Tag: native american

Jim Thorpe, Olympian and Hartford Ballplayer

James Francis Thorpe was the greatest all-around athlete of the Deadball Era and perhaps of all time. In addition to playing five Major League seasons, he was a superstar football player as well as an Olympic gold medalist. Battling bigotry and discrimination, Jim Thorpe rose to stardom with perseverance and defiance. Unknown to many locals of today, the 6’1” 185 lbs sportsman brought his talents to Hartford, Connecticut, on multiple occasions.

Born on May 28, 1887, Thorpe was a member of the Sauk and Fox Nation of the Oklahoma Territory. His Native American name was Wa-Tho-Huck (Bright Path or Path Lit by Lightning). As a youngster, he attended Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kansas, and then Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. He played halfback on the Carlisle football team under coach Pop Warner and was selected by Walter Camp to the 1911 and 1912 All-American teams.

Jim Thorpe at Stockholm Olympics, 1912.

At the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games, Jim Thorpe won the decathlon and pentathlon by wide margins. Sweden’s King Gustav told him, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.” However in 1913 an investigation by the Amateur Athletic Union claimed Thorpe to be ineligible for playing professional baseball in 1909 and 1910. During those years, Thorpe did earn $2 per game in the Eastern Carolina League as an outfielder and pitcher. He was subsequently stripped of his gold medals.

Thereafter, Thorpe signed a three-year contract for $6,000 per season to play baseball with John McGraw’s New York Giants. As a rookie, Thorpe recorded 19 games, a home run and stole two bases as the club won the 1913 National League pennant. He was a bench player for the Giants who loaned him to the Cincinnati Reds in April of 1917. Thorpe was recalled to New York in August, and the Giants won another league title. Manager McGraw allowed Thorpe a larger role in 1918 when he hit .248 in 58 games.

1913 New York Giants with Jim Thorpe (3rd row, middle).
Jack Meyers and Jim Thorpe (right), 1915.
1915 New York Giants with Jim Thorpe (3rd from right).

After complaining about playing time and refusing to be mistreated, Thorpe was traded to the Boston Braves in 1919. The 32 year old began to hit his stride, batting .327 with 25 RBI and 7 stolen bases for the Braves. He continued to pursue organized baseball with five different minor league clubs including Hartford. All the while, Thorpe played professional football in the fall and winter months. From 1920 to 1921, Thorpe was nominally appointed as first President of the American Professional Football Association, later becoming the National Football League.

Jim Thorpe, Outfielder, Cincinnati Reds, 1917.

That same year, Thorpe was released from the Portland, Oregon, baseball club of the Pacific Coast League. Then he was signed in June of 1922 by James H. Clarkin, owner of the Hartford Senators. Thorpe immediately traveled to Connecticut with his family who settled at 34 Lancaster Road, West Hartford. As a Senator, Thorpe crushed Eastern League pitching, however his stint in Hartford would only last about six weeks.

Hartford Courant, June 6, 1922.
Thorpe’s Hartford Senators debut, June 15, 1922.

On July 12, 1922, Thorpe played centerfield in a doubleheader at New Haven’s Weiss Park where he had a bad day: “Thorpe was plain awful. He had dropped a fly ball, muffed a grounder and failed to hustle after a ball hit in the gap. New Haven’s fans were all over him, abusing him mercilessly with racist taunts. News accounts were equally childish and bigoted in context. One report cited Thorpe’s performance as ‘an imitation of a wooden Indian chasing flies.’

He was benched by Hartford manager Jack Coffey. Seething with anger, ”Thorpe promptly changed out of his baseball uniform into his street clothes. He emerged from the clubhouse and charged into the grandstand to confront the New Haven hecklers, saying he wasn’t ‘going to stand for the impertinence of the fans.‘ Thorpe never threw a punch. Teammates persuaded him to return to the clubhouse before any fighting broke out. Police were called to the scene, though no arrests were made.”*

Thorpe was fined $50 by the Eastern League and $50 by the Hartford club. In early August, he was released by owner Clarkin. Thorpe finished the year with the Fitchburg-Worcester club, and his .344 batting average was second in the Eastern League. He also hit 9 home runs in 96 total games played, but 1922 marked Thorpe’s final season in professional baseball.

Thorpe’s athletic fame did not translate into a lasting fortune. He drifted from one public relations exploit to the next and wrestled with alcoholism. The sports hero worked part-time as a painter, bouncer and ditch digger. Thorpe’s football career kept him afloat. He often came back to Connecticut to face professional football squads such as the short-lived Hartford Blues. He retired from football in 1928, but continued to make baseball appearances throughout the country.

Jim Thorpe in football uniform, c. 1925.

In 1933, Thorpe came back to Hartford as a player-manager of the Oklahoma Indians, a barnstorming team also dubbed Harjo’s Indians. At the time, many athletes of color embellished their racial characteristics and adopted stereotypes in order to maximize profits. During the month of August, thousands of paid fans witnessed a five game series at Hartford’s Bulkeley Stadium between the Oklahoma Indians and the Savitt Gems, a local independent team.

