This is the first article in a four-part series on the history and origins of the Pocatello High School Indians mascot. Subsequent articles in the series will be printed in the Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday editions.
Recently a question has resurfaced concerning Pocatello High School’s tradition of using the name “The Indians.” Such monikers provide a sense of group identity and belonging that is hard to define, but deeply felt. So the words “history” and “tradition” play a large part in the discussions. In this case, though, the words “history” and “tradition” are of equal importance to the Shoshone and Bannock people who are the neighbors and friends of the citizens of Pocatello. They, too, have an important sense of group identity and belonging that is deeply felt. Conflict has unsurprisingly ensued again.
How did Poky High come to be called “The Indians”? The answer is surprising because what is assumed by both sides of the debate is not necessarily true. Certainly what passes as common answers to the question are wrong. The team name “the Indians” did not begin with Poky High and Poky High did not begin with the name either. Nor did “the Indians” come as an outgrowth of the history of choosing names related to national teams, such as the Cleveland Indians. As with all things Pocatello history, the answer is far more interesting. In this case, it all started with a game known as “base ball.”
Sports historians debate when the game was invented, but generally accept the game today was birthed in New York City in 1845. Baseball was primarily a Northern pastime in the larger cities until the Civil War when Union soldiers introduced it to the South and the West. After the Civil War, returning soldiers brought the game home with them.
MLB.com claims the first game in Idaho was played in Boise sometime in July 1869 by a U.S. Army club from Company H at Fort Boise. This is not entirely true. In fact, Boise did not even have the first baseball club in the territory. The first club was formed six months earlier in Flint near Silver City. Who the Flint boys first played is unknown, but they did make numerous challenges to other towns and indeed issued a challenge to the entire territory in June 1869 and a game was planned for July 4.
No matter, because the first recorded game in Idaho happened over a year earlier during a May Day celebration at Warm Springs near Idaho City. The Idaho Semi-Weekly World reported, “the pupils of the Public School at Buena Vista Bar requested their teacher to suspend school exercises on May-day, and accompany them to the woods, to witness their exploits, and act as umpire in their game of base-ball.” The game commenced in the afternoon and lasted for two hours. While we know the game was well-contested, no final score was recorded.
Clearly the National Game was already going strong in Idaho Territory long before the city of Pocatello was an apple in the eye of robber baron Jay Gould. In fact, the entire country was caught up in the new game in what was aptly described as a mania. Clubs appeared anytime nine men could agree to throw down a challenge (and some money) to a neighboring town or factory. Cities even debated adding baseball to existing blue laws just to be sure their churches were not empty on Sundays. Every town of respectable size had “a nine” and were proud of it.
Clubs were originally defined by their city. The first club in New York City was the New York Base Ball Club who was known to play the Brooklyn Club. Similarly, in Idaho there was the Boise Club, the Hailey Club and the Blackfoot Club. Once Pocatello Junction was well established, the railroad men began to pull clubs together, too, resulting in the Pocatello Club and the Oregon Short Line Club.
Competition was aggressive between the cities. Pocatello’s railroad team was known to bring in ringers from out of state for important games and all games were important games. Special trains were scheduled to shuttle the players and fans to and from places like Hailey and Ogden. When Pocatello and Blackfoot played, the intense rivalry was difficult to overstate. Clubs and leagues usually formed for only a year or two before dissolving and then reinventing themselves. Who played for which new club was often front-page news not only in the club’s city, but also in rival cities. It is baseball that invented the sports page and if the home team was playing, the sports page was the front page.
It was that front-page news aspect that began to transform how teams identified themselves. Sports reporters have long struggled with the best way to provide a narrative of a game. Space limitations precluded writing “the Pocatello baseball club” throughout a story. More importantly, sports writers strive to convey the emotional excitement or depression of the game. For instance, a player did not simply “hit a double.” Rather, “Our hero O’Malley smashed the sphere far into left field for a two bagger reigniting the hopes of the intrepid railroaders.”
As towns grew in size and clubs proliferated, team nicknames became necessary to distinguish between clubs in the same city. On Aug. 10, 1885, the Wood River Times in Hailey reported, “Base ball clubs spring into life every day. Yesterday there was a match game between the Eclipse and County Seats.” The very next day a tournament was announced between Pocatello, Wood River and Shoshone with special trains scheduled and prizes of $100 for each game.
On Aug. 12, the Hailey newspaper added more details including the use of one of the earliest nicknames for a Pocatello ball club “the Pocatellos,” while the other clubs were called “the Shoshones” and “the Wood Rivers.” Sports writers played with the name and, depending on whether they were home or away, might call them the Pokes, the Pokies or simply the players from Poky. However, there was no team in Idaho yet called “the Indians.” In fact, there is no clear record of any club in America with that name until a baseball scandal erupted in 1899 in Cleveland, Illinois.
Baseball was not just a game for white people. Native Americans around the country quickly picked up the game, too. Wherever a tribe or Indian school existed, there seemed to be the crack of the bat and men or boys running around bases. Unlike the Black clubs, the Indian teams often played white teams and some even toured the country. Typically they were simply called “the Indians,” “the Indian team” or “the red men.” Despite obvious racial stereotyping, newspaper writers gave them grudging respect for playing well, but when they lost, the writers were even more vicious in their denunciations.
However, the description “scalped” was equally applied to any team that was badly beaten or when a local writer wished to make a more colorful description for a home team’s victory. The term was used even if both teams were white. After all, the writers still remembered that it was not just Indians who took war trophies on the battlefield. Though known as a gory battlefield practice it offered a gallows humor denunciation of a particularly bad loss.
Not only did Indians play against white people, they also played alongside them. Most famous was Louis Sockalexis who played for the Cleveland Spiders. Sockalexis was not well loved and the Spiders were nicknamed “The Indians” by fans who did not mean the term kindly. Taunts, chants and racist comments were common, but much of that was the result of guilt by association. The Spiders of 1899 are widely considered the worst team in baseball history after a “trade” by corrupt ownership that sent all of the Spiders’ best players to St. Louis and the worst players from that team to Cleveland. At the end of 1899, the Spiders wound up with 33 losses at home and a staggering 101 losses on the road. They won only 20 games all season.
The Spiders were easily the worst and most hated team in the nation. That they had a Penobscot Indian playing with them, just offered more options for name calling. Not only were they known as “the Indians” but also “the Tribe” and “the Wahoos.” Newspapers did not even bother calling them the Spiders and defaulted Cleveland to “Indians” in box scores. From sea to shining sea, they were the most derided outcasts in sports. Nobody was a fan of the Cleveland “Indians”.
Then something rather odd happened. The next spring, in both Idaho and Wyoming, clubs of white players chose for themselves the nickname “the Indians.” No explanation is known for why either team choose the name. Both the Pocatello and Cheyenne clubs came from cities with Indian names, but so did dozens of other clubs around the country. Both cities had little love lost for their native neighbors. Yet, in 1900 the Pocatello Indians and the Cheyenne Indians were simultaneously born in different leagues. They took the most hated and mocked team name in the world and made it their own. However, neither was a high school team.