A film production company has optioned the rights to a screenplay about Mose J. YellowHorse, a star on the Arkansas Travelers’ first championship team and the first full-blooded Native American in the MLB. Enid, Okla.-based River Rock Entertainment will work with screenwriters Todd Fuller and his wife on developing the script after their first draft is finished, according to Fuller.
YellowHorse was not the first Native American in the big leagues, nor the best, but was certainly one of the most colorful. As a child growing up Pawnee, Okla., he performed as a child in the Pawnee Bill Wild West Show and, according to the story of his relative, Albin LeadingFox, learned how to throw a baseball by hunting rabbits and birds with rocks. His fastball became elite.
In 1920, he led the Arkansas Travelers, then in the Southern Association, to their first league championship. The team went 21-7 and included included Joe Guyon, who in football had starred in the Carlisle Indian Industrial School’s backfield with Jim Thorpe and Bing Miller, who went on to post a .316 lifetime batting average in sixteen major league seasons, according to Fuller’s “60 Feet Six Inches and Other Distances from Home: The (Baseball) Life of Mose YellowHorse.” The screenplay will be an adaption of this book.
YellowHorse then spent a couple of seasons in Pittsburgh, where his roaring fastball and gregarious personality made him a kind of cult figure for decades afterward. His final career tally was eight wins, four losses and 3.93 ERA in 126 innings, but his most memorable stat might have been a purposefully mis-hurled foul thrown at Ty Cobb, one of the greatest players of the early 20th century.
Fuller relays the story from an interview he conducted in 1992 with one of YellowHorse’s friends:
“Ty Cobb was crowding the plate anyway, he always did. And Mose wasn’t going to let him get away with it. Cobb was up there yelling all kinds of Indian prejudice, real mean slurs at Mose, just making him mad anyway. So he shakes off four pitches until the catcher gives him the fast ball sign, and Mose nods his head. I mean everyone in Detroit was whooping and all that silliness. So he winds up and fires the ball as hard as he could, and he knocked Cobb right in the head, right between the eyes. Mose knocked him cold. And a fight nearly broke out at home plate. All the Tigers’ players came rushing off the bench. The Pirate players started running toward Mose. But no punches were thrown. They just carried Ty Cobb off the field. And all three of the Pirates’ outfielders just stood together in center and laughed. Said they wished they could see it again.”
The incident is notable as a reversal of the common narrative often framing the relations of Indians and Anglo-Americans in this era. Here, it is a full-blooded Pawnee “who holds the weapon (a ninety-five mile-an-hour fastball) and inflicts harm,” Fuller writes. It’s also significant YellowHorse’s teammates eagerly enter a fracas to protect him, suggesting a loyalty and camaraderie that would prove so instrumental in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ success with Jackie Robinson a quarter century later.
When reading this, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities here between YellowHorses’ actions and those of one of the “Jackie Robinsons of the NBA” – Arkansas native Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton. In the early 1950s. Clifton had no quibbles about flattening those who would spew racist vile at him. Instead of throwing baseballs, though, the 6-7 center threw enormous fists at the faces of offenders.
The rest of YellowHorse’s life is one of sadness (alcohol addiction) but ultimate redemption found in his homeland. His story, like those of other minority baseball pioneers, is an important one. Godspeed to those who would make a movie about it.
I’ll leave with the following poem intro. The scene is Pittsburgh, 1921, in the moments before Moses’ major league debut:
What it Means to Wear #50 (for the Pittsburgh Pirates)
This moment begins in the dim light
Of a locker room, and Mose Yellow-
Horse struggling against his uniform
Buttons. It’s just y’r nerves the boys
Tell him, but he knows it’s butterflies
And the sparkle of Opening Day.
Soon enough he’ll take in the field,
The crowd of twenty-five thousand,
See mustard dripping from the chins
Of enchanted fathers.
This will be the first time they’ve seen
An Indian in Pittsburgh. And some
Whoop and holler; mumble & inquire.
Some will cheer. They watch the Reds
And Pirates battle deep into the tussle;
Nip and tuck from the start.
It’s April 21, and Mose YellowHorse
Doesn’t know that kids are peeking
Through cracks in the outfield wall…