On March 9, 1897 the Cleveland Spiders of the National League signed a full blooded Penobscot, Louis Sockalexis to the team roster. The speedy young outfielder had first gained fame as a collegiate at Holy Cross and briefly for Notre Dame before being expelled for alcohol use. Within days, he was signed by the very needy Spiders. Almost immediately sports writers and fans began to informally call the team the Indians.
The team, which included legendary hurler Cy Young, had been dealt a blow when team owners the Robinson Brothers bought a controlling interest in the St. Louis Cardinal franchise and stripped the Ohio squad of their star players to fill the Red Bird roster. Cleveland fell to the bottom of the league like a stone. It has been called the worst Major League of all time.
In the first half of the season Sockalexis gave them some hope with solid hitting, four home runs in the dead ball era, and especially with his base stealing. After an injury limited his playing time the team slid back into oblivion. Attendance plummeted so badly that they had to play most of their games on the road, earning another nickname the Wanderers.
The National League put the team out of its misery after the 1899 season.
The following year minor American League fielded a team in Cleveland playing in the Spiders’ old League Park. In 1901 the American League broke the National Agreement by declaring itself a new Major League.
The new club struggled to find a moniker that fit. They tried on the Bluebirds, Blues, and Broncos without much success. When star player Napoleon Lajoie joined the team in 1902 he was quickly named team captain and his squad dubbed the Naps. Lajoie stayed with the team, part of the time as player/manager until as an aging star he was traded away in 1915 to Philadelphia.
A newspaper contest was launched to find a new name. The Indians won, reportedly in homage to the long departed Sockalexis, but also to play on the success of the Boston Braves who had won the Word Series the year before.
There were still some tough years ahead, but things turned around with the arrival of Tris Speaker as player/manager in 1919 who led them to World Series victory against the Brooklyn Robins.
Today, despite regular protests by Native Americans the team retains the name and a grinning Indian mascot, Chief Wahoo. The memory of Sockalexis is regularly dredged up as an excuse to declare that the name is actually an honor.
Sockalexis, by the way, who was described by none other than John McGraw as the greatest natural talent he ever saw, had started out on an outstanding rookie season. But the pressure of fame got to him and he drank heavily. Midway through the season he drunkenly leapt from a brothel window smashing his ankle. He could play only sporadically the next two years and was out of the big leagues by the time the Spiders folded in 1899.
On Christmas Eve, 1913, Sockalexis died in Burlington, Maine. He had suffered from chronic heart disease, diabetes, and complications of alcoholism.