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.