By In Baseball

Cleveland Indians: The name

A little Cleveland Indians history — and in here you might find our next player in the Top 100.

When I was a kid growing up in Cleveland, I believed — completely, wholeheartedly, without reservation or pause — that the Cleveland Indians were named to honor a Native American ballplayer named Louis Sockalexis, who played for Cleveland in the late 19th Century.

When I became an adult and a sportswriter, I believed — completely, wholeheartedly, without reservation or pause — that the Sockalexis story was entirely untrue, a bit of state-funded propaganda to conceal the obvious fact the Cleveland team was named the Indians only to capitalize on the many racist cliches that could be used to promote the team. It had nothing at all to do with Sockalexis.

If there is one thing I have learned in my life, it is this:

Things are always more complicated than you think.

* * *

Louis Francis Sockalexis was born on the Penobscot Indian Reservation in Maine in 1871. He was, by all accounts, an extraordinary young athlete. Sockalexis lived such an outsized life that, from the start, it was very difficult to separate myth from reality, legend from achievement, flaws from tragic flaws. We can start off with what we know. From a very young age, Sockalexis showed extraordinary speed, great strength, and more than anything else, an arm unlike anything anyone had ever seen. Stories survive of a young Sockalexis throwing a ball across the Penobscot River — a throw of 600 or so feet — into his father’s waiting arms.

This could be one of the many exaggerated legends of Sockalexis — there are countless exaggerations in his story — but this one also could be true. There are many confirmed reports of Sockalexis’ great arm, my favorite being a throw he made against Harvard when he was playing centerfield for Holy Cross. He reportedly went back to the wall, leaped, caught the ball, and in one motion threw the ball home on a fly to throw out a tagging runner. This one was so jaw-dropping that, according to Ed Rice’s informative Baseball’s First Indian, it was called the “Lighting Throw” and two Harvard professors rushed on the field after the game to measure it. They came up with a measurement of 414 feet, which was some sort of world record.

There can be no doubt that Sockalexis had an arm for the ages.

The rest of his game was dazzling as well, at least when he was young. He was brilliantly fast and hit with power. He was a football star and a track star too. His second cousin, Andrew Sockalexis, was a marathoner of some renown. One of the more famous sportswriters of the age, Harry Grayson, became convinced that writer Gilbert Patten (under the pseudonym Burt L. Standish) invented a superhero sports character named Frank Merriwell with Sockalexis in mind. Frank Merriwell went to Yale, played every sport brilliantly and solved mysteries on the side. He was one of the most famous fictional characters of his day (the writer Calvin Trillin went to Yale, in part, because of his father’s admiration of the Merriwell character). Grayson found proof that Patten, who also lived in Maine, had managed a game against Sockalexis. Whether this is conclusive evidence of Sockalexis being the model for Merriwell or not, Grayson believed it and wrote it often.

Grayson is, in fact, the person most responsible for bringing Sockalexis back into the American consciousness some thirty years after he died. Grayson wrote at length about Sockalexis in newspapers across the country and even included him in the 1944 book “They played the game: The story of baseball greats.” In “They played the game,” Grayson wrote that Sockalexis was faster than Cobb, more powerful than Ruth and was a better outfielder than Tris Speaker. He quoted John McGraw saying that Sockalexis could have been better than Cobb, Wagner or Ruth. He quoted Hughie Jennings saying “He should have been the greatest player of all time.”

There are other quotes about Sockalexis not included in the book, like this famous one from Hall of Fame general manager Ed Barrow: “Sockalexis was the greatest outfielder in history, the best hitter, the best thrower, the best fielder, and also the best drinker.”

Alas, it is the last of these that defined Louis Sockalexis in his time.

* * *

With Sockalexis, myth and reality swirled together into an often indistinguishable fog. We have the record. In 1897, Sockalexis joined the Cleveland Spiders. There is some debate if he was actually the first Native American to play in the big leagues, but there is no doubt that he was the first acknowledged Native American. That is to say that there may have been a player before him who had Native American blood, but Sockalexis was the first to be known as an Indian, the first to endure being called a “noble savage” and “redskin” and “red man” and “educated Indian” in the papers.

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

Or there is this — a recounting of an exchange between Washington third baseman Charles Reilly and Cleveland’s future Hall of Famer Jesse Burkett. Understand it was Burkett — while coaching at Holy Cross — who helped convince Sockalexis to join the Cleveland team. Reilly, in an effort to bust Burkett’s chops, asked if Sockalexis was ever ordered to sacrifice bunt.

