Saturday, July 24, 2021

Cleveland Surrenders—Baseball Team Finally Gets Non-Racist Moniker


The new Cleveland name, logos and uniform patches were revealed this week.

While they attention of sports fans was diverted by the opening hoopla for the Tokyo Olympics on the traditional late Friday afternoon dump for stories flacks want buried the Cleveland American League franchise finally announced a new name starting next season—the Guardians.  The team put up a long, bitter fighting retreat before giving up the ghost of the Indians entirely.

They tried to soften the blow to fans who were bitterly opposed to the end of their cherished tradition by having Tom Hanks, America’s most beloved movie star, appear in an introductory video announcement.  Besides being a Hollywood liberal Hanks worked briefly in Cleveland theater early in his career and was a star of one of the most revered baseball films of all time, A League of Their Own. 

Two of the four art deco Bridge Guardians that inspired the new name can be seen from Progressive Field.

Also on hand was the winner of a contest to come up with the new name.  The Guardians is a reference to well-known art deco statues located on the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge spanning the Cuyahoga River and connects downtown Cleveland where team’s home Progressive Field is located to the city’s trendy Ohio City neighborhood. The statues were known as the “Guardians of Traffic.”  The wing headgear of the statues will be echoed on a baseball logo.  It is probably no accident that Guardians rhymes with Indians.

At a press conference Friday, Cleveland owner Paul Dolan said the organization hopes Guardians will “divert us from a divisive path” and eventually be embraced by the entire fanbase and region.  “We acknowledge the name change will be difficult for some of us, and the transition will take time.  Those memories do not diminish with a new name.”

Fan outrage and disappointment was echoed and stoked by right-wing media wailing about cancel culture, their new buzzword bugaboo and the cherished tradition to be racist as possible.

A racially sensitive Cleveland fan arguing with a Native American that the Indians were just trying to honor his people.

It is worth a look back at how all of this came to be.

Back in January 2018 at the annual Major League Baseball Winter Meetings Cleveland ownership announced would stop using the onerous and offensive Chief Wahoo logo on their uniforms, in programs and scorecards, and on display at Progressive Field beginning in 2019.  They promised to reduce usage in that upcoming season but didn’t want to make the Chief’s die-hard fans suffer withdrawal cold turkey.

The team finally acted after years of protests by Native American and their allies and mounting pressure from MLB, League honchos, advertisers, and Progressive Insurance which pays through the nose for naming rights to the ballpark. Way back in 2000 when the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) held its annual General Assembly in Cleveland I participated with hundreds of delegates, Native Americans, and local activists in a march to the ballpark, then called Jacobs Field from the convention site through downtown in an epic pouring rainstorm to demand the mascot and team nickname be changed.  And that was well after protests on the issue began. 

Since then, hundreds of high school, inter-collegiate, amateur, and semi-pro teams in all sports have given up offensive logos, mascots, and team names.  My old high school in Skokie, Illinois dumped the nickname Indians years ago for the Wolves and the University of Illinois finally abandoned their war dancing mascot and Chief Illiniwek logo although they steadfastly refuse to give up the team moniker, the Fighting Illini, supposedly in honor of the all-but-vanished tribe from which the state took its name.

Cleveland may have been the first professional team to partially break a solid wall of opposition to Native American pressure.  Ownership of the Washington Redskins was belligerently defiant to demands that the team change its nickname from a slur used by White people akin to the use of the word “Niger”.  A few years ago, the United States Patent Office removed copywrite protection from the name and team logo because they were patently offensive, and act which threatened the massive profitability of official team merchandise to both the franchise and the National Football League.  The action was upheld through two rounds of appeals, but in 2018 in a separate case the new conservative majority on the Supreme Court ruled that, “the First Amendment forbids government regulators to deny registration because they find speech likely to offend others.”  Gleeful Washington ownership, with cheerleading from then Presidential Candidate Donald Trump declared total victory and vindication. 

