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The Journey of Moses Yellow Horse

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On September 16, 1920, Little Rock awakened to sports news that would have seemed impossible a few years earlier. The Little Rock Travelers, who had sold their equipment in what amounted to a “going out of business sale’ in 1910, had won the Championship of the Southern Association. The hero of the previous evening’s historic victory was a young Native American pitcher named Moses Yellow Horse.

In the winter of 1874–1875, two Pawnee children, Clara and Thomas, began an epic walk from up on the Platte River in Nebraska to a new home in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma. Clara was in her early teens, and Thomas was about six years old. The elders of the Skidi branch of the Pawnee Nation had decided, with little choice, to leave the shrinking Pawnee land in Nebraska for resettlement on a reservation in the Indian Territory. Outnumbered by rival tribes and facing an unrelenting push by white settlers, the Pawnee chose a treacherous journey to an unknown future over possible annihilation. Clara and Thomas survived the journey. Many did not.

Thomas and Clara married sometime in the early 1890s and welcomed their first child, Moses Yellow Horse, in 1898. The couple’s son would not only become part of a new generation of Oklahoma Pawnee but one of the first Native Americans to reach the pinnacle of professional baseball.

Moses Yellow infant in the foreground of photograph on the left, Chilocco Indian School, Newkirk, Oklahoma  — Oklahoma Historical Society

The first of the Yellow Horse family to be born on a reservation was a strong, husky child with undiscovered athletic skills. Young Moses may have developed some of his pitching prowess by throwing rocks at small game, but by the time he reached high school at Chilocco Indian Boarding School, he was a baseball prodigy. His 17–0 record as a senior caught the attention of both semi-pro teams and pro scouts, and by the age of 20, the word was out in Northern Oklahoma that the muscular lad was a big-time baseball prospect.

The unusual circumstances that led Moses Yellow Horse to become a local celebrity in Arkansas began when Little Rock manager Kid Elberfeld took his Travelers on a barnstorming schedule through Oklahoma in the fall of 1919. The purpose of these post-season exhibition games was to raise a little extra money for the team members, but occasionally, the pro team would find a prospective player.

Elberfeld’s first find was a talented first baseman from the Pawnee reservation named Bill Wano. Upon arriving in Little Rock, Wano immediately recommended a friend from the Chilocco Indian School, who he claimed was one of the best pitchers in Oklahoma. If one Native American was good, perhaps two were better. Elberfeld sent travel money to Wano’s classmate and, subsequently, found the missing piece needed to complete one of the preeminent teams in Little Rock history.

While their exploits on the field were cheered by enthusiastic fans in Little Rock, the young Native Americans were viewed more as curiosities than equals. Arkansas Gazette sports editor Henry Loesch could not constrain himself from using terms like “warpath,” “chief,” and “wild horse” in his reporting on the arrival of Wano and Yellow Horse.

Before Moses Yellow Horse played in his first professional game, he pitched against Shoeless Joe Jackson, Buck Weaver, and the Chicago “Black Sox.”

After dominating Hendrix College in an exhibition game, Yellow Horse got the ultimate spring test on April 6, when the soon-to-be-infamous Chicago White Sox came through Little Rock on their way north to begin the season. Although he found the reigning American League Champions much more challenging than Hendrix College, Yellow Horse held his own against the major leaguers. The 1920 season was just over a week away, and the White Sox were still generally known as the 1919 American League Champions. Events that became public in the next two years would make the Sox the most notorious team in baseball history and brand them the “Black Sox” forever.

Both the young Pawnee pitcher and the Little Rock team got off to a slow start. After winning fewer than half of their first 20 games and after finding themselves seventh in an eight-team league in early May, Little Rock went on a 17–9 rampage. Fueled by fan enthusiasm, the likes of which the city had never known, by the first weekend of June, the 1920 Travelers were in second place, and Moses Yellow Horse had found a place in the starting rotation.

On September 16, 1920, the Arkansas Gazette announced that the Little Rock Travelers had won their first pennant.

Thankfully for the Travelers, Yellow Horse was just getting started, and as the cool days of spring moved to the sweltering summer, he was at his best. From August 15 until the end of the 1920 season, the young Pawnee pitcher won 10 of the Travelers’ last 25 victories. He pitched 98 innings over the stretch run, including a complete-game shutout in the pennant-clinching game on September 15. The young man locals called “Chief” Yellow Horse was the talk of the town and the hero of a franchise that had finally won a pennant.

Unfortunately, both the Little Rock Travelers and their Native American star would soon face the fleeting brevity of baseball fortune. During the excitement of the Travelers’ first pennant run, Pennsylvania newspapers broke the expected news that Moses Yellow Horse had been purchased by a major league team. Yellow Horse would reach the big leagues at age 23, after only one year of minor league baseball. His new baseball home with the Pirates in Pittsburgh was separated from Pawnee, Oklahoma, by more than miles. Little in his baseball experience and nothing in his heritage prepared him for his challenging new environment.

Moses Yellow Horse Pittsburgh Pirates

Although he pitched in only 10 games for the 1920 Pirates, the pitching part of Yellow Horse’s injury-shortened first year in the big leagues went well. Yellow Horse’s earned run average was a sparkling 2.90 with a 9-2 win-loss record. After only one full minor league season and one-half of a big-league campaign, Moses Yellow Horse seemed destined for a long major-league career. But life at baseball’s highest level would not be that simple.

There was one unexpected factor that complicated Yellow Horse’s success—his inability to manage a lifestyle that included time on his hands and a little money in his pocket.

Writing in the Magazine of the Smithsonian Museum of American Indians, Charlie Vascellard laments the inability of some Native Americans to successfully navigate a lifestyle that included access to alcohol. Among those affected was Moses Yellow Horse.

Although the fans often chanted “Bring in Yellow Horse” when a relief pitcher was needed, the struggling young pitcher’s ERA ballooned to more than four and a half runs per game in his second big league season. Labeled as an “off-the-field problem,” he was finished in Pittsburgh after the end of the 1922 season. He would try again a few years later in the minor leagues, but his pro baseball was over by age 26.

Perhaps the most tragic repercussion of his baseball downfall was that he did not return to Pawnee, Oklahoma, a hero. Instead, he was considered a disgraced failure. In the eyes of his people, Yellow Horse had a chance for a better life and did not take advantage of the opportunity.

Yellow Horse was exalted in an environment that cheered his success but abandoned him in his failure. Disgraced and ignored by the Pawnee, Yellow Horse struggled with his alcoholism for more than 20 years before miraculously getting control of his life in 1945. After his redemption, the Pawnee not only embraced the rehabilitated member of the Pawnee Nation but returned the leadership status Yellow Horse had earned in his youth.

Moses Yellow Horse was inducted into the American Indian Hall of Fame in 1994

On September 4, 1955, the Arkansas Travelers honored the 1920 Southern League Champions in a reunion ceremony at Travelers Field. The most enthusiastic fan response to the introduction of the returning players was reserved for Moses Yellow Horse, the pitching hero of that pennant-winning team.  In 1994, the beloved Elder of the Pawnee Nation was inducted into the American Indian Hall of Fame.

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Jim Yeager is a baseball historian who resides with his wife, Susan, in Russellville. A member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Robinson-Kell Arkansas Chapter of SABR, Yeager is a frequent presenter on the history of rural baseball in Arkansas. His books titled Backroads and Ballplayers and Hard Times and Hardball feature stories of Arkansans who played professional baseball in the first half of the 20th century. More information on Backroads and Ballplayers, Hard Times and Hardball, and other publications – www.backroadsballplayers.com

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