Changing of a name

One of the pillar images of my childhood was seeing that giant Chief Wahoo sign that used to be on old Cleveland Municipal Stadium. It was Wahoo batting righthanded -- leg lifted high in the air like he was about to take one deep. I would see that sign and every part of me would tremble with excitement because that sign meant baseball, that sign represented my childhood team, and nothing on earth was more important to me than baseball and the Cleveland Indians.

As a kid, I never thought much about the name … but wait, stop, as I see those words written down — as a kid, I never thought much about the name — I realize how wrong and blind they are. As I began that sentence, I intended to write that I never thought about the Cleveland Indians name in a larger context, never thought about how the name offends, how it taunts and ridicules an entire people, never thought about how easily it could be changed because team nicknames are just words, and we throw out words all the time when they no longer fit the moment. 

I intended to write that as a kid I simply never thought about what the Indians name truly meant.

But that isn’t honest. It isn’t true. I thought about the name all the time. It was everpresent in my childhood. It was on the clothes I wore, in my daily conversations, splattered throughout all my scrapbooks.

And to say that that I didn’t think about what the name means is simply false, I knew EXACTLY what the name meant. It wasn’t hidden. There was never any question at all about how the name mocked and demeaned Native Americans. That was the WHOLE POINT of the name. Look at the headlines. The Cleveland Indians regularly scalped opponents. They tomahawked pitchers. The Indians raided, pillaged, plundered. Collections of small stories about the team were packaged under headlines like “Smoke Signals” and “Teepee Talk.”

I have often written how at Cedar Point — the amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio where we spent every summer family vacation — they used to have the Frontier Ferry ride that would take you to Adventure Island, and along the way we would be attacked by gunfire, and the captain would say over the speaker, “Don’t worry folks, those are Cleveland Indians, and everybody knows they can’t hit anything.”

That ferry ride was an annual highlight, especially that one part.

We knew full well what the name meant.

In recent years, that connection to Native Americans has mostly frayed out of sheer embarrassment — you won’t see the Cleveland Indians scalping people in headlines these days, though you will still see stomach-turning stuff like this:

It seems to me the majority of Cleveland fans are embarrassed — or at least made vaguely uncomfortable — by the Cleveland Indians’ name. In recent years, this has led to various half-measures — getting rid of the overtly racist Chief Wahoo, trying to disconnect the name from its most shameful incarnations, etc.

And, of course, we downplay the significance of sports team names in the first place.

“Aren’t there bigger problems in the world?” we ask.

“Would changing the name really DO anything?” we ask.

“I’m an Indians fan, and I’ve never once connected it to racism,” we insist.

“It’s just a sports nickname!” we shout. “It doesn’t mean anything! Nobody should be offended by a sports nickname!”

Finally, we point to the history of the nickname to prove points. As you might know, I’ve spent a lot of time studying that history, and I am aware that a story I wrote years ago for NBC Sports exploring the genesis of the nickname and its connection or non-connection to a ballplayer named Louis Sockelexis has been making the rounds. I’m not saying that story is outdated, but it is a bit rusty — there were numerous things I didn’t know then that I know now — and I have written about the name’s origin numerous times since then.

I don’t want to rewrite the whole thing, but I guess I would sum things up like so:

I

In 1897, the Cleveland Spiders featured a thrilling Native American outfielder named Louis Sockalexis. He was a five-tool talent and such a curiosity as a Native American that people began informally calling the team the Cleveland Indians.

“The man who said there are no good Indians but dead Indians or words to that effect,” The Sporting Life wrote, “surely never saw Louis Sockalexis.”

That sentence should give you an idea how people felt about Sockalexis and calling the team the Indians. It certainly was not out of respect for Native Americans. There was no American respect for Native Americans in 1897. The nickname mostly freed up fans to do war whoops and to dress up in Indian garb and, mostly, just stop calling the team the Spiders, a name that many people hated.

II

Sockalexis was, in fact, a desperately sad story. He was extremely talented but his career was very brief. He was an alcoholic, and no matter how hard he tried he could not break free of the disease. In 1899 the Spiders — probably the worst baseball team ever called “Major League” — had no choice but to release him.

The coverage of his rapid decline was as nuanced as you might expect.

“Sockalexis was no better and no worse than his people,” one reporter wrote. “He made a spectacle of himself. The white man laughed at him and then kicked him aside. With the quickness gone from his brain and the fleetness from his limbs, Sockalexis was only one more drunk Indian.”

By then, nobody was calling the team the Cleveland Indians.

III

Cleveland baseball teams changed names repeatedly in those early years. Different teams were called (officially and unofficially) the Infants, the Spiders, the Blues, the Bronchos, the Exiles, the Castoffs, the Misfits, the Molly McGuires and the Naps, the last of those after their great player Nap Lajoie.

In 1914, the Naps were atrocious and they couldn’t draw at all and at the end of the season, Lajoie was sold to Philadelphia.

The team had to make an announcement about changing the team name, obviously. It has been written that there was a newspaper contest to choose the name, but that isn’t true. There wasn’t time for that. Instead, sportswriters from the four Cleveland newspapers were hurriedly brought together in January, 1915 and charged with choosing a new name.

IV

There was a lot of disagreement among the sportswriters. I have only recently come upon a wonderful story in the Buffalo Evening News that described the process of naming the Cleveland team. Apparently the sportswriters hated doing it.

“The situation has become so acute,” the Buffalo Evening News reported, “that a writer on the Cleveland Plain Dealer, realizing the burden of responsibility as heavy, remarks that ‘it is quite possible that merely a temporary name be selected and that the club be forced to go out and make its own nickname.”

