Inside Stories

“Sock” Connects Lowell to the Cleveland Indians

Louis “Sock” Sockalexis

by Chris Boucher

It’s baseball season and a good time to consider whether Harry “Bucky” Lew, basketball’s first Black pro, or Jimmy Gray, the man who signed him, were inspired by the first Native American to play pro baseball, Louis Sockalexis.

Few know that Sockalexis played his best and most complete season in 1902 with the Lowell Tigers. It was the same year and in the same city that Bucky Lew made history that fall!

Chief Wahoo logo was retired in 2018

“Sock” had a brief major league career.

He started with Cleveland in 1897, and after a hot start, quickly became a star.

That was the year the Cleveland first adopted the nickname “Indians” and Sock was later caricatured as the infamous Chief Wahoo.

A devastating foot injury and a worsening drinking problem cost Sock the second half of that season. He only played in parts of a few others.

Then, instead or returning home to Indian Island, Maine, he hung on for a few more seasons in the minors.

Fred Lake

Sock’s season in Lowell is documented in “Baseball’s First Indian” by Ed Rice. Sock was signed by Lowell owner and manager Fred Lake, a former major leaguer himself. A catcher with the Boston Beaneaters, he played against him in 1897.

Sock appeared in 105 games that year, only missing a handful of them. He had 117 hits, scored 50 runs, and batted for an average of .288. In those deadball days, those more than respectable numbers made him one of offensive leaders of the team.

His defense, however, was a problem. He struggled on a bad foot (an injury from his rookie year which never healed properly) and made 29 errors for a fielding percentage of only .800.

Alumni Field in Lowell (Photo courtesy Paul Healey)

Despite the handicap, Sock was known for making clutch plays with bat and glove. While he took more than his share of grief on the road, he become a fan favorite at Lowell’s Spalding Park (now Alumni Field).

One of Lew’s concerns about being the lone Black player in the pros had to be that he would be viewed as a novelty act. Sock experienced this himself. On May 10, the Lowell Sun reported that in a game at Nashua:

“Sockalexis was the cynosure of all eyes and all the small boys in the town have gone hoarse from ripping out war-whoops every time he went to the bat. ‘It’s great sport being an Indian,’ remarked Sock as the rubber-necking public, large and small, crowded about him and took as much satisfaction looking at him as though they were at a Wild West show.”

Sock at times indulged the crowd. In the same game, the Sun reported that “Lew Cross and Sockalexis went through a war dance that made a great hit with the crowd.”

James Gray

Had the designated hitter role existed back then, he undoubtedly would have been back with the team the next season. Without it, the lack of mobility caused by his bad foot effectively ended his career.

James Gray was also a baseball man. Of course, he owned and managed the team that signed Bucky Lew, the Pawtucketville Athletic Club, in 1902. He also owned and managed the city’s baseball team from 1911 to 1914, even lending his name to those Lowell Grays.

Bucky Lew played baseball himself. While his game didn’t receive anywhere near as much attention as his basketball, the Lowell Sun ran a blurb that summer about him appearing as an outfielder for a YMCA baseball team that played games on the South Common.

Bucky Lew

Given his interest in baseball, it seems likely Lew attended Sock’s games. Whether the pair ever met is unknown, however it’s interesting to consider whether baseball’s first Indian may have inspired basketball’s first Black pro.

My book exploring the possible connection between Sock and Lew, tentatively titled “American Originals,” is due for release next year.

Of course, “The Original Bucky Lew” is available now in local bookstores and on all platforms here:

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