Louis Francis "Chief" Sockalexis (October 24, 1871-December 24, 1913), nicknamed The Deerfoot of the Diamond, was an American baseball player. Sockalexis played professional baseball in the National League for three seasons; and, he spent his entire career (1897-1899) as an outfielder for the Cleveland Spiders. A Native American from the Penobscot tribe, Sockalexis is often identified as the first person of Native American ancestry to play major league baseball . Many conflicting reports exist. In some cases, Jim Toy, a catcher in the early American Association, is identified as the first person with Native American ancestry to play major league baseball. Also, Chief Yellow Horse, who played in the early 1920s, is noted as the first full-blooded American Indian to have played in the Major Leagues.
After completing his secondary education, Sockalexis began his college career in 1884 at the College of the Holy Cross. While there, he participated on the school's baseball, football, and track teams. Sockalexis spent those summers playing baseball in the Trolley League along the coast of Maine. After the end of the 1895-96 baseball season, the Holy Cross baseball coach accepted a position at the University of Notre Dame in February, 1897. When that happened, Sockalexis decided to transfer to Notre Dame. In his two season at Holy Cross, Sockalexis compiled a .444 batting average.
In 1897, the Notre Dame baseball team played an exhibition game against the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds. In a sign of things to come, Sockalexis had to deal with taunts, racism, and insulting chants during the game. At the same time, sports writers in attendance insulted a delegation of Pensobscots who had come from Old Town to watch the game.
Amos Rusie, a future member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, pitched that day for the Giants; and, before the game, Rusie had promised to strike out Sockalexis. Things did not go well for Rusie as Sockalexis hit a home run off of Rusie's first pitch.
However, Sockalexis' career at Notre Dame was short. In an event that foreshadowed future problems, the University expelled Sockalexis not long after he arrived for his problems with alcohol. Although he played exclusively as an outfielder in the majors, Sockalexis played outfield and pitcher while at Notre Dame and Holy Cross.
On March 9, 1897, Sockalexis signed a major league contract with the Cleveland Spiders. Just a month later, on April 22, Sockalexis made his major league debut. Just a few months after he was expelled from school, his drinking problems resurfaced. On July 4, 1897, Sockalexis, in an inebriated condition, jumped from the second-story window of a brothel. He severely injured his ankle in the fall. Evidently, the injury affected his play. In the five games after the injury, he had nine hits in 18 at bats. However, his fielding was not very good. From July 25 until September 12, Sockalexis played in just one game. In that game, he committed two errors. In his first season with the Spiders, Sockalexis hit for a .338 batting average with three home runs and 42 RBIs. In 66 games that season, Sockalexis also had 16 stolen bases.
Burdened by his alcoholism, Sockalexis played just two more seasons of major league baseball. In 1899, the Spiders released Sockalexis. He finished his career in the minor leagues and in , Sockalexis returned to Indian Island to coach juvenile teams. Five players whom he coached went on to play in the New England League. However, his baseball career ended for good in ..
Although Sockalexis had a brief career, during his time in professional baseball, he faced many non-tangible obstacles. It was reported that fans of the opposing teams often shouted racial slurs toward him due to his Penobscot heritage. Additionally, fans imitated war whoops and war dances in his presence. Later, when sports journalists attributed his rapid decline to alcoholism, they identified the disease as the inherent "Indian weakness".
For many years, people believed that when the Cleveland Naps changed their name to the Indians in , the franchise did so to honor Sockalexis. However, the Indians' official media guide says that the owners solicited sportswriters to ask fans for their favorite nickname, and the name Indians was chosen. It is not known for certain whether the moniker was selected to honor Sockalexis or to follow in the footsteps of the 1914 World Series champion Boston Braves. Sockalexis had died two years earlier but there was no mention of him in the announcements.
In recognition of his accomplishments, the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame has elected Sockalexis. He was joined by his second cousin, marathon runner Andrew Sockalexis. Andrew Sockalexis finished in second place during the 1912 and 1913 Boston Marathons and in fourth place at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm.