Ben Harjo's All-Indian Baseball Club: Personal Reviews, Op-Ed Pieces, and Polemics from outside the Purview of the Umpires

By Parr, Royse | Nine, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Ben Harjo's All-Indian Baseball Club: Personal Reviews, Op-Ed Pieces, and Polemics from outside the Purview of the Umpires


Parr, Royse, Nine


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. (1) 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. (2) 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." (3) 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. (4)

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. (5) In support of her husband's dreams, she wrote the Indian agent a letter dated March 30,1932, which stated:

I want to buy baseball equipment for my husband Ben Harjo. Because he gettin (sic) ready for six months tour and he got to have this much equipment to start out with, he's going to take this club to Southern, Eastern and Northern States, also he will get to New York City. He thought he better do that and leave farming alone this time and get to see different countries. (6)

In 1929, the Indian agent allowed Susey five hundred dollars to outfit her husband's baseball team on the condition that the players were willing to depend upon the drawing power of the team for their salaries and expenses. (7) The team toured on a limited basis until the spring of 1932 when extensive tryouts were held on the Harjo farm. The Holdenville Daily News regarded the tryouts as the "greatest aggregation of baseball stars ever assembled in this section and comparable to any of the minor league teams." (8) Among the notable minor leaguers selected from the original thirty trying out were manager and first baseman Bill Wano (Southern Association), pitchers Jimmy Christian and Williston Bohanan (Texas League), shortstop George Wano (Three-I League), and centerfielder Israel "Izzy" Wilson (Western Association), who was Thorpe's cousin. (9) The only major leaguer on the roster was pitcher Harry "Rip" Collins. Eleven seasons earlier, Collins was Babe Ruth s teammate when they won the New York Yankees' first American League championship in 1921. Collins's career major league record on the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, and Browns was 108-82. (10)

From team photographs, it appears that all of Harjo's All-Indian Club roster of 1932 had Indian blood. …

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