Native Americans in Professional Baseball
As evidence through Native American Barnstorming Baseball Clubs, Native Americans continued to suffer a certain degree of segregation within all leagues and levels of baseball. "Because of the strained relations during the 19th century, social interaction between Indians and non-Indians was limited. Prior to the last decade of the century, practically all Indian participation in non-Indian sports was restricted to boarding schools."10
However, as historian Jeffrey Powers-Beck indicates in his book Native American Integration in Baseball, baseball was a game that fit well into the identity of Native Americans. "Non-Indian games of athletic strength, endurance, skill, and coordination, like football and baseball, coincided with their own traditions of stickball and lacrosse as the 'little brother of war.'"11 Thus, when the chance arose in the Federal Indian Boarding Schools and within the Native American Barnstorming Baseball Clubs to create and join baseball teams, Native Americans seized the opportunity.
Baseball, the Middle Ground between Native Americans and Whites
While only a small number of Native Americans played Major League Baseball, the legacy they left depicted a more plutonic respect with more emphasis on a fluid relationship between whites and Native Americans. Native Americans were playing an adopted game; a game that historically has neglected minorities and is a snapshot of the struggles faced by non-whites in America, and they were succeeding
As the National Pastime, Dr. Joseph Oxendine explains, "baseball was the first professional sport to capture the imagination of the American public, the first to prosper as a substantial commercial enterprise, and the first to establish respectability within general society."12 When Native Americans integrated Major League Baseball, commencing with Louis Sockalexis suiting up for the Cleveland Spiders, Native Americans tapped into the respectability and commercial enterprise of baseball, leading to a middle ground of respect and admiration between the two races.
This evidence also gives credence to the idea that by becoming successful at the National Pastime, Native Americans found a middle ground with the white man's culture, strengthening the pride and spirit of Native American which transcended baseball.
Myers, Thorpe, Bender
Pictures courtesy of John Horne, National Baseball Hall of Fame. Click on the picture above to view a slide show of John Tortes Myers, Jim Thorpe and Charles Albert Bender.
Three particular Native American professional baseball players embodied the Native American spirit and helped to devise a middle ground for Native Americans in Major League Baseball; John Tortes Myers and Jim Thorpe of the New York Giants and Charles Albert Bender, Hall of Fame Pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics. All three bore the weight of the assimilation of baseball on their shoulders, closely mirroring the struggle of assimilation by Native Americans in the Federal Indian Boarding Schools and society.
As products of the Federal Indian Boarding School system, Bender and Thorpe new all too well how assimilation impacted Native Americans. But, they also knew that by achieving success at baseball, it would place them on an even keel with whites. Myers, on the other hand, who never attended Federal Indian Boarding School but instead attended Dartmouth College to play baseball, realized early on that he "was considered a foreigner."13
Throughout their entire careers, Myers, Thorpe and Bender could not escape the racial stereotyping that was so prevalent towards them. They were constantly subject to racial slurs of including being called "chief, "injun", "aborigine" and many other derogatory terms. This was commonplace. But, there is much evidence that points to how important they were to their baseball clubs.
Read the accounts below, that give a good indication to the success and importance Bender, Myers and Thorpe had to their teams and the game of baseball.
Picture courtesy of www.howstuffworks.com. Quote is cited here14
Picture courtesy of www.baseball-fever.com. Quote is cited here15
As for Jim Thorpe, historian Jeffrey Powers-Beck points out that during "the Giants-White Sox exhibition World Tour in the late fall and winter of 1913-1914, he caught fire. In a game in Springfield, Illinois, he homered off of (Jim)Scott, making the first home run of the tour. In another game in Kansas City, he stole a triple from Sam Crawford with a fine outfield play, and he later stole a base and scored a run for the Giants."16
Accounts of the media using derogatory words to identify Bender, Myers and Thorpe were an everyday occurrence. However, in these same accounts, the tone no doubt indicates that Myers, Bender and Thorpe, as previously stated, had large roles in the outcome of games while many times, earning the praise of journalists.
Click on the pictures below to read newspaper accounts involving Charles Albert Bender, John Tortes Myers and Jim Thorpe.
At the turn of the twentieth century, a baseball card was an indicator of a baseball player's success. The earliest baseball cards were found in cigarette boxes, indicative of the fact that mainly adults read and collected them. Cigarette companies used the best players to endorse their product due to their stature and fame.
At a time when Native Americans were treated like second class citizens, the addition of John Tortes Myers and Charles Albert Bender to that elite group of players on baseball cards is a testament to their success. It points to the middle ground that was forged between whites and Native American within the game of baseball.
Click on the baseball cards below to view several cards of Charles Albert Bender and John Tortes Myers as evidence of the admiration for their play on the field while also facing subtle racial intolerance.