Bangor-area residents of a certain age, particularly those with some relationship to hockey, know Sockalexis as the name of what was for a time one of the few indoor rinks in the region. They even may know a little about who it was partially named for.
But most Mainers remain in the dark about the life of Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian from Indian Island who 50 years before Jackie Robinson, and only 21 years after Little Big Horn, played professional baseball.
The rink is gone now — it’s a bingo hall with the same name — and that and a nearby headstone are all that’s left recognizing one of Maine’s greatest athletes. Something more is needed to mark the accomplishments of a man whose life intersected with so many of the tumultous forces in turn-of-the-century America.
That’s why we support an effort by a group called the Friends of Sockalexis to build a statue somewhere in Maine, perhaps along the Penobscot River in Bangor.
Sockalexis was born in 1873. In his teens he made a name for himself playing in the town summer leagues up and down the state, then earned a spot on the baseball team at Holy Cross. In two seasons in Worcester, he batted .444 and .436, respectively, and he was eventually named to the school’s athletic hall of fame.
He later caught on with the professional Cleveland Spiders, where his presence in spring training led sportswriters to dub the team the “Indians,” more out of racist curiousity than as a term of endearment.
Sockalexis was for the first few months one of the best players in the league, a remarkable athletewho excelled in all phases of the game. Wherever he went, Sockalexis drew spectators, who in many ways treated him like the mascot he inspired — while fans wondered at his exploits on the field, they also called him a “savage” and jeered him mercilessly, a preview of what Robinson would endure in the 1950s.
“He is hooted and bawled at by the thimble-brained brigade on the bleachers,” The Sporting Life wrote at the time. “Despite all this handicap, the red man has played good, steady ball and has been a factor in nearly every victory thus far.”
Sockalexis’ alcoholism got the best him, though, and his career petered out after playing 94 professional games over three years. He ended his baseball career in Maine playing again for the touring teams around Bangor, then died at a logging camp in 1913.
Two years later, when the Cleveland team was looking for a new nickname, it went with the one many around the league still used informally — the Indians. They then adopted a racist caricature of a logo, Chief Wahoo, which will be dropped in 2019 after years of complaints.
Sockalexis, though, has been largely forgotten, except by the Penobscots and a few others who have carried his torch, including Ed Rice, an author whose has for years told Sockalexis’ story to anyone who would listen.
As Rice points out, Sockalexis wasn’t even mentioned among Maine’s 50 greatest athletes in a piece by Sports Illustrated, just one indication that his legacy isn’t what it should be.
A statue could help change that by honoring the man in a prominent place, and giving generations of Mainers an opportunity to learn his story.