The 2019 Major League Baseball World Series is edging closer, standing as a high-profile example of how today's game is comprised of players from various backgrounds and ethnicities, and it's a sport played all over the world.
While Jackie Robinson has been highly touted over the years for breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, the first men of color came well before his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. At the Cherokee Heritage Center, the museum is paying homage to 28 Native men who, between 1897 and 1947, first crossed the color line.
The collection of sports memorabilia displayed throughout the CHC came from Cherokee Nation citizen Rob Daugherty.
While Robinson is still celebrated for helping integrate African Americans into the MLB, the exhibit is to honor those who came before him.
"Jackie Robinson was noted to break the color barrier in professional baseball, and Rob is making the subtle point that Indians were there way before," said CHC Executive Director Dr. Charles Gourd.
Of the 28 ballplayers featured in "American Indians in Professional Baseball: The First Fifty Years," 19 are Cherokee. Of the Five Civilized Tribes, only the Seminoles lack representation dating that far back in the league. Displayed in the cases of CHC, memorabilia like trading cards, autographed photos, books, baseball gloves, bats and more can be seen.
"We needed to put this here to not only honor those who played before, but maybe to inspire younger players now - not only in baseball, but all sports and music and art, to show that American Indians have excelled in a number of different kinds of things," said Gourd.
Big names such as Jim Thorpe are included, but less-known athletes are also highlighted. Two brothers, Robert Lee Johnson and Roy Cleveland Johnson, were born in Pryor, and they both have information about their playing days.
Robert Johnson, a Cherokee who played on three different teams between 1933 and 1945, swung with some of the most prolific names in the game. He made seven All Star appearances, and in 1939, his RBI production was third in the league, only behind Joe DiMaggio and Jimmie Foxx. That same year, his batting average was third highest, just behind Ted Williams and DiMaggio.
The older of the Johnson brothers, Roy, was able to earn big dollars playing with the Detroit Tigers.
"When you consider the economy, they were well-paid just like today. They had the same kind of status. As a matter of fact, Roy Johnson signed for the highest amount to play pro. His signing bonus was $75,000 and that was in 1929," said Cherokee National Treasure Tonia Weavel, a baseball fanatic who curated the exhibit.
The Johnson brothers also finished their careers tied with the same batting average of .296.
Baseball must have been a major focal point for one player with perhaps the longest name in professional baseball history, Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish. He finished a 20-year career before becoming a pitching coach at Philadelphia, Montreal and Milwaukee.
"After he quit playing, he was a recruited as a pitching coach, and under his tutelage, Milwaukee had two Cy Young Award winners: Rollie Fingers and Pete Vuckovich," said Weavel.
Folks who visit the exhibit can also read up on Charles Albert Bender, the man credited with developing the slider. He was the first Native American to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
"He was the most beloved and probably the best player [featured in the exhibit]," said Weavel.
While the exhibit highlights the playing careers of the 28 Native ballplayers, what might entice people more than the statistical accomplishments are the stories that accompanied them. One of the players, Allie Reynolds never even played a sport until he was in high school, and it wasn't baseball.
After receiving a scholarship to run track at Oklahoma State University and being offered a professional football contract, one day Reynolds was walking past the OSU baseball field when famous basketball coach and short-time baseball coach Henry Iba discovered the hard-throwing right-hander.
"Hank Iba, the infamous basketball coach at OSU, said, 'Come and throw batting practice,'" she said. "He came and he started throwing as hard as he could and was striking them out. And Hank Iba said, 'Go grab a jersey,' and he began to play baseball in college. This is not a little leaguer, this is not peewee, this is not a high school all star; this was college. And then he made his career playing baseball for the New York Yankees."
Reynolds is the only Native American to be honored with a plaque in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium.
Not every ballplayer's tenure in "The Show" lasted long, but they weren't without a few notable moments.
Arthur Lee Daney, a Choctaw man from Tahlinia, played in only one game and pitched only one inning in 1928.
"He was playing against the Yankees and his first batter was Babe Ruth," said Weavel. "His second batter was Lou Gehrig and the third was [Jumpin Joe Dugan]. They lost the game, but Art Daney let no one score on him."
Check it out
The "American Indians in Professional Baseball: The First Fifty Years" exhibit will be on display through March 28 at the Cherokee Heritage Center. The museum hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. For more information, call 918-456-6007.