Louis Francis Sockalexis
Best Season (1897)
The Indians began with Louis Sockalexis. Although he didn't have an remarkable career, Sockalexis will be cemented in Indians history for the entire future of the franchise. When he came up through college, Sockalexis was considered a top prospect. His future looked so good that the Cleveland Spiders were able to look past their 1800's style racism and sign the first full blood American Indian in the history of professional baseball. Once he made the pro team, he was installed as the starting centerfielder, playing 66 games in his only full season.
Falling into the stereotype, the combination of money, fame and injuries lead Sockalexis to alcohol and his demise. Over his last two years with the Spiders (also the last two years of the franchise), he only played in 28 more games. His alcoholism only got worse after his career ended and he died in 1913 at the age of 42 (for a more in depth look at the life of Louis Sockalexis read Indian Summer, a great book by Brian McDonald).
Where he truly left his mark is far away from the record books, but actually in the name of the franchise. In Spring Training in 1898, the Spiders called their intra squad teams the Indians (the veteran team) and the Papooses (a team made of rookies) in "honor" of the man they called Chief. In 1899 the majority of the Spiders players were shipped to the St. Louis Perfectos and the Spiders had the worst season in the history of baseball to this day. Louis stayed around for the destruction of the team as he wasn't good enough to move to St. Louis as the two teams were combined to make one super team.
After a year without baseball, Cleveland brought in a new franchise in the brand new American League. The new Cleveland baseball team that started in 1901 chose to use a name from the past, the Blues, after Cleveland's former National League team (1879-1884). When Cleveland signed superstar Napoleon LaJoie, they changed the team name to match the player/manager and were called the Naps until LaJoie left the team in 1914. In 1915 the Plain Dealer ran a poll to find out what the Cleveland team's new name should be and the fans chose the Indians in remembrance of the first Indian to play professional baseball. The name has lasted through the years despite repeated attempts to change it. While many may protest and consider the name offensive, those who really know the story understand that the name is meant in reverence to a former player. This actually makes the Indians one of the few teams that actually have a meaningful name and aren't just named after an animal that lives on the other side of the world (this means you Detroit). The Cleveland Indians team name should be kept in mind as a memory of Louis Sockalexis, just one of the many Cleveland stories of what could have been.