Friday, June 12, 2009

Baseball's League of Nations: Exhibit shows Native American impact on baseball

By CHASE WRIGHT

Times Staff Writer


STAMFORD -- Jackie Robinson didn't set the precedent for the minority integration of baseball -- Louis Sockalexis did. 

A Native American from the Penobscot tribe, Sockalexis played three seasons for the Cleveland Spiders beginning in 1897. His major league contract didn't break the color barrier or have the same cultural impact that Robinson did, but Sockalexis, and other early American Indian ball players, were the first non-whites assimilated into the sport of baseball. 

"I think Native Americans had an important impact on baseball as the first group of integrators," said Jeffrey Powers-Beck, author of "The American Indian Integration of Baseball." 

A professor of English and associate dean of graduate studies at East Tennessee State University, Powers-Beck is also an avid baseball fan, which inspired the idea for the book. 

His book, in turn, has inspired the curators of the Stamford Museum and Nature Center, who developed two exhibits and a series of programs around the highly acclaimed publication. 

"Baseball's League of Nations: A Salute to Native American Baseball Players" and "Dynamic Traditions: Form and Function in Native American Art" open to the public on Saturday, June 20 and will be on exhibit through Oct. 18 in the Bendel Mansion Museum Galleries. 

Working closely with the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cave, N.Y., the Stamford museum will explore the struggles on these native players and showcase those who reached prominence, said SM&NC curator Rosa Portell. 

The exhibition presents images and biographical sketches of many players, with a focus on baseball in Native American communities, American Indian players in the major and minor leagues and barnstorming teams, women players of Native American descent, and American Indian stereotyping in sports, she said. 

"There have been a number of Native American players who have reached extraordinary careers," said Portell. "They were really the first minority to be accepted into the game of baseball, and we wanted to showcase that history."

American Indian baseball legends like Jim Thorpe, John Tortes Meyers, Charles Bender and George Howard Johnson will all have their place in the exhibit, said Portell, as will up-and-coming young stars Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox and Joba Chamberlain of the New York Yankees, who are both of Native American decent. 

Native American assimilation into white culture began at the end of the Indian Wars, when the American government and military established Indian boarding schools to "kill the Indian, save the man," said Powers-Beck. 

It was in these boarding schools where Native Americans learned about baseball and were given the opportunity to showcase their skills in the sport, he said. 

Sports presented benefits to both the students and the school, particularly for the gifted athletes who could gain employment, financial freedom and the American dream for succeeding at the sport of baseball, said Powers-Beck. 

However, on the diamond, Native American ball players weren't treated the same as their white counterparts. They endured the same levels of racism that blacks did when baseball was initially desegregated, from fans, managers, players and sportswriters, said Powers-Beck. 

Whooping fans would scream out the Indian war cry whenever a Native American stepped to the dish, he said. Racist chants were common, particularly for natives with darker complexions. 

An African American, Charlie Grant nearly broke the color barrier decades before Robinson, when he disguised himself as a Native American under the name Chief Tokohama. 

"When Grant was uncovered, darker-skinned players endured additional racism from fans who assumed they might be black," said Powers-Beck. 

Still, Native American players carried on, and in many cases excelled in a sport that was not their own. 

Those successes are celebrated in Powers-Beck's book and through the Stamford museum's spring exhibit. 

"It's great that this story is being told," he said. "Those athletes deserve recognition and it's exciting that they're getting what they deserve." 

"Baseball's League of Nations: A Salute to Native American Baseball Players" and "Dynamic Traditions: Form and Function in Native American Art" opens June 20. Admission is free for SM&NC members and chidden under 3, $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and students, $4 for children ages 4-17. Visit http://www.stamfordmuseum.org for information on related programming. 
from: http://www.thehour.com/story/470613

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