All-Indian Baseball in 1930s America

The Spring 2009 issue of NINE: A Journal of Baseball and Culture has an article by Royse Parr on Ben Harjo’s All-Indian Baseball Club (Project MUSE subscriber link). Here are a few excerpts (footnotes omitted) from a fascinating glimpse at another era.

The story of Ben Harjo’s All-Indian Baseball Club has never been told. A full-blood Creek, Harjo was born on October 8, 1898, in Indian Territory near the city of Holdenville, now within the state of Oklahoma. In his teenage years, Harjo attended Haskell Institute, an Indian boarding school in Lawrence, Kansas, where he was the captain and a pitcher on the school’s Creek baseball team. Known as the “New Carlisle of the West,” Haskell Institute was proud of its baseball stars that included major leaguers Ike Kahdot (Potawatomi), Lee Daney (Choctaw), and Ben Tincup (Cherokee). Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox, Potawatomi), a major league baseball player from Oklahoma, first attended Haskell. He then became athletically famous as an All-American football player and a track and field gold medal Olympian at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Prior to leaving for Carlisle, Thorpe’s father said to him, “Son, you are an Indian. I want you to show other races what an Indian can do.” In their warrior tradition, Indian athletes were inspired to beat the whites at their own games. From these beginnings emerged Ben Harjo’s dream of forming a barnstorming All-Indian baseball team.

According to the 1930 United States census, Harjo had ten laborers of Negro or Indian extraction who lived on the farm with his wife Susey and their five children. He was scrambling to make a living as a farmer during the lean years of the Great Depression and the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. The local agent for the U.S. Indian Service regarded him as an exceptional young man whose farming methods were an example for other Indians.

Fortunately for Harjo and his baseball dreams, his full-blood Seminole Indian wife, Susey, was oil-rich from her land allotment in the Seminole oil fields. She had a trust fund controlled by the U.S. Indian Service that was in excess of three hundred thousand dollars. Susey was very generous with those less fortunate, especially for funeral bills, medical attention, and education, but she was only modestly educated. Susie paid for the building of a Presbyterian church, and she had a propensity for purchasing and discarding vehicles, which included a Ford sports coupe, two Dodge trucks, a Dodge sports coupe, a Pierce Arrow luxury sedan, and a Chevrolet team bus….

What is the historical significance of the Harjo club and its story? Earlier barnstorming Indian baseball teams were often subjected to racial taunts and harassment because of their skin color. No such incidents were reported in the press for the Harjos. Even when their teams were soundly defeated, local journalists were complimentary of the athletic talents of the barnstormers. The Harjo club’s play on the field, especially when they won the prestigious Denver Post Little World Series in 1932, proved that they were skilled professional athletes. In the New England states in 1933, it was heartwarming to read that the good-natured Thorpe was surrounded by hundreds of admiring youngsters.

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