“Don’t ask me about that bead peddler,” Burkett said. “He’s a Jonah. I haven’t hit over .100 since he joined the team … Wait till I strike my gait and I will make him go back to the woods and look for a few scalps.”

Yes, well, the coverage was like that. There was hardly a mention of Sockalexis that did not include some reference to collecting scalps or wampum or General Custer or, in later coverage, firewater. War whoops followed him everywhere. The favorable stories usually involved some sort of bizarre Indian tale. One story that kept getting repeated was that his father wanted him to give up baseball and fulfill his duty as Chief of the Penobscot tribe. The tribe no longer had “Chiefs” as such, but that was but a small detail in this involved story. Supposedly, Sockalexis’ father went on a long journey via canoe, to find the President of the United States and ask him to forbid his son from playing baseball. Yeah.

The story even has an ending, with President Grover Cleveland telling Sockalexis Sr.: “I am sorry Chief, but I am unable to help you. I do not have the authority to order your son not to play baseball. Even if I did, it would be wrong of me to issue such an order.”

That’s the sort of coverage Louis Sockalexis got in 1897.

“Sockalexis was no better and no worse than his people,” wrote one syndicated writer. “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.”

That’s the sort of coverage Louis Sockalexis got in 1898.

Here is what the record shows: Sockalexis hit .338 in 66 games with Cleveland in 1897 and was something of a phenomenon. He did commit 16 errors, however, many late in the season, and he reportedly showed up for games drunk. He hit just .224 in 22 games his second season. His third season, he had deteriorated so much and had so much trouble staying sober that Cleveland released him — a fate made worse by the fact that the 1899 Cleveland Spiders were the worst team in baseball history. He wasn’t even good enough or reliable enough by then to play for a team that went 20-134.

* * *

In 1973 and again in 1990, Sports Illustrated wrote stories about Sockalexis. In both stories, SI wrote that Sockalexis had his first drink in an after-game celebration while playing with Cleveland. He had hit a grand slam and he made a spectacular game-saving catch. And then came his downfall.

Sports Illustrated in 1973: “Exulting Cleveland fans flooding the field, sweeping Sock up and carrying him off on their shoulders. They took him to the local taproom to celebrate, coaxing until he gave in and accepted his first drink. And that was the beginning of the end.”

Sports Illustrated in 1995: “Then in storybook fashion, Sockalexis made a game-saving catch. Afterward, teammates carried him off the field and demanded that he lead them in a drinking fest to celebrate the victory. Sockalexis had never taste alcohol before, but as the months went by he fell under its spell.”

The idea that Louis Sockalexis had his first drink while playing for the Cleveland team on its face is dubious. As it turns out, it’s also verifiably wrong. It was another one of those folk stories that had somehow clanked down through the years like that chip in the “Price is Right” game of Plinko. Not only had Sockalexis tasted alcohol before that night in Cleveland, he was arrested and thrown out of Notre Dame after a drunken episode in a bar before he even signed with Cleveland. Here is a somewhat rough account from sportswriter Dave Lewis in the Long Beach Independent in 1954:

“A gay evening, though, was destined to wind up in violence when the Indian and his friend virtually wrecked a saloon before police arrived … The gendarmes tried to quiet Sockalexis but only succeeded in annoying him. In fact he finally became so provoked that he flattened two of them before being overpowered and dragged to the bastille. He was promptly expelled from school and a few days later reported to Cleveland.”

It seems likely that Sockalexis was drinking while at Holy Cross too before Notre Dame, and perhaps before then. The story that he had his first drink after being the hero is poetry … people have long tried to attach poetry to the story of Louis Sockalexis. But if we are to look at his role in the naming of the Cleveland Indians, we must look at him soberly. He was an extraordinarily talented and haunted player. He dealt with impossible expectations and terrifying racism. He was a hero, in his own way.

But he also was an alcoholic when he joined the Cleveland baseball team and despite what appears to be many honest efforts to kick the habit he could not. His alcoholism was utterly destructive. And so Sockalexis was not viewed as a hero in his time but, mostly, as a waste of talent and, sadly, in the words of one writer, “a man of his people.”

The Sandusky Star (May 18, 1899): “In the Cleveland police court Wednesday, Sockalexis, the half-breed ballplayer, was fined $1 and costs. He was arrested Tuesday night in an intoxicated condition while creating a disturbance at the Lyceum theater. Judge Fielder lectured “Sox,” telling him that he should stop the use of liquor, that it was affecting him physically. The Indian hung his head and below his breath murmured that he would not drink any more.”

