There has been a long tradition of Native American athletes showing off their skills in professional sports. Jim Thorpe is still considered one of the greatest athletes in history, having won Olympic medals while also playing professionally in baseball and football about 100 years ago.
A handful of American Indians have played baseball for the Detroit Tigers, and this season, relief pitcher Joba Chamberlain will join that group when he makes his first appearance out of the bullpen. Chamberlain was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, but his father was born just north of there on Winnebago Reservation, a member of the Omaha Nation. Chamberlain is one of three non-Hispanic Native Americans currently playing in the major leagues. The others are Jacoby Ellsbury and Kyle Lohse.
The first Native American to wear the Old English D was pitcher Ed Summers, who toed the rubber for the Tigers for five seasons from 1908-1912. Summers was known as “Kickapoo Ed” due to his heritage from the Kickapoo Tribe in Oklahoma. Summers made an impression immediately, winning 24 games as a rookie. In September, with the Tigers trailing Cleveland by two games, Summers pitched both games of a doubleheader, each of them shutouts, to help Detroit to the pennant. He won 65 games in all for the Tigers before rheumatism ended his career at the young age of 27.
The next Indian to play for the Tigers was Roy Johnson, who came from a family of ballplayers. His younger brother Bob was a star with the Philadelphia A’s in the 1930s. Both Johnson boys were born in Pryor, Oklahoma, and 1/4 Cherokee. An outfielder, Roy made his debut with the Tigers in 1929, and like Summers, he made a splash right away for Detroit. Johnson became the first rookie to collect 200 hits in a season, and he also paced the league in doubles with 45. Johnson spent a decade in the majors, four of them in Detroit. He had a career .296 average on the strength of his line-drive batting style. Johnson is the only Native American Indian to play for the Tigers who did not play for a pennant-winner with Detroit.
Five months after Johnson played his first game with the Tigers, Elon “Chief” Hogsett did the same for Detroit. Hogsett’s Indian heritage was less prominent than Johnson’s – Chief was 1/32nd Cherokee, but he came from very difficult circumstances. Hogsett’s father was an abusive alcoholic, and when Elon was 14 he left home to live with the family of a friend. A tall, strong young man, Hogsett was a left-handed pitcher on the Brownell, OK, high school club. It was there that he perfected a “submarine’ style of pitching, throwing the ball just a few inches above the ground. He pitched out of the bullpen for Mickey Cochrane’s team in 1934-35 when the Tigers won the pennant each season and their first World Series title. Hogsett was the Tigers first bullpen specialist. When he entered games, fans at Navin Field would frequently greet him with Indian war cries.
In 1934, Hogsett was joined on the Tigers briefly by 20-year old Rudy York, a powerfully strong Cherokee Indian from Georgia. York didn’t stick with the Tigers until 1937, when he set a rookie record by clubbing 35 home runs as Detroit’s catcher. Over the next six seasons, York hit 20 homers or more every year, culminating in 1943 when he led the league in homers and RBI. The best of the Native American players to wear a Detroit uniform, York was a seven-time All-Star and he finished third in MVP voting in ’43 and eighth in 1940, one of two times he helped the team to the World Series. All of York’s fame came with the stick in his hand, as he was not known for his defensive play. One sportswriter quipped that York was “part Indian and part first baseman”.
After those three American Indians starred for the Tigers during the same decade, it was 39 years before another played for the club, but his timing was perfect. In 1984, Dwight Lowry had spent four years in the Tigers’ minor league system as a catcher. The Tigers had All-Star Lance Parrish at that position and there were no prospects for Lowry until backup receiver John Wockenfuss was included in the late spring training trade that sent Glenn Wilson to the Philadelphia Phillies for Willie Hernandez. The exit of Wockenfuss opened a job as Parrish’s caddy. Sparky Anderson chose Lowry as his man. Lowry was a descendant of the Lumbee Tribe from North Carolina, the ninth-largest Indian tribe in the United States. His timing was indeed perfect, as the Tigers rolled out to a 35-5 start, won the pennant, and steamrolled to the World Series title. Sadly in 1997, just weeks after he was hired to manage the Tigers’ short-season Single-A farm team, Lowry suffered a fatal heart attack. The Tigers renamed their Player Development Man of the Year Award in his honor. In part, it serves to honor a member of the ’84 World Champions, but it also helps remind us of one of the few Native Americans to play for the Detroit Tigers.