Apparently, the original idea the sportswriter came up with was “Black Sox.” Seriously. This was four years before the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series and became known as the Black Sox — imagine if Cleveland had done that and there had been a White Sox, Red Sox and Black Sox in baseball.

Sounds awesome to me.

There was some talk about naming them the “Foresters,” — Cleveland was known then (and occasionally now) as the “Forest City.” The Cleveland Grays was discussed. There were a few other names.

V

So why did they choose “Indians?” That has been a raging argument for a century or so. Based on my research, it was chosen for one (or a combination) of these three reasons:

  1. The Boston Braves — known forever as the Miracle Braves — had just captivated the baseball world by rising from last place on July 4 to win the pennant, and the sportswriters thought the Cleveland team could use some of that Native American mojo.

    I truly believe this is the main reason — you have to go back to the newspapers in 1915 to see just what a sensation those Braves were. Everybody was trying to get in on some of that Braves magic

  2. The Indians’ nickname offered any number of colorful possibilities for fans and reporters alike! Here is the cartoon that ran in the Cleveland Plain Dealer the day after the name change, in case you are wondering about the mindset:

  1. The sportswriters were old enough to remember when the team was informally called the Indians — this would be the connection to Sockalexis — and they undoubtedly did link the name to that past.

    This also appeared in the Plain Dealer:

Many people have pointed to this article as unmistakable proof that the nickname was meant to honor Sockalexis … and that’s fine as far as it goes.

But you should know it is the only time the Plain Dealer or any other paper connected the team name to Sockalexis (they Plain Dealer would not write his name for another 10 years). In fact, there were a handful of other stories written about Sockalexis in 1915 and in the decade afterward, and not one of them even suggested that Cleveland had named its team in his honor.

Beyond that, if you look at the entire Plain Dealer article plainly, you will see that it was written by an old-time Cleveland baseball fan desperately trying to play on the dodgy theme that Cleveland teams were paying tribute to a glorious past. It doesn’t end with Sockalexis and the Indians. In the same article, the author also celebrates the Cleveland American Association team’s decision to go back to the name “Spiders,” — the name of manager Patsy Tebeau’s teams in the 1890s.

“Never was there a baseball organization which fought so hard or so unscrupulously,” the author wrote. “There was nothing ladylike or Chesterfieldian in the Tebeau methods. … Rechristened “Indians” and “Spiders,” Cleveland’s two teams will have high traditions to live up to this summer.”

Anyone who would write that the Spiders — an absolute trainwreck of a franchise — created “high traditions,” was clearly not seeing straight.

Nobody really connected the Indians’ nickname to Sockalexis for the next 30 or so years. Then a sportswriter named Franklin Lewis wrote a book called “The Cleveland Indians,” and he pushed the dubious story that the team was named after Sockalexis and was meant to honor Native Americans.

This quickly became the universal story, one that has been written again and again and again. It is an uplifting version of the story for sure, though it’s also true that exactly the time that it started to be told was when Cleveland took on Chief Wahoo as its mascot.

VI

Let’s say for a moment that it is true. I don’t believe it is true or anything close to true, but let’s just say for argument’s sake that the team was named Indians out of respect to the tragic figure Louis Sockalexis and the Native American people.

It leads to this obvious question that few seem ready to ask: Has the nickname paid respect to Sockalexis and Native Americans? Has the Indians’ name really paid tribute? Has the execrable Chief Wahoo lifted anyone’s respect for Native Americans? Have the countless references to war and weapons and genocide raised people’s consciousness to the Native American’s plight?

Of course not. The argument is utterly nonsensical. Nobody thinks that calling them the “Cleveland Indians” pays tribute to anybody or anything … and the only reason anyone would say something that mindless is to cling to the empty but seductive illusion that time can stand still if you just wish it hard enough.

VII

I have an acquaintance who in the last year has written to me to say that the Cleveland Indians’ name doesn’t hurt anybody and also that it’s a travesty how people have stopped saying “Merry Christmas.” I have not tried to explore how someone could hold both those opinions at the same time because we are not good enough friends for me to do that, but I do think about it.

Cleveland will change its name, just like the Washington football team will change its name, just like the Atlanta baseball team and others will stop that tomahawk chop, just like the Chicago hockey team will change its name, just like the Kansas City football team will change its name … some of it will happen in the next few days, some of it might take years, but it will happen, the clock is ticking to that finish.

The only question left is how willingly teams will make the changes. It took a massive advertiser revolt to get Washington to agree to review its name, and it took Washington’s review to get Cleveland to finally begin the process of changing the name Indians. We don’t know exactly what the transformation or backlash will look like. All we know is how it will end.

I have plenty of names for the Cleveland baseball team. Call them the Buckeyes after the Negro Leagues team. Call them the Spiders like Patsy Tebeau’s unscrupulous bunch. Call them the Commodores, the Rockers, the Supers (Superman and Supergirl were created in Cleveland), the Guardians, there are so many good possibilities.

And, yes, I do know that when the change comes, a number of people will be furious and will rebel hard because they will feel cheated somehow, will feel that it is so deeply unfair that a nickname that they have connected with all their lives — a name they cannot see any harm in at all — will be put into the obsolete pile.

“It’s just a sports nickname!” they will shout. “It doesn’t mean anything! Nobody should be offended by a sports nickname!”

My greatest wish is that at least some of them will repeat those words to themselves until they see what should have been so obvious all along.

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