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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

Wholly Mose
Book Review by Mikhail Horowitz

Todd Fuller. 60 Feet Six Inches and Other Distances from Home: The (Baseball) Life of Mose YellowHorse. Duluth, Minn.: Holy Cow! Press, 2002, 167 pp., $16.95, paper.

 

In "Custer's Last Stand Seen as a Baseball Game," an illustrated fantasia that was included in Richard Grossinger's 1987 anthology The Dreamlife of Johnny Baseball, Thom Ross offered an account of that famous battle in the form of an annotated box score. The heroes of the "game" were Crazy Horse, the Oglala Sioux's closer, who fanned the last five 7th Cavalry batters in relief, and Gall, the Hunkpapa warrior whose "ham was wrapped in ermine skins" and who slugged two "tremendous home runs into the upper deck of the stadium into a section used exclusively for the witnessing of the Sun Dance." The final tally was 16–1 in favor of the Sioux/Cheyenne of the Native American League.

Alas, that triumph was short-lived; the 7th Cavalry's parent army and the government it represented would go on to crush the "rebellion" of the Plains tribes and destroy, dehumanize, and impoverish many other Native peoples. But a faint echo of that Indian victory may have shimmered in an incident that really did take place on the baseball diamond, on September 26, 1922, when, during the course of an exhibition game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Detroit Tigers, Mose YellowHorse beaned Ty Cobb.

In his lyrical biography of YellowHorse, considered to have been the first full-blood Indian in the major leagues, Todd Fuller offers three accounts of the incident, which took place in Detroit: one from The New York Times, one from The Bleacher Bum, and one from Norman Rice, who, like the pitcher, was a Pawnee. Rice was not present at the game but heard the story from YellowHorse and related it years later to Fuller. As Fuller notes, Rice's narrative is by far the "most engaging and descriptive" of the three, spiced with such details as Cobb crowding the plate and sputtering racial slurs at YellowHorse; the latter shaking off four signs from his catcher and then plunking Cobb between the eyes; and the Bucs rushing to protect their pitcher when the Tiger bench erupted. "Where the two newspaper accounts offer factual and bare-bones information," Fuller writes, "Rice's story contains an intriguing subplot that addresses tensions between Indians and Euroamericans. In a reversal of the all-too-familiar narrative, it is YellowHorse who holds the weapon (a wicked fastball) and inflicts harm. For YellowHorse to level one of the most hated (white) ball-players in baseball history lends an ironic twist to the story."

Who was Mose YellowHorse? If you go by the factual and bare-bones information of his entry in the Baseball Encyclopedia, you won't learn much, simply that he pitched two seasons for Pittsburgh, finishing 8–4 with a 3.93 ERA. But if you pick up Fuller's loving, extensively researched, and poetically (if somewhat protractedly) titled biography, you'll learn a whole lot more. No staid, conventional affair, this book: mixing straightforward prose with poetry, interviews, newspaper clippings, photographs, cartoons, and comic strips (including snippets from a Dick Tracy episode that featured a character loosely based on YellowHorse, who hailed from the same hometown as Tracy's creator, Chester Gould), Fuller's biography is an inspired pastiche that rhymes very nicely with the richly digressive Native storytelling traditions to which its subject was heir. In effect, this book is The Dreamlife of Mose YellowHorse, wherein the National Pastime embraces (briefly) a revenant from its past time, as old battles are reimagined between the baselines and the Spirit World intrudes upon statistics.

Moses J. YellowHorse (his birth name) had a life so variegated and interesting, and one that embodied so many larger cultural issues, it's amazing that no one has undertaken to write his biography prior to Fuller. Born in 1898 in Pawnee, Oklahoma, a settlement to which his parents and their people had been forcibly relocated from Nebraska in 1875, Yellow-Horse performed as a child in the Pawnee Bill Wild West Show and, according to the story of his relative, Albin LeadingFox, learned how to throw a baseball by hunting rabbits and birds with rocks. He had a perfect season (17–0) at Chilocco Indian School in 1917. In 1920, he led the Arkansas Travelers of the Southern Association to their first league championship, going 21–7 for a team that also included Joe Guyon, who had starred in the Carlisle backfield with Jim Thorpe, and Bing Miller, who went on to post a .316 lifetime batting average in sixteen major league seasons. Purchased by the Pirates in 1921, YellowHorse pitched well, at times exceptionally, over two seasons for a contending team whose roster included the eventual Hall of Famers Rabbit Maranville, Max Carey, and Pie Traynor. Possessed of scintillating heat, his fastball fetched comparison to Walter Johnson's; he was so effective coming out of the bullpen that Bucs fans continued to chant for him years after he'd left the team.

