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19th century Brooklyn catcher: Pioneer, but tragic Native American ballplayer

James Madison Toy. Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

For a baseball trailblazer, James Madison Toy suffered a perhaps unfortunate and ignominious fate.

Toy, the first person with Native American lineage to play major league baseball, ended his career as a versatile, cannon-armed catcher when he took a foul tip in the worst of places — his groin.

Before the invention of the protective cup, and before the advent of more modern medicine that could have adequately addressed his injury, Toy was forced to end his career after the 1890 hardball season.

And that happened in Brooklyn, where Toy competed for the Brooklyn Gladiators, a major-league team that was doomed to an equally ugly destiny. The Gladiators were, quite simply, lousy, finishing with a 26-73 record in the American Association, which was at the time considered a major league. The team performed equally horribly at the gate, and the Gladiators folded after just one season.

But their niche in baseball history will forever be secured because a culturally pioneering player was on their roster, a player who was about as unlucky as they come.

With the country celebrating Native Aerican Heritage Month in November, Toy, a native of Beaver Falls, Pa., is an overlooked but crucial figure in baseball history because of his ancestry. He’s perhaps also equally notable for the way his career came crashing to a halt in Brooklyn.

Toy, who was born in 1858 and died in 1919, actually broke into the majors in 1887, three years before his stint in Brooklyn. That year he played for the Cleveland Blues, another ill-fated, short-lived top-level aggregation.

After that season, he scuffled around in the minors for a couple years before the Gladiators picked him up as one of the first signees of their brief existence. The Gladiators actually got off to a somewhat late start — they didn’t really coalesce as a franchise until early 1887, just a couple months before the start of the AA season — forcing manager Jim Kennedy to scramble to assemble a roster.

“Considering the late date at which the Brooklyn American Association club entered the field, much work has already been done,” the Feb. 9, 1890, The New York Times declared. “Manager Kennedy has been hard at work of late.”

Added the Feb. 10 Brooklyn Eagle optimistically: “Manager Kennedy, of the American Ridgewood Club, has already got together a strong team containing a nucleus of veterans and some excellent young players.”

The team carried anywhere from two to four catchers, of which Toy was one. However, while Toy’s best work came behind the plate, he was a versatile player who could man various other spots in both the infield and the outfield.

The Gladiator players slowly trickled into town in March to begin training, giving the Brooklyn Eagle about a month to evaluate the squad. In its April 20, 1890, edition, the paper published brief biographies of each player, including a sketch of Toy and his resumé.

By the time he signed on with Brooklyn, Toy was already nearing 30 years of age, and at 5-foot-9, 162 pounds, he was a somewhat slight player. But the Eagle evaluated him as “an able catcher, a heavy batter and a good base runner.”

The national media also monitored the Brooklyn situation, with the Feb. 19, 1890, issue of The Sporting Life declaring that the club “looks fairly strong on paper. Behind the bat the team will be very well fixed. Catcher Toy, of the Rochesters [a minor league franchise the season prior], will be signed, much against the wishes of the Rochester public, as he is a tremendous favorite there.”

A March 26 edition of The Sporting Life painted Toy as “an excellent catcher ... a hard worker, and was so popular with the patrons ... in Rochester last season that there was a ... protest when it was learned that Manager Kennedy had secured him for the new Brooklyn team.” The magazine asserted that the Gladiators “will make a formidable showing in the matter of pitchers and catchers.”

But all such preseason optimism, for both the team and Toy, never panned out. The Gladiators quickly sank to the cellar of the American Association. The Eagle asserted that part of the problem was the squad’s lack of a true home field. The Gladiators originally played at Ridgewood Park, but midway through the campaign they stopped using those grounds.

A streak of good performances in early- to mid-summer — the June 16 Eagle stated that “the Brooklyn team has at last got out of its ill luck, and when the club returns from [a lengthy road trip] there will be some other club occupying the last ditch [in the association]” — notwithstanding, the team struggled all year.

So did Toy, whose performances quickly slacked off by late summer. On June 29, the Eagle opined that “Toy for Brooklyn was weak” in a 6-3 loss to Louisville. Then, in a late-July, 12-5 thrashing at the hands of Columbus, the paper reported that “Toy aided the Columbus team considerably in their run getting, making three bad errors.”

The Gladiators stunk so badly by that point that the Eagle appears to have dropped off its coverage of the club, as did the rest of the local and national media.

By the end of the season, Toy had posted a measly .181 batting average over 44 games played. It’s unclear, though, exactly when that fateful foul tip found its mark and how much the resulting malady affected Toy’s play.

What is clear, however, is that the 1890 campaign was the last for the first player with Native American heritage in the majors. He returned to Beaver Falls, where he appears to have settled into a life as an iron moulder and family man. The 1900 federal Census lists him married to his wife, Ida (whom he married in 1884), and having three children.

What’s significant, though, is that the entire family is listed as “white” in the column for race. In addition, on his death certificate Toy is also described as “white,” a fact that has spurred continual controversy among baseball historians. On top of that, none of the contemporary media coverage from the late 19th century of Toy referred to any Native American lineage, and Toy himself apparently didn’t reveal publicly the fact that he was part Sioux.

For several decades after the turn of the 20th century, most statisticians believed Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian from Maine, was the first Native American in the major leagues. But in 1963 — exactly a half-century ago — staffers at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown uncovered evidence that Jim Toy was actually the first player with indigenous ancestry.

Since then, the dispute continues to rage, with Sockalexis author Ed Rice leading the charge for the Maine player and the Hall of Fame maintaining its position. For example, an official Hall of Fame questionnaire filled out by a Toy descendant asserts that Jim Toy was a “Sioux Indian.”

In “The American Indian Integration of Baseball,” his definitive 2009 history of the Native American story in the national pastime, author Jeffrey Powers-Beck comes down on Toy’s side, explaining that the issue comes down to one of ethnic identity and the prevalent racism of the 19th century that no doubt would have stung Toy if the public knew of his Indian ancestry.

That bigotry, the author wrote, prompted Toy to essentially “pass” for white to avoid racist taunts and treatment.

“Toy was significant not so much as the first American Indian to have played in the majors,” Powers-Beck wrote, “but as one of the first American Indians to have concealed his identity in order to play professionally with whites.”

And Toy’s descendants also proudly claimed him as a Native American. As part of his correspondence in the 1960s with Hannah Toy, a relative of Jim, Hall of Fame historian Lee Allen — the writer who first uncovered the player’s trailblazing lineage — thanked her for both her and her ancestor’s contributions.

“James M. Toy was one of baseball’s great pioneers and we are proud to have a record of him,” Allen wrote to Hannah in October 1964.

But, alas, it was a strange and certainly painful injury that occurred in Brooklyn in 1890 and both ended James Madison Toy’s hardball career and gave him an additional, undignified placed in history. On the same Hall of Fame questionnaire that lists Toy as Sioux, his cause of death is listed as a sorrowful “baseball injury — rupture.”

January 3, 2014 - 9:00am


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