By Publishers Weekly
Wise’s solid debut picture book opens on June 16, 1897, as baseball fans filled the stadium at New York’s Polo Grounds to watch the Cleveland Spiders face the New York Giants. Many in attendance had come to see — and heckle — a talented Cleveland rookie who was the first Native American to play major league baseball, Louis Sockalexis. The story then flashes back to Louis’s boyhood in Maine, where he lived on the Penobscot Indian reservation and helped his father, a logger and river guide. But the lad ‘preferred to swing a baseball bat, not an ax,’ and spent his free time playing ball with peers or practicing on his own. Sockalexis became a star on his high school and college (he attended on an athletic scholarship) teams, persevering ‘with dignity and grace’ despite the racial insults hurled by spectators. In 1897, he signed a contract with the Cleveland Spiders, even though his father insisted that his ‘rightful place’ was on the reservation. Returning to the tale’s opening scene, Wise conveys the tension and drama of the Spiders-Giants game, in which the crowd’s jeers turn to cheers when Louis — as his father and other Penobscot tribe members look on — hits a home run against a celebrated pitcher (Amos Rusie, the ‘Hoosier Thunderbolt’). Balancing close-range portraits of the player and depictions of on-the-diamond action, Farnsworth’s light-infused oil paintings impart the emotional tenor and the triumph of Louis’s early years and regrettably brief major league career.