⚓ American Indians in Major League Baseball: Now and Then

From Left: Kyle Lohse, Jim Thorpe and Jacoby Ellsbury.

By Royse Parr, Society of American Baseball Research

Historically, the popular fascination with American Indian baseball players in the Major Leagues has contained an underlying strain of bigotry. Recently, however, sportswriters have been enthralled by the development toward stardom of three such baseball players—Kyle Lohse, Jacoby Ellsbury and Joba Chamberlain. And today researchers and fans can trace the development of American Indians in Major League Baseball from the game's early days to the present by using NewsBank's America's News and Readex's America's Historical Newspapers.

The first American Indian to play Major League Baseball in the 21st century was Kyle Lohse, a member of northern California's small Nomlaki Wintun tribe. In the first newspaper mention I found of Lohse—an October 22, 1994 article—he was throwing touchdown passes for the Warriors of Hamilton High School (Redding Record Searchlight, California). Lohse reached the Major Leagues as a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins in 2001. In 2008 he was an ace pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals of the National League.

During the 2007 season, Jacoby Ellsbury (Navajo) and Joba Chamberlain (Winnebago) joined the powerhouse Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, respectively, of the American League. They had met while still in the Minor Leagues and immediately developed a bond that extends beyond their shared American Indian heritage. Ellsbury and Chamberlain have stayed in touch since their first meeting.

Described as a cult hero who brings speed, defense and unbridled enthusiasm to the ball park everyday, Ellsbury was the first American Indian of Navajo descent to reach the Major Leagues. In the 2007 World Series he was a leading hitter and the centerfielder for the champion Boston Red Sox.

During the 2008 season, Chamberlain was transformed from a reliever to a starting pitcher on the proud Yankees' pitching staff. Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, he led his hometown University of Nebraska baseball team to the 2005 College World Series. He still has family on the nearby Winnebago reservation in northeastern Nebraska where his father Harlan, crippled from childhood polio, was born.

Joba Chamberlain pitching for Detroit.

All three players are fiercely proud of their heritage. They focus their energies on trying to be positive role models for America Indian youth. Chamberlain frequently returns to the Winnebago reservation to encourage kids. Lohse and Ellsbury have often spoken to American Indian youth groups.

In seeking a comparable era when at least three renowned American Indians were simultaneously playing in the Major Leagues, it was helpful for me to search online newspapers from almost a century ago. America's Historical Newspapers provided me with more than 2,000 articles on three notable American Indian baseball players—Charles Albert "Chief" Bender (Chippewa), John Tortes "Chief" Meyers (Cahuilla band of Mission Indians) and Jim Thorpe (Sac & Fox). A fourth player, Zack Wheat, a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, downplayed his suspected American Indian origins (Cherokee) during and after his playing career.

Bender, who is also a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics of the American League in five World Series from 1905 to 1914. He heard war-whoops from the stands throughout his career and detested the nickname "Chief."

Meyers, an outstanding catcher, also disliked the nickname "Chief" and considered himself a "foreigner" in a strange land when he played in New York City. To him, the "Chief" epithet not only dishonored his American Indian identity but also degraded it in the manner of a mascot or a Wild West Show Indian. During this era, Wild West Shows were still touring the country, and the first Hollywood westerns depicting American Indians as savages were being produced.

Chief Meyers and Jim Thorpe bonded as teammates on the New York Giants—similar to the friendship of Ellsbury and Chamberlain almost a century later.

At the 1912 Olympics held in Stockholm, Sweden, Thorpe won both the decathlon and the pentathlon. King Gustave of Sweden proclaimed him "The Greatest Athlete in the World," but he forfeited his Olympic gold medals and his amateur status when it was decreed in 1913 that his playing Minor League Baseball in 1909 and 1910 made him a professional. Thorpe played in the Major Leagues from 1913 to 1919. In 1950, he was voted both the world's greatest athlete and the greatest football player of the first half of the 20th century.

Throughout his Major League baseball career, Thorpe was chastised by the press for his perceived inability to hit curve balls. In this regard, Chief Meyers came to Thorpe's rescue by stating that Thorpe was "no lemon." After he was farmed out temporarily to a Minor League team, Thorpe was demeaned as a "newspaper Major Leaguer" (San Jose Mercury News, July 21, 1915).

A highly acclaimed sportswriter of the era, Grantland Rice, penned the following bigoted words in his syndicated column, "The Spotlight", about Meyers, Bender and Thorpe: "A few years ago the noble redman was a big factor in our national game.The Giants had Chief John Tortes Meyers.The Athletics had Chief Charles Albert Bender pitching wonderful ball. Jim Thorpe was rising against the horizon as a coming star.There were others scattered here and there. But today the ancient curse seems to be following the first American. His baseball shadow seems to be cast in the sunset of a fading day.The old stars are passing and there are no new stars in sight to take their place" (Anaconda Standard, February 10, 1917).

Today, Grantland Rice's perceived curse has been lifted. The new American Indian stars—Kyle Lohse, Jacoby Ellsbury and Joba Chamberlain—are emblazing a new chapter in baseball history. Their athletic success should please their ancestors and encourage America Indian youth.

Story granted through permission of Mrs. Sheila Parr and NewsBank-Readex

To learn more about Native American players dating back to 1899, visit The Baseball Almanac.

Cover Photos: Public Facebook pages of Kyle Lohse, Jim Thorpe, and Jacoby Ellsbury.

