History was made at Progressive Field on Friday, but it had nothing to do with the Indians-Blue Jays game, which was played in Toronto.

It happened at a workout.

Loren O'Connor, grocery manager at the Giant Eagle in Fairlawn, won a promotional contest that enabled him to put on a uniform and take batting practice.

That alone is pretty cool, especially for an avid fan like him. But get a load of this:

Nobody connected with the Indians knew that O'Connor is a full-blooded American Indian, making him the first real Indian to wear a uniform on the home field since 1899, when Louis Sockalexis played his final season with the Cleveland Spiders.

Although some dispute the claim, team officials have long insisted the Indians were named after Sockalexis, the first American Indian to play for a major league team.

O'Connor, 52, is a member of the Fort Peck Tribes of Montana. His biological mother was an Assiniboine Sioux who lived on the Fort Peck reservation in the northwest corner of the state. His biological father was a member of the Cree tribe who lived on the Rocky Boy reservation in north-central Montana only 50 miles from Canada.

Loren's mother had eight kids with six different men. (“It's so sordid,” he jokes.) When he was less than 2 years old, he and his younger sister Rebecca were abandoned in a hotel room after a wake. They were taken into state custody and, about a year later, adopted by a white couple.

If you've read the Beacon Journal for a while, you will likely recognize the name of their adoptive father: Bill O'Connor, former star columnist who in his dotage is writing novels. (Good ones.)

Bill and his first wife were living in Montana, where he was the dean of students and a professor at an Indian college. A lawyer friend of Bill's arranged for a private adoption.

When Bill succumbed to the siren song of journalism, the family moved to Steubenville, where he linked together words for the Herald Star for three years before being recruited by the Beacon.

Moving north prompted Loren to switch his allegiance from the Pittsburgh Pirates to the home team.

“I was just thinking the other day that I've been with my wife for 31 years, with Giant Eagle for 36 years and with the Indians for 38 years,” he says with a laugh.

Loren and Bill journeyed to Cleveland early Friday morning, when Loren was scheduled to take the field with about 20 other contest winners for hitting and fielding drills.

Although soggy turf forced the group into the batting cages behind the Indians' dugout, he was still thrilled to be able to take BP in the same cages used by the players — and later stand on the field while his name was displayed on the 60-by-220-foot scoreboard in left field.

Wahoo world

The obvious question, of course, is where Loren O'Connor comes down on the long-running, often bitter controversy over the team's cartoon logo, Chief Wahoo.

Because of pressure from MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, this is the last year the players will wear Wahoo, the current version of which dates to 1951. However, merchandise featuring the logo will continue to be sold in the team shops.

The controversy has heated up again this weekend. Because of legal threats in Toronto, the Tribe removed the chief from its uniforms just for the four-game series.

When asked what he thinks of the chief, Loren hesitates for a moment before responding, “I don't have much of [an opinion] either way. It seems like more white people get upset about the pros and cons on that.”

To illustrate his ambivalence, he recounts a conversation he had during the 1990s inside Giant Eagle.

In those days, he had straight, jet-black hair that hung halfway down his back. A woman approached him and quickly realized he was an Indian.

“She was just flabbergasted that she was actually talking to a Native American,” he says, laughing.

“She had on a Chief Wahoo shirt but it had a circle and an 'X' through it. She asked if I wanted to go up and protest at the stadium. I said, 'Well, I'm going to be at the stadium, but I'm going to be inside the ballpark.'

“She got really mad at me.

“Like I said, most of the flak I get [about Wahoo] is from white people who are upset about it.”

When asked to estimate how many American Indians would object to Wahoo, he says, “Most of them would be neutral. I only know a couple of hard-core extremist kind of Natives.

“I don't take life that seriously.”

Top seller

Loren, who grew up in Brimfield and graduated from Lake High School in 1984, landed his visit to Progressive Field because this summer his Giant Eagle store enjoyed the biggest increase in Gatorade sales of any in his region. When the store's top honchos learned they could send someone to the ballpark compliments of Gatorade, they immediately thought of Loren, whose love of the local baseball team is universally known at work.

Although he attends only a handful of games each year, his radio or TV is tuned to the Tribe almost nightly. When his boss called with the offer, Loren accepted in a millisecond.

Cleveland's baseball franchise is two homes away from where Sockalexis played, League Park. A Penobscot Indian from Old Town, Maine, “Sock” attended Holy Cross and Notre Dame and was one of the best collegiate players in the country. In his three seasons here, he hit .313, displayed a rocket arm in right field and speed on the bases.

Unfortunately, he was also a world-class drinker, and his career was cut short by alcoholism.

None of that seemed to matter on Friday.

Loren was permitted to park in the players' lot and change into his uniform in the visitors' clubhouse, where his name was displayed above his locker.

He then took several rounds of hitting before heading outside to stroll around the edge of the field and check out the dugouts. In the Tribe's dugout, he jokingly picked up the phone to the bullpen, not realizing it would ring without him dialing, a sound that could be heard clearly in the nearly empty ballpark.

The morning concluded with an hourlong behind-the-scenes tour.

It was hard to tell who was beaming more brightly — the full-blooded American Indian or the Irish guy from South Philly who adopted him a half-century ago.

It was a beautiful thing to watch.

Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or bdyer@thebeaconjournal.com. He also is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bob.dyer.31