simultaneously playing in the Major Leagues: 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.

Thorpe won both the decathlon and the pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics held in Stockholm, Sweden. 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.

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.

Click on the virtual list below for a comprehensive list of former major league baseball players who were also verifiable full-blooded American Indians.