My dad was a full-blooded Choctaw Indian and didn’t speak English very well. My mother was only half-Indian and she didn’t want Dad to speak Choctaw to us because she said it would make it hard for us to learn English. She was right. But Dad was a Methodist minister and would preach in his own language. That made him happy. So did the big farm he owned in Oklahoma. The farming he leased out and received crops or cash in payment. But he kept and maintained a great deal of livestock—horses, cattle, turkeys and hogs mainly.
There were nine of us children—five boys and four girls. I am now 74. If we boys wanted fun or recreation, we would go fishing or hunting, or maybe we would play the monkey game—swinging from tree to tree to see how far we could go before we touched ground. In the summer we would go swimming. Saturday and Sunday were always big days. Saturdays we went to town and watched the baseball game—let me tell you old Talihina had one great ball team.
Watching those fellows play ball, I would say to myself, “One of these days I’m going to be a ball player.” And I started early. One day I was fooling around the house and I came across a brand new pair of Dad’s socks. I unraveled one of the socks and had enough string to wind a good tight ball. When Dad found the sock put to this use it wasn’t any fun—but I still had the ball.
My brother and I wet to Jones Academy in Hartshorne, Oklahoma, and we played baseball there. I was the pitcher and he was the catcher. During the summer, I worked up to the point where I would get $10 to pitch for town teams and Joe would get $5. This worked out fine until one day we played against a team that had a pitcher who had been playing professional ball long enough to know a good many tricks. He used something on the ball. I tried it and it worked for me. The ball got to acting up and Joe finally said, “Lee, you’ve got to much for me today.” We had another catcher on the team and he was put in, but he couldn’t catch me either—and the other team couldn’t hit my hopping pitches. So, it worked out all right for me.
From Jones Academy I went to Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kansas. I wanted to play football because that was when the Haskell Indians were a famous college team. But the coach, Dick Handley, told me, “You’re just a bit too small for football and besides, you have a good right arm and we don’t want to hurt it. Unless I miss my guess, you are going to be quite a pitcher some day.”
So I pitched for Haskell and did pretty well and when school was out I would pitch for any team that would let me. I started making money that way. After the 1927 school year, I went to Kansas City-where I had previously done some pitching – and very quickly I was invited to play for a local black team. I got $25 for that game, which was against a Concordia, Kansas team. I won the game and the manager of the team I beat asked me to join his club. I thought it over for a week and accepted. We had a good season but the team wound up broke.
There was one good fan in Concordia, and elderly lady. She said she would pay all our expenses if we would play in the Denver Post Tournament. This tournament drew teams from all over the country and was important not only from a prestige standpoint but also because it paid good prize money. Our sponsor said we could keep any winnings. Naturally, we decided to go. Just then I made another important decision. The year before I met a school teacher in Quinton, Oklahoma. Before we left for Denver, I wrote her and told her I now had good prospects and if she would say yes, I was willing to say yes, too. She came to Concordia and we were married and in the summer of 1978 we celebrated our 50th anniversary in Scottsdale.
Anyway, we won this national baseball tournament in Denver and I must admit my pitching had something to do with it. One evening, while we were in Denver, someone knocked on the door of my hotel room. It was a scout from the Philadelphia Athletics, who was making some strides in the American League that summer. The scout’s name was Ira Thomas. He said he had been following me that summer and would I like to come to Spring Training with Athletics. I got real smart and asked him how much I would get to sign up. He said, “I thought you would be glad just to get to go.”
Then he told me that Connie Mack, the Philadelphia manager, had been looking for an Indian pitcher since Chief Bender returned three years before. Of course I knew of Chief Bender—15 years in baseball’s big leagues, 208 games won, 112 lost for one of the best percentages ever. He’s now in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Sure I knew him. Connie Mack was asking me to try and fill his shoes. I said I might not be as good as the Chief, but I would give it a try.
I signed a contract for 1928 and went to Fort Myers, Florida for spring training with the Athletics under Connie Mack. The first day of practice I met Ty Cobb, who was winding up his great career with the Athletics. He was the greatest base stealer of his day and held season and career records until Lou Brock of the St. Louis Cardinals broke both in recent years. He led the American League in batting nine straight years. He was a super player, and I shall never forget him and will always remember that I was a teammate of his in 1928.
He (Cobb) called me Chief Coolem Off and continually asked me to tell stories about Indians. That was the year that Connie Mack had the team that he built into World Series contenders the following three years. The Athletics beat the Chicago Cubs 4 games to 1, in 1929; beat the St. Louis Cardinals 4 games to 2, in 1930; and lost to the Cardinals in 1931, 4 games to 3. That year, 1928, Mack had Joe Hauser on first base, Max Bishop on second, Joe Boley at short Sammy Hale at third, Mule Haas in right filed, Tris Speaker (winding up his career) in center, Bing Miller in left, and Mickey Cochrane catching. On his pitching staff were Lefty Glove, Jack Quinn (one of the greatest spitball pictures), Eddie Rommel, Howard Ehmke and Ernie Shore.
And then he had that great Indian pitcher who had just come up from college and the bushes to carry on for Chief Bender-Chief Whitehorn, or Arthur Lee Daney. There was another rookie on the squad with me. His name was Jimmie Foxx and before the season was over he had beaten House out at first base. That year, too, Al Simmons replaced Speaker in the outfield and Foxx and Simmons set all kinds of records and near-records the next few years. I did not succeed Chief Bender. It was too big and too fast a jump.
Eventually I went to Indianapolis and, for a couple of years, made big headlines in the minors. But the Great Depression set in the following year and baseball, especially in the smaller leagues, was hard hit. There was a lot of joy and glory in baseball, and you didn’t learn only how to be a good player, I learned a great deal about life from the game.
For instance, when I started out, I was known as a hot head. Whenever something happened that didn’t seem just right, I would blow my stack. But it didn’t take the umpires long to catch on and after a while, every time I opened my mouth, I was either fined or run out of the ball park. So I toned down. The one thing I will never forget was when I had to quit playing baseball—my only life and occupation up to that time—and to work to earn a living. I had been playing in Carolina League in 1931 and was promised a job in the textile industry in that area after the season. My first paycheck was $11 and the world seemed to stand still. But my wife and I worked things out; I gave it the old baseball try, and we stared to get ahead in the field of business. And through it all I have that great memory of playing with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics in the days of their great glory. And of playing with that team as Chief Whitehorn.