Whatever Happened To American Indian Athletes?
December 18, 2007, 07:01 AM
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The New York Times has a big story, "Sequoyah High's Success Engergizes Tribe" on "all-Indian" Sequoyah high school in Oklahoma that has won the state girls' basketball championship three years running. The article focuses on the star guard of the Lady Indians, a Cherokee named Angel Goodrich, and implies that she undermines the stereotype that American Indian girls aren't good at basketball.

There's only one little problem with the theme of the article, which you might notice by glancing at Angel's picture.

That got me to thinking about how there used to be a stereotype that American Indians were good at sports. Jim Thorpe was the most famous all-around athlete in America ninety years ago. He was, roughly, half-American Indian and half-white and grew up on a reservation. Thorpe wasn't unique at the time — there were a fair number of Native American baseball stars, such as Chief Bender, the Hall of Fame pitcher for Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics. Another Hall of Famer was outfielder Zack Wheat of the Dodgers, who was half-Cherokee:

"In an era that also produced Jim Thorpe and Chief Bender, Wheat's Indian blood was thought by some to be the primary reason for his excellence. "The lithe muscles, the panther-like motions of the Indian are his by divine right," Baseball Magazine wrote in 1917."
But where have the American Indian athletes gone since then? Sonny Sixkiller was a quarterback when I was kid, and certainly had a cool name, but there sure haven't been many others.

Here's a table that quantifies my impression: Baseball Almanac lists 49 American Indian major leaguers, out of which 43 of them began their careers from 1897-1946. So, there have been only six to begin their careers in the big leagues in the 60 years since 1947. (Joba Chamberlain is the best known of the recent players.)

Wait a minute ... what happened in baseball in 1947?

Jackie Robinson.

I bet that explains a part of why Indian big-leaguers largely stopped entering the league the year black players were allowed in: some of these Indian ballplayers were Indian like Angel Goodrich is Indian.