But the NFL ramped up pressure anyway.  Washington was forced to drop it former name and logo and had to play the Washington Football Team.  After troglodyte owner Daniel Snyder finally relented to pressure and the team was embroiled in yet another nasty controversy for sexual harassment and cultivating a hostile work environment his wife, former model Tanya Snyder was named as co-CEO said this summer that the team will announce a new name and logo in January for use in the 2023 season.  That name will not be the Warriors which Snyder tried to promote as an end-run around Native American objections.  Neither they nor the NFL were fooled or impressed by that gambit.

Apparently I wasn't the only one to come up with this suggested solution the Washington NFL team problem....

A while back I suggested to Washington ownership that they could solve the problem and keep the use of their beloved nickname if they would just change their logo and mascot to a russet potato.  Oddly, they never got back to me.

In Atlanta the National League Braves have also vowed to keep their name their logo which features a tomahawk, not a caricature or representation of a Native American.  A few years ago, they got rid of a mascot who danced on a giant tom-tom whenever the team hit a homerun and management has tried to discourage the widely criticized Tomahawk Chop cheer in their new digs at SunTrust Park in nearly lily white suburban Cobb County.  So far they have not had much luck.  Now pressure will mount on them as well.

In Chicago the Blackhawks logo is particularly revered.  In 2019 their scarlet red home sweaters emblazoned with war-painted profile allegedly representing the famed Fox-Sauk war chief, was named the most beautiful uniform in the National Hockey League.  A hard core of team fans exploded after the club won Stanley Cup Trophies in 2010, ’13, and ’15 and team merchandise has eclipsed both the faltering Bears and Bulls as the favorite of the winter sports bar crowd, Chicago hipsters and old fans from the city’s ethnic neighborhoods for once are united.  The Wirtz Family is making money like never before and now sit on top of the most valuable property in the NFL, largely due to attachment to the logo.  But they, too, might finally have to give way, probably preserving the name but changing the logo to a black raptor.

Chief Wahoo will still be available on "vintage" caps and other merchandise for sale at the ballpark and presumably on the team on-line store.  The other caps are a reminder of how others might feel about logo "tributes" to them.

In Cleveland, Chief Wahoo did not at first vanish completely from the ballpark.  Vintage caps, jerseys and other merchandise remained on sale in the stadium’s shops and souvenir stands.  The club retained their copyright on the logo and continued to profit from the sale of the stuff.  In fact, the gear is expected to fly off the shelf this year and well into the future as defiant fans stampede to get it to wear to games and parade around town.

The team had hoped that the sacrifice of Chief Wahoo, which they insisted was an homage to a 19th Century Native American ballplayer on an entirely different and long vanished Cleveland team could preserve the name. Yeah, sure, blame it on the Indian….

Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot from Maine, finally got a rookie card from Topps in 2003, a 105 years after he left the old National League Cleveland Spiders.

On March 9, 1897 the Cleveland Spiders of the National League signed a full-blooded Penobscot, Louis Sockalexis to the team roster.  The speedy young outfielder had first gained fame as a collegiate at Holy Cross and briefly for Notre Dame before being expelled for alcohol use.  Within days, he was signed by the very needy Spiders.  Almost immediately sports writers and fans began to informally call the team the Indians. 

The team, which included legendary hurler Cy Young, had been dealt a blow when team owners the Robinson Brothers bought a controlling interest in the St. Louis Cardinal franchise and stripped the Ohio squad of their star players to fill the Red Bird roster.  Cleveland fell to the bottom of the league like a stone.  It has been called the worst Major League team of all time.

In the first half of the season Sockalexis gave them some hope with solid hitting, four home runs in the dead ball era, and especially with his base stealing.   After an injury limited his playing time the team slid back into oblivion. Attendance plummeted so badly that they had to play most of their games on the road, earning another nickname the Wanderers. 

The National League put the team out of its misery after the 1899 season. 