Thorpe began the first of five games as third base coach. He then manned right field midway through the game. On a drive by Jackie Cronin of the Gems, Thorpe made contact with the ball near the foul line. Umpire John Muldoon called the ball fair but Thorpe vehemently disagreed. Dejected over losing the argument, Thorpe pulled his team off the field and demanded the umpires to be dismissed before resuming play. The umpires were replaced by players from each team and the game continued.

Hartford Courant, August 6, 1933.
Jim Thorpe, Manager, Harjo’s Indians, 1933.

The Savitt Gems eventually won the series 3 games to 2, and Hartford baseball fans earned a good show. Later, Savitt Gems owner Bill Savitt would question whether or not Thorpe’s antics were intentional. Perhaps he overreacted to rile up the crowd, thereby attracting more fans to Bulkeley Stadium. After all, the crowd did double in size from about 3,000 to about 6,000 at their next matchup. Thorpe, ever the showman, led the Indians in staged war dances between games.

1933 Oklahoma Indians (Harjo’s Indians)

In 1950, Thorpe was named America’s top athlete of the half century by the Associated Press, beating out Babe Ruth. By then Thorpe had appeared in more than 70 Hollywood films. A biographical film entitled Jim Thorpe – All-American produced by Warner Bros. and starring Burt Lancaster was released in 1951. On March 28, 1953, Jim Thorpe died of a heart attack in Lomita, California at the age of 65. 

Jim Thorpe (1887-1953)

In 1982, the International Olympic Committee restored Thorpe’s two gold medals and they were presented to survived family. Thorpe’s widow, his third wife, Patricia sold his remains to the cities of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania. The two towns combined to form Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, where he is laid to rest, though he never visited the place during his lifetime. Thorpe’s children led an effort to return their father to the Sauk and Fox Nation in Oklahoma but lost the lawsuit in 2014.

Jim Thorpe’s tomb and statue in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.

Sources

  1. New Haven Register Article on Thorpe*
  2. SABR – Jim Thorpe
  3. Hartford Courant Database


Current Causes

  1. Restore Jim Thorpe as sole gold medal winner.
  2. Bright Path movie

In the Day of Louis Sockalexis

Position: Rightfielder
Bats: Left
Throws: Right
Born: October 24, 1871 in Indian Island, Maine
Died: December 24, 1913 in Burlington, Maine
Education: University of Notre Dame (South Bend, Indiana) & College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, Massachussetts)
Major League debut: April 22, 1897

In 1899, the Hartford Base Ball Club of the Eastern League signed outfielder, Louis Francis Sockalexis. He was coming off a 3-year stint with the Cleveland Spiders where he was a teammate of Cy Young. His ball playing was so popular in Cleveland that the team later became known as the Indians. Sockalexis was the first ever Native American athlete to play professional baseball and the first person of color to do so in Hartford, Connecticut. As a member of the Penobscot tribe, Sockalexis hailed from Indian Island, Maine. Also, nicknamed “Sock”, he was considered to be one of the best talents of the Deadball Era.

1899 Cleveland Spiders

Sockalexis was an impressive contact hitter, was fast on his feet and had a superb throwing arm. He only spent a few weeks with the Hartford squad managed by Billy Barnie. Sockalexis hit for a dismal .198 batting average with Hartford in 91 at bats. Later, he went on to play for Waterbury and Bristol in the Connecticut State League and batted for a .320 average. However, his day in the spotlight did not last very long. An addiction to alcohol was said to be the cause of his downfall from professional baseball.

Louis Sockalexis

Although the Waterbury club was interested in retaining him for the following season, Sockalexis was nowhere to be found in the spring of 1900. A series of news reports during the next two years detailed several arrests for public drunkenness and disturbances, and it appears that the former baseball star was reduced to homelessness and vagrancy. He served intermittent time in jail and remained out of baseball until 1902, when he signed with Lowell of the New England League.

The Day of Sockalexis – Hartford Courant, December 7, 1906.
Sockalexis is a Shadow, Waterbury Evening Democrat, March 12, 1908.

At 30 years old, Sockalexis hit for a .288 average, but remained with Lowell for only one season. A short stint with Bangor in the Maine League in 1903 was his last connection with organized baseball. He wound up back on the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation in Maine, playing for local teams and teaching the baseball to young tribesmen. He piloted a ferryboat between Indian Island, home of the reservation, and the mainland. He enjoyed reading The Sporting News and other papers that his passengers left behind.

Sockalexis plaque

Sockalexis eventually stopped drinking to excess, but he was not in the best of health. He suffered from attacks of rheumatism and appeared much older than his years. In the fall of 1913, Sockalexis joined a logging crew that harvested trees in the northern woods of Maine. While cutting down a pine tree on Christmas Eve of that year, he suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 42. Louis Sockalexis was buried in St. Anne Church Cemetery on Indian Island.

Burial Site of Louis Sockalexis, Indian Island, Maine.

Location: Hartford, CT

Sources:

  1. Statistics: https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/s/sockach01.shtml
  2. SABR Bio: https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/2b1aea0a
  3. Louis Sockalexis – Remembering Now and Forever: http://sockalexis.net/