Graphic Artist: Jesse Nicholas

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Royse M. Parr, writer, baseball historian and retired corporate attorney for MAPCO passed in April, 2018. From selling pop at the Elk City, Oklahoma ballpark, he became an avid baseball fan and co-authored the award winning book, "Glory Days of Summer: The History of Baseball in Oklahoma," and "Allie Reynolds, Super Chief". He’s had over 50 articles on baseball published, serving as a member of the Society of American Baseball Research. In his obituary it reads he "reported for heaven's spring training."

Hawaii's 'Last Princess' Fights for Control of Her Fortune

Associated Press

HONOLULU (AP) _ Every day, tourists flock to a downtown Honolulu palace for a glimpse of the way Hawaii's royal family lived, marveling at its gilded furniture, lavish throne room and grand staircase made from prized koa wood.

But few know Iolani Palace _ America's only royal residence _ has relied in part on the generosity of a descendant of that family while the relic of the monarchy's rule now serves as a museum.

Multimillionaire heiress Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawananakoa, considered by many to be Hawaii's last princess, has paid the palace's electric bills for the past six years.

But the intensely private Native Hawaiian, whose $215 million fortune includes race horses and real estate, is no longer in a position to fund her pet charities, including the palace and various Native Hawaiian causes.

A court struggle is playing out for the 91-year-old's fortune. Her longtime lawyer persuaded a judge to appoint him trustee, arguing a stroke over the summer left the heiress impaired. She claims she's fine, and has since fired that lawyer and married her girlfriend of 20 years.

Since the court battle began, the electricity payments have stopped, Iolani Palace Executive Director Kippen de Alba Chu said. Officials who run the palace completed in 1882 have relied on a backup plan to pay the light bill and stay open.

Also disrupted, according to court documents, were funds earmarked for a Native Hawaiian nursing student's scholarship and materials to repair a damaged crypt at the Royal Mausoleum, where members of Hawaiian royalty are buried.

Over the years, Kawananakoa has used her money to fund protesters fighting a giant telescope on a mountain some Native Hawaiians consider sacred; to challenge a contentious Honolulu rail project; and to support the Merrie Monarch Festival, a prestigious hula competition.

She also has donated items owned by King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani for public display, including Kalakaua's nearly 14-carat diamond pinky ring.

Kawananakoa is the granddaughter of the late Prince David Kawananakoa, who was named an heir to the throne. She has no official title or real power in the state, but that doesn't matter to many Native Hawaiians, who see her as a link to when Hawaii was its own nation _ before American businessmen, backed by U.S. Marines, overthrew the Hawaiian kingdom 125 years ago.

``She was always called princess among Hawaiians because Hawaiians have acknowledged that lineage,'' said Kimo Alama Keaulana, assistant professor of Hawaiian language and studies at Honolulu Community College. ``Hawaiians hold dear to genealogy. And so genealogically speaking, she is of high royal blood.''

Some note that Prince David has other living descendants and say the heiress is held up as the last tie to the monarchy simply because of her wealth. Kawananakoa's riches come from being the great-granddaughter of James Campbell, an Irish businessman who made his fortune as a sugar plantation owner and one of Hawaii's largest landowners.

But Kawananakoa's supporters say she is the closest connection to the throne because, although they were already related, the prince's widow formally adopted her as a daughter.

Last princess or not, Kawananakoa's inheritance wields tangible power _ and some worry about it falling into the wrong hands.

In July, her longtime attorney James Wright filed an emergency petition seeking to be named successor trustee to all of her trust assets, saying in court documents that Kawananakoa is ``impaired as a result of an acute stroke.''

Two days later, a judge granted the request.

In August, attorney Michael Lilly wrote a letter to the judge saying he now represents Kawananakoa and he strongly contests any contention she is incompetent.

Lawyers for the heiress dispute she had a stroke, saying in court papers it was a transient ischemic attack, which has similar symptoms but caused no permanent damage.

Wright's court filings also raise allegations that Veronica Gail Worth, Kawananakoa's 64-year-old wife, physically abused her.

Neither Kawananakoa nor Worth responded to requests for comment from The Associated Press. However, Kawananakoa's attorney said in court papers the abuse claims are false and that Kawananakoa fell and ``struck furniture, which caused the bruising, which is not uncommon at someone her age.''

A judge in September appointed a special master to independently investigate the heiress's mental capacity and the abuse allegations.

Kawananakoa largely avoids airing her personal life, and some who know her say even her Oct. 1 wedding at the home of a retired state Supreme Court justice came as a surprise.

But she has occasionally drawn attention over the years, including in 1993, when one of her horses won $1 million in New Mexico's All American Futurity.

Five years later, furor erupted after Kawananakoa sat on a palace throne for a Life magazine photo shoot. She damaged some of its fragile threads, but repairs were made and the throne was returned to the palace throne room. Still, the uproar led to Kawananakoa's ouster as president of Friends of Iolani Palace, a position she held for more than 25 years.

Some Hawaiians, such as well-known activist Walter Ritte, aren't interested in revering her genealogy or wealth. Hawaiians, especially those who live in poverty, can't relate to her, Ritte said.

``She has given some money here and there,'' he said. ``She could have done a lot more for Hawaiians.''

The court battle focusing on Kawananakoa's age and health has others reflecting on her as a final living reminder of Hawaii's monarchy and as a symbol of a proud Hawaiian national identity that has endured.

``It is fair to say that Abigail Kawananakoa is the last of our alii,'' said Keaulana, using the Hawaiian word for royalty. ``She epitomizes what Hawaiian royalty is _ in all its dignity and intelligence and art.''

Palace officials will be watching the case. A hearing is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 8.


Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.

Headline photo courtesy Colorado State University.