Even the most casual baseball fan knows that in 1947 Jackie Robinson became
the first black baseball player in the modern Major Leagues. The more
serious fan might also know that Larry Doby became the first black player
in the American League later that same season. But it is the rare fan who
can tell you who Moses Yellow Horse, Louis Leroy or the Nebraska Indians
were, let alone about the cruel racism they and other American Indian
ballplayers suffered in the early years of the 20th century.
"The American Indian Integration of Baseball" is outstanding as both an
historical examination of an obscure topic - Indians playing pro and
amateur baseball between 1897 and 1945 - and as a documentary of racial
injustice, stereotyping and outright prejudice. Author Jeffrey Powers-Beck
has done his homework and done it well.
This book brings to life a trio of Indian country's better-known baseball
stars - the legendary Jim Thorpe, pitcher Charles Albert Bender and catcher
John Tortes Meyers - along with a host of largely forgotten minor leaguers
and barnstorming teams, whose stories are just as important. The constant
taunts, jeers and epithets hurled at these athletes at every ballpark in
which they played easily rival anything that Robinson, Doby and their
contemporaries endured. This is not to slight the pioneering black athletes
of the 1940s and '50s; but the American Indian ballplayers of a generation
before were also stereotyped as lazy and as alcoholics, whether they drank
A renowned Olympic athlete and pro football player, Thorpe was supposedly
run out of the big leagues because he couldn't hit a curveball. Bunk, said
Powers-Beck. When Thorpe signed to play with the New York Giants in 1913,
he hadn't played organized baseball for two seasons - his most recent
experience was in the Eastern Carolina League, a Class D circuit several
levels below the big time. Hard-nosed manager John McGraw only played him
in 47 games during the 1913 - '14 campaigns. Without the chance to develop,
to play on a regular basis, Thorpe naturally had trouble adjusting to
National League pitching.
Powers-Beck wrote: "Thorpe was given little game experience: he totaled
scarcely over 30 at bats per season, occasionally pinch-running or
pinch-hitting but never getting the hundreds of plate appearances that
Minor League players need to learn to hit professional pitching." But in
examining Thorpe's career statistics, the author noted, "He hit .327 in his
last year in the majors, and ... he improved dramatically and consistently
throughout his Major League career... The answer to the question of his
release lies in a fatal compound of unreasonable expectations, athletic
mismanagement, and anti-Indian prejudice."
One of the book's more fascinating chapters looks at a barnstorming squad
called the Nebraska Indians. From 1897 through 1914, this team traveled
across the Midwest and Eastern regions of the United States, taking on all
comers. In the dozen seasons for which records exist, the Nebraska Indians
won 1,359 games while losing only 336 and tying 12. In 1902, they racked up
an incredible record of 136-15-1, for an unbelievable winning percentage of
A consistent theme throughout "The American Indian Integration of Baseball"
is perseverance. Despite the racial hatred to which they were uniformly
subjected no matter where they played, individual Indian ballplayers took
tremendous pride in excelling at and beating the white man in his own game.
This well-researched book should be required reading for Ted Turner and
Richard Jacobs, owners of the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians baseball
clubs, respectively. Both steadfastly maintain that their teams' names and
logos somehow "honor" Native peoples. As Powers-Beck shows us, they could
not be more wrong.
For more information, contact University of Nebraska Press, 1111 Lincoln
Mall, Lincoln NE 68588-0630, call (800) 755-1105 or visit