In 1923, however, the Pirates traded YellowHorse to Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League. He won twenty-two games, but it proved to be his last hurrah as a professional. Falling prey to a sore arm (the cause for which remains mysterious, but might have been due to a drunken fall, or falling asleep in a cramped position, or a particularly stressful pitching performance), he was out of organized ball by 1926. He continued to compete as a semipro, becoming legendary for his ambidextrous and underhanded deliveries. He then descended into alcoholism for many years, but kicked his addiction in 1945 and subsequently found employment as a groundskeeper for Ponca City, managed a team of full-blood Indian boys, and was feted in high style by the fans, sports magnates, and civic leaders of the cities in which he once was lionized as a great pitcher and gregarious personality.

But as Fuller knows, a mere recounting of the highlights (and lowlights) of YellowHorse's career is not what makes his saga so compelling. Of the many Native Americans who played in the majors, Mose was neither the first (Louis Sockalexis, Penobscot, starred in the 1890s with the Cleveland Spiders—later called Indians, an absurdly ironic tribute when one considers the grotesquely racist nature of the team's "Chief Wahoo" caricature) nor the best (Charles "Chief" Bender, Ojibwa, pitched his way to Cooperstown; Allie "Superchief" Reynolds, Muscogee, tossed two no-hitters for the Yankees in 1951; Rudy York, Cherokee, was one of the American League's premiere sluggers in the years just prior to World War II; and a half-dozen others had longer, more productive careers). And yet, when his day in the baseball sun was done, he returned to Pawnee and became a respected elder of his people, a keeper of tribal traditions and a source of pride to young and old. It's in the interviews with those who remember Mose, which Fuller conducted with genuine affection and respect, that we see and feel his real value—not just as a ballplayer but as a person, and not just as any person, but as a Native American beholden to his roots. "According to Stone Road, YellowHorse counseled many young Pawnee men to carry out their lives in a responsible manner, to be true to their Pawnee heritage first, and to pursue personal achievements second," Fuller writes. "Even as YellowHorse recognized the end of his life nearing, he reveled more in the celebration of tribal ceremonies than in his own baseball past."

With his deliberately nonlinear chronology, his pairing of dry, concise newspaper accounts and rambling, colorful oral histories, and especially with his poetry, Fuller does a subversively fine job of intermingling those tribal traditions with the sacred game of baseball. Most of the thirteen poems interwoven throughout the book derive from specific incidents in YellowHorse's life. Where it would be unseemly, in the absence of documentation, for Fuller the reporter to speculate, such creative speculation is fully congruent with his job description as poet. Thus, the world of dreams, in Fuller's biography, becomes as real a part of Mose's story as the worlds of major and minor league baseball and the dusty, pan-fried territory of Oklahoma. In the book's penultimate poem, which treats the day of Mose's death (April 10, 1964, the same day the Polo Grounds buckled under the wrecker's ball), Fuller has a nurse enter the hospital room of the dying Indian, smiling "at / the song playing in her head, / something about, I wanna hold / your hand." In the poem's dreamtime, it makes perfect sense for a quartet of benign, mop-headed British lads to help ease the passing of a latter-day Pawnee warrior.

Fuller is also very good at providing background on Pawnee culture and society and placing Yellow-Horse's career and ancestry within the larger context of the dominant Anglo culture, particularly with regard to media perpetuation of Indian stereotypes. Here and there, though, he sometimes affects a preachy tone and also tends to repeat himself. The text has a few weird tics—on page 40, for instance, it would have been easier on the reader's eye to have listed the three citations for www.pawneenation.org in endnotes, as he does with attributions in other chapters. And unless I'm missing the tongue in Fuller's cheek, his appeal to the Veterans' Committee for Mose's induction into the Hall of Fame, while heartfelt, is very na‘ve, to say the least (yes, "only those players with the most impressive numbers" over a decade or more in the major or Negro leagues get bronzed). Still, there is merit to his sentiments that "those who showed a love for the game during the span of a lifetime" should be commemorated in Cooperstown. Not with a plaque on the wall, perhaps, but certainly with an exhibit in the museum. A glove once worn by Mose YellowHorse is already in the Hall's collection. Why not a full display case to honor his accomplishments, as well as those of other true Braves and Indians, neither noble nor savage, whose spirits have graced the sacred game of baseball?

—EFQ

 

MIKHAIL HOROWITZ is the author of Big League Poets (City Lights, 1978). His prose poem "Pearly Babe," which originally appeared in EFQ, was recently reprinted in Line Drives: 100 Contemporary Baseball Poems (Southern Illinois University Press, 2002).

© 2002 Mikhail Horowitz

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