Review of John Tortes “Chief” Meyers: A Baseball Biography

Young, William A. John Tortes “Chief” Meyers: A Baseball Biography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. Pp. 257. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $29.95 paperback.   

Reviewed by Andrew McGregor

The stories of American Indians in baseball are often overlooked. During the first two decades of the twentieth century they were among the game’s biggest stars, annually playing in the World Series. William Young endeavors to tell the story of one of these stars in John Tortes “Chief” Meyers: A Baseball Biography. Inspired by the story of Charles Albert “Chief” Bender – a friend and contemporary of Meyers in Major League Baseball, Young seeks on to fill a scholarly void. The book works primarily as a form of historical recording, assembling facts, figures, anecdotes, and quotes about Meyers’ life and baseball career into an accessible and easy to read biography.

McFarland, 2012.

McFarland, 2012.

Young covers the entire scope of Meyers’ life, offering two opening chapters on his childhood and adolescence in Riverside, California. In these chapters, Young alerts the reader to Meyers’ Native American heritage, discussing the mythology and culture of the Cahuilla Indians in Southern California as well as his family history. This includes an explanation of how Meyers got his name – a miss-transcription of Mayer by one of his early teachers – and his introduction to baseball. Meyers, along with his older brother, excelled at the game from an early age. During their youth they played together on several teams, traveling throughout Southern California.

Once he began playing baseball, Meyers was hooked. His skill briefly took him to Dartmouth College in 1905-06. There, Meyers hoped to gain an education and contribute to the school’s athletic teams. His prior semi-professional experience and lack of formal education (he never finished high school) intervened, as did his aversion to football. Dartmouth, who’s mission emphasized a committed to educating Indian youth, offered to place him in a prep school, but the lure baseball’s big pay-day Meyers sealed his fate.

The remaining chapters of the book discuss his baseball career with occasional detours to briefly signpost contemporary events related to Native American history. While the detours are important and help place Meyers in the context of other American Indians during the period, they are at times distracting and clumsily executed given that he typically had little in common with them and followed a different path than most to professional sports. Young uses these brief passages to bolster his assertion that Meyers remained proud and unashamed of his Indian heritage during his baseball career, unlike other star players, but the argument feels disconnected from the rest of the story. Instead, the book is at its best when talking baseball and relating the significant moments and relationships in Meyers career.

Meyers played catcher for the New York Giants from 1908 to 1915, making his debut at roughly age 28 (Meyers lied about his age a various points during his career). Meyers skills as catcher earned him the respect of his manager John McGraw and endeared him to the Giants star pitcher Christy Matthewson. The league respected him, too, and Meyers frequently finished near the top in National MVP voting (though he never won). Young makes clear that he was among the game’s best catchers of the Dead Ball Era, and an important figure on the Giants dominating teams that reached the World Series in 1911, 1912, and 1913. The Philadelphia Athletics were the Giants opponents in two of these World Series, led by another star Native American, pitcher Charles Albert “Chief” Bender. Each of these seasons gets its own chapter, comprising the bulk of the book. They offer highlights from the seasons and play-by-play action of the World Series games, underscoring the central argument that Meyers was a star player of the period. Indeed, Bender and Meyers’ success illustrated the influence and success of American Indian players on baseball despite the fact they are often overshadowed by the legacy of Jim Thorpe, who briefly played along side Meyers on the Giants.

Although they were among the league’s leading stars, Bender and Meyers dealt with anti-Indian racism and stereotyping throughout their careers. Meyers, unlike Bender, occasionally pointed it out to the press using his wit. Unlike Thorpe, he also overlooked certain aspects of it, including certain behaviors and comments from Giants manager John McGraw. Young suggests that Meyers found his own middle ground where he could proudly embrace his heritage amidst the prevailing views of the day.

Later in his career, Meyers moved to the Brooklyn Dodgers (then known as the Robins). He led them to the World Series in 1916, but the championship continued to elude him. The next season was his last in the Majors. He started 1918 as player-manager for the International League’s Buffalo Bisons, but promptly abandoned that role to sever in the First World War. After the war, Meyers played and managed in the minor leagues during the 1919 season before calling it quits in 1920.

Young discusses Meyers’ life after baseball in the final chapter. Financial hardships characterized this period of his life. Eventually he found employment as a police officer and later chief, for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in California. Later in his retirement he reemerged as a national figure with the publication Glory of Their Times in 1964, which was a book that consisted of a series of interviews with former Major League figures. Meyers was prominently featured in the text.

The book concludes with a brief discussion of Meyers’ legacy and his omission from the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Young suggests that this oversight is, in part, due to Meyers’ short career, lacking the requisite ten-years of Major League Service for induction. He also argues, however, that Meyers is deserving of such honor and leaves the reader hopeful that the veteran’s committee with remedy the situation.

John Tortes “Chief” Meyers: A Baseball Biography is an important book that shares the story of one of baseball’s leading players during the early twentieth century. It is thoroughly researched, including archival sources, interviews with Meyers’ surviving family members, and press coverage from his playing days. The book is an essential starting point for anyone interested in Meyers’, and an important addition to the scholarship on Native American in sports, and baseball.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University and the founder of this blog. His master’s thesis explored the lives and representations of iconic Native American athletes, Billy Mills and Jim Thorpe. You can reach him via email at amcgrego@purdue.edu or on Twitter: @admcgregor85.

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