James Giago Davies: Indian athletes continue to excel in baseball

James Giago Davies. Photo courtesy Native Sun News Today

Baseball plays to strengths of Lakota athletes
Pick it over summer basketball camps
By James Giago Davies
Native Sun News Correspondent

There are two sports people associate most with the Indian athlete—basketball and distance running.

Basketball is clearly king today, and although distance running has waned competitively the past few decades, Oglala Lakota Billy Mills did win a gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. But the first sport the Indian athlete first made his mark in, was baseball. And Jim Thorpe was noted as the best all-around athlete in the first 50 years of the 1900s.

At the time, basketball had just been invented, and distance running was not something most people bothered training for; you were either good at it or you weren’t, and if you were, there wasn’t even an Olympics for you to win a gold medal.

Every town had a baseball team, but people did not specialize in sport like they do today. The gifted athlete could succeed on his talent much more easily because the average competitor was much more distracted by the demands of life. Even if he made a professional team, he would never be paid much more than the average working stiff who paid a buck or two to watch him perform.

Lou Sockalexis, Chief Meyers, Chief Bender and Zack Wheat were actually better ballplayers than the great Jim Thorpe, who was good enough to play on an excellent New York Giants team under the legendary coach, John McGraw.

As baseball died in the small towns, and the professional ranks became more and more specialized and competitive, Indians found it tougher to make the major leagues, although some still did, like Rudy York and Allie Reynolds. It was obvious they had also had a knack for basketball, and as that sport developed into the dribble-based modern version, getting away from station-to-station set-shot passing, Lakota athletes flocked to it.

It was easier to participate in basketball. It was played indoors, during the school year. Equipment was cheap, and bats and gloves were not. People forgot the Indian ballplayer also had a knack for baseball. Most just stopped playing it, and hardball eventually died altogether. Softball kept the game alive, but organization was poor and competition spotty and tended to end with some beer and pizza and an argument or two.

There is no sport that Lakota athletes could excel at beyond high school better than baseball. Most Lakota boys lack the size to play at a higher level in football and basketball. Indians once also dominated at the highest levels of football, both amateur and professional.

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