Elijah Pinnance, The First Indigenous Player.
On a wall in the Sports Hall of Fame at the Wallaceburg (Ontario) Museum, a young Canadian wearing a baseball uniform stares out from a faded photograph, with a teasing half-smile. What is that look in his eyes? It is pride, of course, and pleasure; but above all it is satisfaction.
Elijah Pinnance was a full-blooded Indian of the Chippewa band from Walpole Island, near Wallaceburg, Ontario. He was the first and only Canadian aboriginal to pitch in the major leagues. The photograph was taken in Philadelphia in September 1903, the day after “Eddie” Pinnance, as he was known in baseball circles, pitched his first game for Connie Mack’s Athletics.
Pinnance was 23 years old when he pitched against Washington, on a Sunday afternoon. At the start of the eighth inning, the public address announcer stepped in front of the grandstand to call out, “Pinnance now pitching for Philadelphia.” The bleacher crowd straining to catch his name couldn’t quite hear.
“What’s his name?” a man asked his neighbour.
“Peanuts, I think,” was the answer, and “Peanuts” he was called as he walked past the regulars who sat on the wooden benches beyond third base.
The Public Ledger observed, “In the eighth inning Manager Mack sent in Pinnance, his new Indian pitcher, secured from Mount Clements. In this inning the youngster performed very creditably, Coughlin, Lee and Kitteridge offering easy chances and being retired in order.” The first batter in the ninth inning, pitcher Casey Patten hit a ball off the end of the bat for a single. Robinson followed with a line drive over shortstop. Centerfielder Ollie Pickering did not move until the ball had passed him. Late afternoon shade and the 13-0 score might have affected Pickering’s attention. The runner scored but Pinnance retired the next three batters to end the game.
The next morning, the former Michigan college student folded his baseball uniform into a worn Gladstone bag, added his small pitcher’s glove and an almost new baseball. Then he left the boarding house, one block behind the right field fence of the new Baker Field stadium. Walking to the corner, Eddie gave a newsboy two cents for a paper and asked directions to the photo studio on Broad Street.
A young couple was posing for an engagement photo when Pinnance reached the photographer’s shop. He sat down, opened the paper and read this assessment of his debut. “He is only a youngster and very green but he will do to farm out next year.”
A small man wearing a short, green smock stuck his head into the waiting room.
“Do you want to stand in front of a garden or do you prefer to sit on a bench?” he asked.
The young man put down his paper and opened the small brown leather bag.
“What I’d really like,” he replied, “is to put on this baseball uniform. I’m playing for the Athletics and I want a souvenir for my family back home in Canada.”
“That will be three dollars payable in advance,” said the photographer. “Come in here. I don’t have a change room. Put that on right away before somebody else comes along.”
Despite the man’s efforts to hurry him, Ed Pinnance dressed carefully in the light grey flannel and managed a dignified smile as the flash powder momentarily lit up the dark room.
“Eddie” Pinnance pitched one more game for the Athletics. He was the starting pitcher against Cleveland on the last day of the season. Pinnance pitched five innings and gave up one run on three hits. Cleveland scored two runs in the late innings to deprive the young Canadian of his first major-league victory.
In the noisy dressing room after the game, team-mates were saying goodbye until next year. Elijah Pinnance shook hands with Mr. Mack’s other Indian pitcher. Charles Albert “Chief” Bender, a rookie from Minnesota, was just 20 years old and had already won 17 games, starting a career that would lead to the Hall of Fame.
Throughout the winter, that picture in his major league baseball uniform inspired Elijah Pinnance as he ran long miles each day on the roads of Walpole Island. In the spring, “Eddie” Pinnance reported to the Athletics training camp. When the team headed north, “Chief” Bender was the only Indian pitcher on the team.
Pinnance was assigned to Portland of the Pacific Northwest League. For the next several years, his exploits filled newspaper columns with headlines that could not be published today.
“Heap Big Chief Pinnance, the copper-skinned twirler,” was the way one report described the star pitcher of the Portland team. “Second scalp of the week taken from champions by pitcher Pinnance,” says another report. He was called “medicine man” and “Big Indian.” In 1909, Pinnance pitched 22 scoreless innings to beat Vancouver 1-0 in a game that lasted three hours and six minutes.
Diabetes shortened his career. Ed wouldn’t stay on the diet prescribed by his doctor and he had to give up baseball. Returning to Walpole Island, Pinnance worked as a blacksmith. He shod horses, repaired sled runners and sharpened saws. His son Parker recalled that his father loved log-sawing contests and often won prizes. He planted evergreens and sold Christmas trees.
Elijah Pinnance’s reputation attracted many visitors. The most famous visitor was Henry Ford, who donated a threshing machine, three tractors and a plow to the Chippewa band of Walpole Island.
Pinnance struggled with Diabetes for years and doctors told him frequently that he had only a short time to live, but “Eddie” was still in his workshop every day. On December 14, 1944, after supper he said he didn’t feel well and lay down to rest. Elijah Pinnance died of a heart attack at the age of 63.