Cleveland Ball Team Named for Two Legendery French-Heritage Players

Chicago Cubs fans are celebrating the end of their teams’ long World Series championship drought, following their win over Cleveland in the final game on Wednesday night.  The Cubs’ streak without a World Series win stretches back so far that the last time they won the Series, Cleveland weren’t even known as the Indians.  In 1908, Cleveland’s major league team were known as the Napoleons, or Naps, after a legendary player-manager of the team, Napoléon Lajoie, a Franco-American of Woonsocket, Rhode Island.  When Lajoie left his namesake team in 1914, the Cleveland management took on the name they have today, in homage, in part, to another famous play, Louis Francis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian of Maine.  The Cleveland franchise is therefore the only major league baseball team named for a person – twice over.  Both Sockalexis and Lajoie have Franco-American roots, and both made their major league debuts within a year of each other.  But their paths would be very different.  While Lajoie became a Hall of Famer and “the first superstar in American League history,” Sockalexis ended his professional career in relative obscurity and poverty.

Louis Sockalexis. Image: Wikipedia

Sockalexis was born a member of the Penobscot Indian nation in 1871, a member of the bear clan.  Although he was a great-nephew of one the last of the Penobscot hereditary chiefs, and Louis’ father, Francis, would also become a governor of the tribe, life on Indian Island was tough for everyone.  Sockalexis (who was also known as “Soci” or “Sock”), was one of the first generation of Penobscots to be was educated by the Sisters of Mercy, who had been invited to teach the children of Old Town and Indian Island by the French-Canadian pastor of St. Joseph’s parish, F.X. Trudel, in 1878.  The presence of a French-Canadian priest in Old Town is due in part to the significant French-Canadian population of Old Town itself, and the historic links between the Penobscot and the French in North America.  St Anne’s Church on Indian Island is thought to be the oldest site of continuous Catholic worship in New England, having been established by French Jesuits in 1668.  The name Sockalexis itself may be a version of the French Jacques-Alexis.  Father Trudel may well have been the un-named priest who is said to have first paid attention to Sock’s talents as a ballplayer[1] (one tradition holds that the young man could throw a baseball across the Penobscot River from Indian Island to Old Town – a distance of 600 feet).  Trudel encouraged Sock to go to high school at the newly-constructed St. Mary’s College in Van Buren (run by the French Marist fathers).  He would become the first Penboscot to get a high school education, according to tradition, and it seems that his athletic ability made this achievable.  It certainly led to his transfer to the Ricker Classical Institute in Houlton (a Baptist college), where his baseball career really began.

Napoléon Lajoie, 1913. Image: Wikipedia

Napoléon Lajoie was born into a world both very similar and very different to Sockalexis.  Lajoie’s parents had come to Woonsocket, Rhode Island, from Québec shortly before he was born in 1874.  While the urban bustle of Woonsocket was very different to the largely rural isolation of Indian Island, the two future players had similar backgrounds.  Nap (also known as “Larry”) was the youngest of eight children, and his father, a teamster, died young. and Lajoie and his brothers had to work in one of the city’s many textile mills to help support the family.  Baseball became a means to supplement that income, alongside working as a taxi driver.

Neither Lajoie’s, nor Sockalexis’s father approved of their sons’ ball-playing.  Jean-Baptiste Lajoie is said to have told his son that “all ball players were bums and that nobody respected them,” while Francis Sockalexis, then the lieutenant-governor of the Penobscot, was apparently upset at his son’s abandonment of traditional tribal life to live hundreds of miles away to play a “white” sport.[2]  But both parents’ appeals were to no avail.  Lajoie worked his way up to the semi-professional New England League, while Sock, through the contacts of his Houlton manager, Mike Powers, played ball for Holy Cross College in Massachusetts in 1894. Nonetheless, he continued to play for numerous teams around Maine in the 1890s, including the deciding game of the New England League 1895 season, when he stepped into the Lewiston team for their final game against Bangor.

Once again, Sock’s Catholic faith (and perhaps his French heritage) played  a role in shaping his career.  Holy Cross was a Jesuit college and educated a number of Franco-Americans from Maine (rival Assumption College, a Francophone institution, would not be established for another decade).  After two years at Holy Cross, Sock followed team captain Mike Powers once again, to the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Despite Notre Dame’s current epithet of the “Fighting Irish,” this school, too, had French roots.  It was founded at the urging of the French-born Bishop of Vincennes, and established by French-born Rev. Edouard Sorin, S.C. as Notre Dame du Lac (“Our Lady of the Lake”).  Although the school’s staff had become more Irish-American and English-speaking by the 1890s, it retained many of its French connections.

