Alexander: Revisiting the story of John Tortes ‘Chief’ Meyers

If you happened to be watching the Dodgers-Padres game Thursday night on Spectrum SportsNet LA, you might have heard Joe Davis and Orel Hershiser discussing Chief Meyers, the first big leaguer to come from Riverside. (The subject came up when Austin Barnes, the Dodgers’ current catcher from Riverside Poly, came to bat the first time, and Meyers got another mention later in the game.)

If you are wondering, or curious, or need to be reminded of who he is and why he matters, here’s a column I wrote July 31, 2013, campaigning for the city’s first big leaguer to receive a statue on Riverside’s Downtown mall.

(By the way, Riverside city fathers, we’re still waiting.)

There’s something missing in Riverside’s downtown pedestrian mall.

Understand, the stretch of real estate between Fifth and Tenth Streets has plenty of statues honoring heroes both local and beyond. There are sculptures honoring Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Mahatma Gandhi and Korean independence hero Dosan Ahn Chang-Ho, as well as statues honoring Eliza Tibbets, who planted the Parent Navel Orange Tree, and Ysmael Villegas, a World War II hero and native of the Casa Blanca neighborhood.

But where is the statue of John Tortes “Chief” Meyers? Why hasn’t Riverside seen fit to honor its first big leaguer, as both local hero and Native American icon?

The issue came to mind while researching and selecting the list of the top ten major leaguers to come out of Inland Southern California (which was published earlier that week). I’m sure there were those who saw Meyers listed No. 2 behind Bobby Bonds and wondered if the author had lost his marbles.

Pay attention, kids.

Meyers didn’t become the New York Giants’ everyday catcher until 1910, when he was 30 years old. Of course, he’d shaved two years off his actual age before signing, a quaint little custom that still exists in baseball.

“I was 28 years old before I got to the major leagues, but I didn’t want them to know it,” Meyers told The Press-Enterprise’s Jim Dawson in a 1969 interview.

But Meyers was part of four National League championship teams, three with the Giants and one in Brooklyn. He set a World Series record for assists by a catcher, 12 in a six-game series in 1911. He led the league in on-base percentage (.441) in 1912, when he hit .358, and would have been second in the league in OPS that year (.918) if that stat had existed. He finished in the top 10 in the NL’s MVP voting in 1911, 1912 and 1913, averaged 118 hits and 16 doubles a year over a five-year stretch from 1910-1914, and had nine triples, unheard of for a catcher, in 1912.

Those are the facts available on But there’s more.

Meyers was nicknamed “Chief” by the media of the day because, well, he was an Indian and all Indians were nicknamed “Chief.” Coverage toward Native Americans in that era, when they were covered at all, tended toward a “civilizing the noble savage” tone and was, by today’s standards, terribly racist.

He put up with it, but preferred to be called Jack. And he wasn’t above getting in a sly dig now and then. He appreciated the painting of Custer’s Last Stand because, according to a biography of Meyers written by Westminster (Mo.) College professor William A. Young, “it’s the only time the Indians ever got a break.”

Once, Young wrote, he was asked why he took the name John Meyers.

“Because,” he said, wryly, “it sounds so Indian.”

In fact, Meyers was proud of his Cahuilla heritage. The son of a German-American saloon keeper father and a Cahuilla mother who made and sold baskets, he was born in the home behind his father’s downtown Riverside saloon.

“My ancestors helped build the Spanish missions in California,” Meyers told The P-E’s Dawson in 1969. “We lived downtown in Riverside … I guess it would be on Seventh Street (now Mission Inn Avenue), between Main and Market. There was a livery stable where the bus line is now, and an old opera house across the street. It burned down while I was a kid. We used to sell spring water then for two bits a bucket.”

As a youth, Meyers served as a guide to novelist Helen Hunt Jackson, in her research for the story, “Ramona.” He spent time on the Santa Rosa Reservation, located between Palm Springs and Anza, as well as an Indian village called Spring Rancheria, located on the outskirts of Riverside along the Santa Ana River. He attended Riverside schools, including Riverside High School (then located at 14th and Brockton) and ultimately wound up at Dartmouth on an Indian scholarship, steered there by a student he’d met while playing semipro ball.

He spent a year at Dartmouth and made passing grades, before college officials discovered he didn’t have a high school diploma and suggested he hit the road. So he went back to semipro and minor league ball, playing with and against a future Hall of Fame pitcher, Fullerton’s Walter Johnson. The Giants purchased Meyers’ contract from St. Paul of the American Association in 1908.

He played for the legendary John McGraw, who once fined him $10 for stealing second, then rescinded the fine when Meyers explained how he’d figured out the pitcher was tipping his move to first. He was part of the game’s glamour team of the dead ball era, putting up wonderful offensive numbers and catching two more future Hall of Famers, Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard.

Just think: If Meyers had gotten to the big leagues earlier and had a longer career, the Hall’s Veterans Committee might have given him a more serious look than it has.

As it was, after retiring from baseball in 1917 — and ultimately losing much of his wealth in the stock market crash of 1929 — Meyers truly did become a “chief.” He was chief of police for the Mission Indian Agency, supervising reservations throughout Southern California, and later was elected spokesman (equivalent to “Chief”) for the Santa Rosa Reservation.

He was elected to the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame in 1972, a year after his death, and to the Riverside Sport Hall of Fame in 2004. His plaque for that honor, at the Hall’s location at 14th and Market, is impressive.

But don’t you think the man deserves a statue?

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@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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