The Dubuque Herald (May 21, 1899): “The once famous Indian Sockalexis, who made such a furor in baseball all over the country, has had his last chance. He was arrested for intoxication, Tuesday night, and the judge failed to recognize his pleadings for release. It needed no pleading with Manager Cross, however, and the Indian was released at once.”

And then there was this surprisingly long and irrepressibly sad item in St. Louis Republic under the headline “Poor Old Socks” and the subhead “Fire Water was the Indian’s Downfall:”

“That unfortunate son of the forest, that white Penobscot who played a brief but star engagement with our club in 1897, the Indian Sockalexis is a wreck in every way,” said one of the St. Louis players today. “Socks” was a tremendous drawing card in 1897. Thousands of people came to see not the game but the Indian. In New York and other places where we used to dress at the grounds, a fearful crowd would press about the rooms to see the aborigine come forth.

His picture was in every paper in America, his arms, his legs, his batting eye, every part of him was photographed and reproduced. Poor old Lo, he never got a bit swelled, but he has lots of of friends who wanted to buy for him and he was good enough to let them do it. Result soon came and “Socks” had to quit the game. He was a true Indian.

When he got the red man’s burden on he always was ashamed. He would come into the hotel slinking behind doors and pillars like his great ancestors slunk behind trees. From his ambush he would peep to see if (manager Patsy) Tebeau was around.

“Socks” is now in Cleveland for want of a better place. He hangs out with a gang of waiters who work at restaurants and saloons. The gang is divided into three crews, one for each meal. Each gang steals grub and fetches it to “Socks.” He has a place to sleep and for all this he pays by rushing the growler. He was around in the coldest days of last winter without shoes or clothes. He bore the frigid weather with true barbaric stoicism.

Yet if this poor savage had only been born without the Indian’s love for strong water, he would today be drawing a salary of $2,400 for five months work of three hours each day. But the Indian was strong in him and he is past redemption. Socks was sure death on a straight high ball and was quite a thrower, but he had some grave shortcomings in the field. Withal, he was good to draw as big a salary as any man in the league had he behaved himself.

After he was released by Cleveland, several papers suggested he could still be a “freak sideshow” for some independent league teams. He did do that for a while. He worked other jobs as well.

Sockalexis died on December 24, 1913 of a heart attack. He was 42 years old.

* * *

Now to the part about how the Cleveland Indians were named — we go back to Sports Illustrated in 1995: “When a new owner took over in 1915, a local newspaper ran a team-naming contest. The fan who had come up with the name said it would be a lasting tribute to Sockalexis.”

This was the story as it had been told for relentlessly for about 50 years. The story seems to originate with a man named Franklin Lewis, who wrote a history called “The Cleveland Indians” in 1948. In it there is a nonspecific one-paragraph reference to Sockalexis and how the team was named:

“There is a story, still heard frequently, that the Indians were named after a real Indian known as Sockalexis, a wild slugger who joined the National League Spiders in 1897. Sock was strong and fast, and there was fire in every movement. But there was fire in his throat too, and it needed extinguishing. Between remedies for this and the discovery by enemy pitchers that left-handers who threw curves could baffle the redskin, Sock enjoyed a rapid demise as a big leaguer.”

This story — and you will note that even Lewis refers to it as a “story” — was cleaned up and recast and pushed relentlessly by writers and, especially, the team (especially as Native Americans and others began to challenge the rightness of using names like Indians or, even more, mascots like the red-faced Chief Wahoo). In 1967, for instance, the Sockalexis story made it into Chase Morsey Jr.’s popular syndicated “Sports fans! I bet you didn’t know” column.

“Ever wonder how different sports teams got their nicknames? Well, today let’s take the case of the Cleveland Indians … Back in the early days, Cleveland’s nickname was the ‘Spiders’ … Nobody liked that name too well, and when Nap Lajoie took over the team shortly after that, they were called the ‘Naps.’ … Then Lajoie was replaced by Jim McGuire and the team was called the ‘Molly McGuires’ … When McGuire left a new name had to be found … Someone remembered that some years back Cleveland had a player named Louis (Chief) Sockalexis … Sockalexis was a full-blooded Indian, and was, in fact, the first Indian ever to play big league baseball. … And so the name ‘Indians’ was selected to honor Chief Sockalexis and it’s been ‘Indians’ every since.”

