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Published: Sunday, 7/20/2003

Remembering a remarkable Cleveland athlete


LOUIS SOCKALEXIS: THE FIRST CLEVELAND INDIAN. By David L. Fleitz. McFarkand & Co. 219 pages. $28.50.

The latest subject for Bowling Green author David Fleitz is Louis Sockalexis, the superb Penobscot Indian athlete from Maine who played with the Cleveland National League team at the end of the 19th century.

This book, like Fleitz's first on Shoeless Joe Jackson, is thoroughly researched, well-written, and completely presented. Fleitz reviews the life of his subject in detail and puts it into the social context of its time as well as the game of baseball when he played it. It is more than a biography - it includes a history of Sockalexis' tribe and a primer on the business of baseball, especially in Cleveland, as the 19th century turned into the 20th. Throughout the book, Fleitz draws comparisons with many other players.

Fleitz also tackles the controversy over the Cleveland American League team's nickname and logo of Chief Wahoo. He explains why Sockalexis was the first Cleveland Indian and shows the relationship between that ballplayer, the Indians name, and Chief Wahoo. He traces chronology and the development of Cleveland team nicknames and logos.

The biographical aspect of the book makes wonderful reading for those who appreciate the athletic skill. According to his contemporaries, Sockalexis may have been the most athletically gifted of all baseball players. He ran at world-record speed while in full baseball uniform and was a formidable hitter. He may have lacked a bit in fielding, but no player had a stronger arm. His throwing ability alone set him apart from all other players. He starred not only in baseball at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., but in track and football as well.

His impact on major league baseball was instant, dramatic, and significant. But his major league career was short-lived. He was gone from the big time seemingly as quickly as he had arrived - alcohol was his downfall. Fleitz presents the complexities of Sockalexis' problem within the context of his baseball workplace while making his way in a white man's world.

The great manager Hugh Jennings, who played against him many times, said of Sockalexis, “At no time has a player crowded so many accomplishments into such a short period. He should have been the greatest player of all time - greater than Cobb, Wagner, Lajoie, Hornsby, and any of the other men who made history for the game of baseball.”

Fleitz calls Louis Sockalexis one of the greatest “might-have-beens” in the annals of the game. After reading Fleitz's account, this reviewer knows why we remember such a short major-league career after more than a century.

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