INDIAN ISLAND, Maine — Nearly everyone on this small reservation bordered by the fast-moving Penobscot River knows the story of Louis Sockalexis, the son of a tribal chief whose extraordinary skill on the baseball diamond made him a national sensation more than a century ago.
But mixed with that pride is lingering resentment over the Cleveland Indians logo of Chief Wahoo, a toothy, grinning caricature. Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot tribe, is believed to have inspired the team’s nickname and logo.
Now, Major League Baseball officials are pressing Cleveland to move away from the logo, and the Penobscots are rooting them on.
“I think it’s demeaning,” said Chris Sockalexis, who is related to the former star outfielder and is the tribe’s historic preservation officer. “It’d be nice to have that all go away.”
Perhaps it will, particularly at a time when racial slurs at Fenway Park prompted a chorus of condemnation.
Native Americans have protested the logo for years, but the effort has taken on greater urgency since October, when Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred began new discussions with the Indians.
Cleveland already had relegated the cartoonish emblem to a secondary but still conspicuous status, and made a block “C” its primary logo. But that concession does not satisfy many of the 550 people on Indian Island, about 15 miles north of Bangor.
“It’s about stepping up and doing the right thing for people,” said tribal historian James Eric Francis Sr.
There is a Sockalexis bingo hall here named for Louis and his famed running cousin, Andrew, who finished second at the Boston Marathon in 1912 and 1913, as well as fourth in the marathon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.
There is Louis’s gravestone, sculpted with two crossed baseball bats, in the middle of a sloping, wooded cemetery. A weathered baseball, torn along a seam, has been placed atop the marker for the first known Native American to play in the major leagues.
Sockalexis starred in baseball, football, and track at the College of the Holy Cross and transferred to the University of Notre Dame before joining Cleveland, where his phenomenal debut in 1897 apparently prompted the Cleveland Spiders to use “Indians” that year as an informal team nickname.
The team officially adopted “Indians” in 1915 and the logo appeared in 1947. A World Series title followed in 1948, but the reigning American League champs are still waiting for the next one.
“Let the curse remain,” said Chris Sockalexis.
Many Penobscots think a change is long overdue, if only because what is offensive to some should matter to others. The tribal council petitioned the Cleveland Indians in 2000 to discontinue the logo, but the team never responded, said Ed Rice, who wrote a biography of Louis Sockalexis.
The Cleveland Indians, who come to Fenway Park on July 31 for a three-game series, said they realize the logo is a lightning rod.
“We certainly understand the sensitivities of the logo — those who find it insensitive and also those fans who have a longstanding attachment to its place in the history of the team,” said Bob DiBiasio, the team’s senior vice president of public affairs. “We fully expect to work with the commissioner throughout the remainder of this season on finding a solution that is good for the game and our organization.”
Major League Baseball officials added that they are making progress on the logo and are “confident that a positive resolution will be reached.”
Many Penobscots are watching.
“It’s about time it changed,” said 32-year-old David Soctomah, a diesel mechanic. “It’s derogatory and it’s pretty much ignorance. We like to hold a lot of pride in ourselves.”
The latest move against the logo doesn’t concern some Penobscots, including Justin Francis, a 33-year-old who blew away the residue of another Maine winter from the damp earth near Sockalexis’s grave.
“I’ve never had a problem with any of that,” said Francis, who played high school basketball and football for the nearby Old Town Indians before the name was changed to the Coyotes. “Maybe because I grew up in sports, and that was always there.”
Still, Francis knows the legend of Sockalexis, who appeared in 94 major-league games but endured a hail of ugly abuse from fans — war whoops, thrown objects, and racial epithets, among them — only 21 years after the Sioux defeated Custer at Little Big Horn.
Despite the taunts, Sockalexis’s extraordinary skill transformed baseball’s first-known Native American player into a national sensation, 50 years before Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the color line for blacks.
“I unhesitatingly pronounce him a wonder,” former New York Giants manager John Montgomery Ward declared in the spring of 1897.
Sockalexis also helped pave the way for early Native American athletes such as Jim Thorpe. Rice, the biographer, called Sockalexis “bigger than life. Here is a mythic man who did mythic things.”
His feats included throwing a baseball 413 feet at Holy Cross, a stunning heave that was measured by professors there and considered a national record.
Sockalexis was a superstar at the Worcester college and in the Maine summer leagues, and he continued the hot streak with Cleveland — batting nearly .400 in the early stages of the 1897 season and drawing crowds wherever he played.
“He is hooted and bawled at by the thimble-brained brigade on the bleachers,” the Sporting Life newspaper wrote that May. “Despite all this handicap, the red man has played good, steady ball and has been a factor in nearly every victory thus far.”
But excessive drinking quickly took its toll, and Sockalexis played sparingly toward the end of the season, though he managed to finish with a .338 average. He played a few more games with Cleveland in 1898 and 1899 before dropping to the minor-league circuit in New England, including stints with Hartford, Lowell, and Waterbury, Conn.
Sockalexis’s last minor-league game came in 1907, patrolling center field for Bangor. Six years later, he died of a heart attack at age 42 while working as a logger in northern Maine.
The Sockalexis legend has endured — at least in these parts. His starry statistics still matter to the tribe, which has lived along the river for at least 10,000 years, Chris Sockalexis said. But what matters more is gaining wider recognition of the dignity that Penobscots and other Native Americans deserve, tribal members said.
“Not only are we indigenous to this country, but we also have sovereignty,” James Francis said.
Many Native Americans object when sports fans dress as Indians, beat drums, and perform the “tomahawk chop” at baseball and football games, Sockalexis added. Even though the rituals can seem harmless to others, he said, a sense of context is missing.
“It might be like me going to a rock concert in blackface,” he said.
The context of Chief Wahoo has been blurred over time — a caricature created when racial sensitivity was an afterthought for many Americans, if thought about at all.
But its origins lead back to a superb young athlete who came from an obscure and unlikely place. And that’s the legacy, not a grossly distorted and widely marketed image, that the Penobscots choose to stress.
In the meantime, Francis said, “we’re not going anywhere.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com