In 1896, both Sock and Lajoie were signed by major league clubs.  Lajoie was playing for the Woonsocket Indians when he was signed by the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, while Sock joined the Cleveland Spiders.  Sock’s signing with the Spiders may have been induced by a late-night incident which led to his expulsion from the college.  According to lore, the Spiders’ manager, Patsy Tebeau, posted Sock’s bail along with the $1,500 a year contract.[3]  Here again, Sockalexis’s path crosses with another Franco-American – Tebeau (whose true first name was Oliver)’s parents had been married in the French-speaking church of St. Ferdinand in Florissant, Missouri.[4]

Patsy Tebeau, 1893. Image: Wikipedia

From 1897, however, the two players’ histories diverge dramatically.  Sock would play only half a season in his debut year, before a Fourth of July incident effectively ended his career.  Although accounts vary, it seems that the Penobscot, after a night on the town with his team-mates, became intoxicated and was confined to his hotel room by the manager, Tebeau.  Seeking to sneak out through a back window, Sock fell and injured his leg.  A combination of the leg injury and continued problem drinking ruined the rest of his season as well as the years through 1899 that he remained with the Spiders.  Some accounts portray Sock as a tee-totaller ruined by his first introduction to “fire-water” outside the reservation.  But earlier incidents – like the night at Notre Dame that led to his expulsion – suggest that, if anything, the alcoholism was an existing problem.

Lajoie was similarly hindered by a fondness for drink.  A headline in Sporting News in October of 1897 directly compared the two athletes: Booze Did It: Experience of Two Young Stars in 1897: Lajoie and Sockalexis Began Finely, But Fell By The Wayside.[5]   Except that they didn’t both fall by the wayside.  Lajoie, who even turned up  drunk to a game, would go on to play for years to come.  Only Sockalexis’s star would fade rapidly after 1897.  He played two more seasons for the Spiders (whom some had already begun calling the Indians after him), but by 1900, he was playing back in the New England League, and by 1903, he was retired from professional ball.  Part of the difference might lie in the difficulties Sock faced as the first Native American in the major league.  Thirty years before Native Americans were given US Citizenship and fifty years before Jackie Robinson broke the color line, the novelty of an Indian playing the national pastime caused Sock to become both a star and an object of derision.  In an interview with Sporting Life magazine, Sockalexis said “No matter where I play, I go through the same ordeal and at present I am so used to it that I forget to smile at my tormentor.”[6]  The alternately hostile and patronizing attitude towards Native Americans is aptly summed up even today in Sock’s legacy at the Cleveland club – its cartoonish mascot, “Chief Wahoo.”  The stress of being in such a spotlight might well have exacerbated Sockalexis’s drinking – and attitudes towards Indians probably meant that he received far less slack than Lajoie – who was back playing for the Phillies after only a brief suspension, despite his very public display of intoxication.

Lajoie and Sockalexis would never be teammates.  Lajoie joined Cleveland in 1903, by which time Sock was coaching Penobscot teenagers on Indian Island to play baseball, while operating the ferry across the river to Old Town.  In the winter, he worked as a lumberman near Burlington, Maine, for just $30 a month.  Lajoie’s stint at Cleveland not only resulted in the fans naming the team for him during his tenure as manager, but in 1910, he surpassed Ty Cobb’s batting average, to become the greatest hitter of his day.  On the same date the news made the Bangor Daily News, September 14, there was a notice of a group of hobos thrown into jail in Houlton.  One of those jailed was Sockalexis.[7]  The juxtaposition of the two stories illustrates just how far their paths had diverged in the past thirteen years.

Sockalexis would not even live to see his former team become the Indians the year after Lajoie returned to Philadelphia in 1914.  At the age of just 42, Sock died of a heart attack in the woods near Burlington, Christmas Eve, 1913.  Lajoie would continue playing in the majors through 1916, and lived to see his induction into the second class of the Baseball Hall of Fame, in 1937.  Sockalexis’s record was largely ignored outside the Penobscot Nation, but he was made an inaugural member of the Holy Cross College Hall of Fame in 1956.  Even then, the induction was not without controversy.  Accepting the award on his behalf was the chair of the Old Town city council; the Penobscot Nation were not invited to attend. Governor Albert Nicola of the Penobscots remarked “When an Indian gets in trouble, he’s from Indian Island, but when he does something great, they say he’s from Old Town.”[8]






Reading List:

“Sisters of Mercy and American Indians”, The Irish Monthly, Vol. 23, No. 264 (Jun 1895) (

Bill Felber, “A Game of Brawl: The Orioles, the Beaneaters, and the Battle for the 1897 Pennant” (University of Nebraska Press: 2007)

David L Fleitz, “Louis Sockalexis: The First Cleveland Indian” (McFarland & Company: 2002)

Ed Rice, “Baseball’s First Indian” (Tide Mark Press: 2013)

Trina Wellman, “Louis Francis Sockalexis: The life-story of a Penobscot Indian” (Maine Bureau of Indian Affairs:1975)





[1] Rice p2

[2] Rice, pp5-6

[3] Felber, p147.

[4] Marriage of Louis Thibeau and Marie-Louise Vincent, 28 July, 1840, St. Ferdinand, Florissant, Missouri. U.S., French Catholic Church Records (Drouin Collection)

[5] Cited in Fleitz, pp102-3.  Exact article date not given.

[6] Sporting Life June 19, 1897.  Cited in Felber, p144

[7] Bangor Daily News Sept. 14, 1910 and Aroostook Times, Sept. 21, 1910.  Cited in Felber, pp.146-7

[8] Bangor Daily News Jan 20, 1956, “Indians Feel Slighted as Sockalexis Honored.”

James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.