The following year the minor American League fielded a team in Cleveland playing in the Spiders’ old League Park.  In 1901 the American League broke the National Agreement by declaring itself a new Major League. 

The new club struggled to find a moniker that fit.  They tried on the Bluebirds, Blues, and Broncos without much success.  When star player Napoleon Lajoie joined the team in 1902 he was quickly named team captain and his squad dubbed the Naps.  Lajoie stayed with the team, part of the time as player/manager until as an aging star he was traded away in 1915 to Philadelphia. 

The selection of the Indians for the American League team in 1915 was not universally welcomed.  The Cleveland Plain Dealer ran this mocking cartoon that seemed to object on racist grounds.  Or it could be that the newspaper contest that picked the name was run in a competing paper.

A newspaper contest was launched to find a new name.  The Indians won, reportedly in honor of the long departed Sockalexis, but also to play on the success of the Boston Braves who had won the Word Series the year before. 

There were still some tough years ahead, but things turned around with the arrival of Tris Speaker as player/manager in 1919 who led them to World Series victory against the Brooklyn Robins. 

The Chief Wahoo logo, however, does not date back to those glory days.  In fact, it did not make and appearance until the relatively late date of 1947 although at least three generic Indian profiles were sporadically used on uniforms in previous years..  That year a spunky young player/manager named Lou Boudreau and a red-hot pitcher Bob Feller were leading the team to something of a resurgence after years of futility.  Excitement was building even before the season and owner Bill Veek was eager to do anything to boost attendance at old Municipal Stadium.  Veek commissioned a new logo from a cartoonist who came up with the grinning caricature that later became known as Chief Wahoo. 

The original cartoon logo commissioned by Bill Veek and Larry Dolby, the first Black player in the American League, sporting it.

Veek was famously progressive on race issues and that season signed Larry Dolby as the first Black player in the American League just weeks after Jackie Robinson broke in with the Dodgers.  But that was the heyday of cowboy and Indian shoot-‘em-ups in the Saturday matinees.  No one objected.  But then, few were complaining about Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, or even pickaninnies as commercial icons.

The team placed fourth in the American League that year, 13 games behind the mighty Yankees, but they were clearly on the rise and fans came back to the ballpark to see them.  But that probably had more to do with Boudreau and Feller than a cartoon Indian.

                                                The team mascot got his name from the comic strip character Big Chief Wahoo.

The mascot character picked up his nick name from a Publisher’s Syndicate comic strip and short lived series of comic books from the 1940’s called Big Chief Wahoo.  And yea, the comics were as racist as you can imagine. 

Organized objections by Native Americans did not come until the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s and built steadily since then.  The team has periodically updated the Chief Wahoo logo and claimed that the last changes were intended to make the mascot less offensive.  Those changes satisfied on one.

As for the supposed inspiration for the team nickname, Sockalexis was described by none other than John McGraw as the greatest natural talent he ever saw, had started out on an outstanding rookie season.  But the pressure of fame got to him, and he drank heavily.  Midway through the season he drunkenly leapt from a brothel window smashing his ankle.  He could play only sporadically the next two years and was out of the big leagues by the time the Spiders folded in 1899.

On Christmas Eve, 1913, Sockalexis died in Burlington, Maine.  He had suffered from chronic heart disease, diabetes, and complications of alcoholism.

1 comment:

  1. Nice summary of the history.

    The Indians issue brings out a lot of the difficulties of dealing with systemic racism: Because it started long before you, you wind up involved in it before you understand it.

    Like baseball fans everywhere, Cleveland kids learned to love the Indians before they knew much about racism or actual Native Americans. To many people, I imagine, "Indians" recalls afternoons at the ballpark with Dad, or hiding a radio under their covers to listen to a west-coast game. I'm not surprised they don't want to hear that the name is immoral.

    They never decided "I'm going to root for the team with the racist name." But at the same time, that's what they ended up doing.