OK. Well, let’s get through the inaccuracies. Cleveland baseball had a long and mostly losing battle with team nicknames before 1915. They had been the Infants, the Spiders, the Bronchos, the Blues and unofficially they had been the Exiles, the Castoffs, the Misfits, the Molly McGuires (for a brief time in 1910) and countless other names. I had no idea until I went back and looked how much people HATED the nickname Spiders, which I always thought was kind of cool. The nickname confusion got so bad that in 1903, a Cleveland newspaper actually DID have a contest to name the team and the choices were so uninspiring and uninteresting (Cyclops? Excelsiors? Gladiators? Thistles?) that they finally voted on just naming the team after Cleveland’s best player, Napoleon Lajoie. That’s how they became the Cleveland Naps.

Well in 1914, the Naps were horrendous .. and Lajoie was sold. A new name was needed. But, contrary to the story told so often, there was no team-naming contest this time. Papers did solicit ideas from fans, but team owner Charles Somers put together a group of Cleveland sportswriters from the four papers and told them to come up with a name. They are the ones who chose the Cleveland Indians and there is no indication that they chose a name entered by a fan. No, they chose Indians for their own reasons.

And what were those reasons?

This was the cartoon that ran in the Cleveland Plain Dealer the next day:


Um, yeah. Here you can see pretty clearly why the Indians were named. One: A year earlier, the Boston Braves had a miraculous season — coming from last place on July 4 to win the pennant — and so Native American names were in. Two: It was a glorious opportunity for HI-larious Native American jokes and race-specific cliches and insults that fit well in headlines. For instance, there was this one-liner in the Muskogee paper:

“If we were an Apache, we’d sue the Cleveland club for libel for naming that team Indians.”

You will notice there is no mention in this cartoon of Louis Sockalexis, nor was there in any of the national stories about the name change. In fact, in my national search of more than 300 national newspapers, I could not find a single mention of Louis Sockalexis in the entire year of 1915.

The story I grew up hearing — that the Cleveland Indians were named to honor Louis Sockalexis — is certainly untrue.

So that dispatches one myth. Unfortunately, it creates another.

* * *

As a sportswriter I came to believe — and have written on more than one occasion — that the name Cleveland Indians had nothing whatsoever to do with Louis Sockalexis. Many, many others have written that as well. While for years it was accepted the the team was named for Sockalexis we now seem to have come to the conclusion that Sockalexis had nothing to do with it.

But we have to get back to the original thesis here; Everything is more complicated than you think.

In 1897, when Louis Sockalexis joined the Cleveland team, they were in desperate need of something exciting. The team had been alternately terrible and almost good enough, the worst cycle in sports. The Spiders had never won a pennant, and they could not draw anybody to ballgames. It seems semi-pro baseball in Cleveland was way more popular that the Spiders.

So, when Sockalexis joined the team in 1897, there WAS legitimate excitement. The stories of his baseball exploits were known everywhere. The curiosity of seeing a Native American athlete play ball was overwhelming. And people began calling the team in 1897, yes, the Indians. In his honor.

“There is no feature of the signing of Sockalexis,” wrote The Sporting Life, “more gratifying than the fact that his presence on the team will result in relegating to obscurity the title of ‘Spiders’ by which the team has been handicapped for several seasons, to give place to the more significant name, ‘Indians.’ And repeatedly that season — and periodically over the next few years — the Cleveland team was referred to as “Indians” in headlines and stories.

The fact that the 1897 Cleveland team was often called “Indians” was not directly the reason the team was officially named Indians in 1915. But it was part of the decision-making process. “(The name) recalls the old fighting days of the early American League period,” wrote the Boston Daily Globe, “when the Cleveland players of those days were often referred to as the ‘Indians.’”

And so the story I came to believe — that the whole Sockalexis naming thing was a fraud — is also untrue. The indians name does have something to do with him.

* * *

It is perfectly clear in the year 2014 how different people feel about the Washington Redskins nickname or the Chief Wahoo logo. Trenches have been dug, camps have been formed, it’s unlikely that there are any undecided voters left. I’m on record. As a lifelong Cleveland Indians fan I still think Wahoo is racist and offensive and should be dumped in the nearest bin. As a lifelong football fan who loves the history of the game, I still find it almost impossible to believe we still call a team “Redskins.”

But many others disagree — and I mean they VIRULENTLY disagree — and my point here is not to start the fight again.

