1897 | CLEVELAND, OHIO – A member of the Penobscot Indian tribe was signed by the National League Cleveland Spiders on this date in 1897, and some later claimed that’s where Cleveland’s American League franchise got its name.
Louis Sockalexis showed superb athletic ability and ferocious power playing baseball as a kid on the Penobscot reservation in Maine. Stories, some apocryphal, had him throwing a ball 600 feet over the Penobscot River and hitting a baseball just as far.
He went on to play ball at Holy Cross College and the University of Notre Dame before signing a major league contract. His career didn’t last long, before the turn the century he was no longer a major league baseball player – heavy drinking took its toll. Sockalexis died in 1913 at age 42.
A year after Sockalexis died Cleveland’s American League team was in need of a new name. They had been called the Naps, after star player Nap Lajoie, but he was traded in 1914. The name “Indians” was chosen.
As time went by the story that the team was named in honor of a real Indian, Louis Sockalexis, was allowed to surface. Ithaca College Professor Ellen Staurowsky, among others, looked into the issue and wrote in the Sociology of Sport Journal, in 1998 that the name “Indians” was more likely chosen for exploitative purposes. The real story of why “Indians” was chosen was that it was a take off on the Boston Braves which were a baseball sensation that year for going from last place on July 4th to winning the World Series.
“An Act of Honor or Exploitation?: The Cleveland Indians’ Use of the Louis Francis Sockalexis Story,” by Ellen Staurowsky, Sociology of Sport Journal, 1998
The American Indian Quarterly