Baseball's First Indian
Baseball's First Indian
The Early Years
L OUIS FRANCIS SOCKALEXIS was born on Indian Island, Maine, on October 24, 1871, the same year as the inaugural season of organized baseball in America. The reservation of the Penobscot Indian nation that settled in central Maine, Indian Island is located just across the Penobscot River from the small community of Old Town, and some thirteen miles north of what was once the booming "lumbering capital of the world"-Bangor, Maine.
Born into the Bear clan, Louis was the great-nephew of chief Tomer (Thomas) Sockalexis, who was born in 1813 and died in 1870. In 1832 Tomer was the chief of the tribe, and the Penobscots attempted to name him "chief for life." The Maine legislature, however, told the tribe that such an action was illegal. The Penobscots switched to a tribal governorship in 1867. Joseph Attean, who was the last chief of the tribe, was elected its first tribal governor. Louis's great-uncle Tomer Sockalexis returned to leadership as the tribal governor in 1868 and served one year. Louis's father, Francis Peol Sockalexis, who was born in about 1841 and who served as tribal governor from 1895 to 1896, married Frances Sockabasin, also born in 1841. The couple's first child was Louis. Apparently, several later siblings died in infancy. Louis had one surviving sister, Alice, who was six years younger. She married Thomas Pennewaite, had two daughters, and died in 1928. 1
The Penobscots, members of the Wabenaki Alliance (which included the Maliseet, Micmac, and Passamaquoddy nations), had been proud and victorious warriors in an earlier day, soundly defeating the Iroquois, much feared; in fact, they were in James Fenimore Cooper's fictional Leatherstocking Tales . Known as the "Fighters of the Six Nations," the Iroquois were reportedly the reigning power from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Mississippi River, but after suffering heavy losses in their encounters with the Penobscots, they kept a respectful distance from the region that is now Maine.
Growing up on the small island reservation, "Soci" (as he was called then) attended the local school, which was run by Jesuit priests, as well as the old village chapel on Sundays. As a young boy on the island, he topped all his mates, demonstrating an exceptional blend of power and speed in such childhood games as running, jumping, and swimming. In high school, he excelled in football, track, and baseball. 2 Some Penobscot sources claim that Louis was the first person from Indian Island to graduate from high school, but there are no official records.
Sockalexis was discovered by a priest, who showed inspired scouting judgment and encouraged the Indian youth to continue both his education and ball playing. This paralleled the discovery of baseball's greatest legend, Babe Ruth. Ruth left St. Mary's in Baltimore, Maryland, for a professional career. After attending the small school on the island and the high school in Old Town, Sockalexis left for St. Mary's School in Van Buren at the very northern tip of Maine to continue his education and, perhaps, polish his baseball skills. It was the first of several significant steps up a long ladder the Penobscot youth would climb before reaching the professional ranks.
One of the earliest summer town teams for which Louis Sockalexis played might have been the one on Squirrel Island, just off the coast of Boothbay Harbor. Rob White, editor of the Squirrel Island Squid newspaper, wrote in July of 1994 that baseball games were played on the island as early as 1876. And in 1888, the editor of that issue of the Squid announced, with great pride, that "one of the greatest attractions here this summer will be baseball. The Island will have a nine made up of...well known players." The island team faced rivals from Rockland, Bath, Richmond, Bowdoinham and Ocean Point.
Four days later the newspaper announced: "Louis Soclexis