As a child, I believed the Cleveland Indians were named for a great player named Sockalexis. As a grown man, I believed the Cleveland Indians were not named for a underachieving player named Sockalexis. Now I believe that the truth is somewhere in the silence between the notes. And, whatever the original reason for the name, I just spent days learning about and admiring a fairly obscure Native American baseball player who triumphed and suffered and lived and died more than 100 years ago. I don’t believe the Indians were named to honor Louis Sockalexis, not exactly. But I do believe the Indians name, as long as it exists, could honor him. That choice is ours.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

66 Responses to Cleveland Indians: The name

  1. Craig from Az says:

    LIke it or not, you just started the argument again

  2. Triston says:

    I didn’t know this until very recently, but thought it was quite interesting:
    In 1928, Republican Herbert Hoover won the election for President in a landslide. His running mate was one Charles Curtis. Like most Vice Presidents, I had no idea who that was. So I looked him up one day.
    Apparently, Obama is not the first person with significant acknowledged non-white ancestry to be elected on a national ticket; Charles Curtis was 3/8 Native American (his father was white, his mother was 3/4 Native American). Curtis was actually born and raised on a Kaw reservation, and learned Kansa (and French) in addition to English.
    Curtis was elected to the House of Representatives in 1892, later switching to the Senate in 1907; he remained in the Senate until 1929, when he became VP. He and Kansas Representative Daniel Read Anthony, Jr., proposed the first version of the Equal Rights Amendment.

    • Geoff says:

      That’s pretty cool…thanks for pointing it out.

      And thanks for forcing me to spend the next 45 minutes of my life reading more about this on Wikipedia.

      • Triston says:

        The Vice President who preceded Charles Curtis was also named Charles: Charles G. Dawes, VP during Calvin Coolidge’s second term.
        In 1912, he wrote a tune entitled “Melody in A Major.” In 1951, Carl Sigman added words to it and called it, “It’s All in the Game.” Many artists have covered this song, most notably Tommy Edwards, who had a No. 1 hit for six weeks with it in 1958; it also reached No. 1 in the UK.
        Thus making Dawes the only member of the Executive Branch credited with a No. 1 pop hit.
        As Dawes also won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1925, he is thus “also” the only Nobel Prize winner* to be credited with a No. 1 pop hit.

        *Wikipedia says only Peace Prize winner, but…

  3. Stu Burton says:

    Nap Lajoie or Grover Cleveland Alexander, could be either

    • Just Guessing says:

      Um . . . I’d be pretty surprised if either of those guys is as low as #50. My money is on Jesse Burkett.

      • Geoff says:

        Um, how much money are we talking about? Bet you $100 straight up on Lajoie vs. Burkett. 🙂

        • Just Guessing says:

          No money, but I promise to apologize if I’m wrong. You really think Lajoie is only going to be #50? Voted into the HOF in its second class, with more votes than Tris Speaker or Cy Young, who also went in that year. Triple Crown winner; really good second baseman. Five batting titles. Hit .338 in a mostly Dead Ball Era career. Temporarily had the team named after him!!!

          Seems like higher than #50.

          • Geoff says:

            No need to apologize…just giving you a hard time.

            I had Lajoie 31, so I obviously agree with you, but it’s easy to see him getting dinged the era in which he played. I think this is wrong when it’s applied selectively, as I doubt we’ll see Cobb get ranked #25 or something…we’ll see.

  4. largebill says:

    Funny you’d mention President Cleveland in this article. Today would have been his 177th birthday.

  5. Dr. Baseball says:

    I suspect that the player is Nap Lajoie.

  6. Geoff says:

    Wow…Louis Sockalexis made Joe’s list. That was unexpected.

    50 point penalty for everyone.

  7. Carl says:

    Couldn’t resist the wordplay? “Completely, wholeheartedly, *without reservation* or pause…”

  8. Tom Flynn says:

    I concur wholeheartedly. Lose the Chief, keep the name. Build a statue to Louis outside a renovating League Park (that should also become a museum of early AL baseball, Cy Young, Joe Jackson, Feller’s debut, Ruth’s 500th HR). I’m still wearing my Tribe gear though!

  9. kb says:

    If not the Indians, then what should they be called? Hopefully they would stay away from the utterly predictables like “Buckeyes” or the totally mundane of something like the “Lions”. I have two thoughts. Go back to naming the team after its most famous player and they could be the “Rapid Roberts” for Bob Feller. Feller was, is and always will be synonomous with the club. It’s unique, and I think somewhat catchy. The logo could be a baseball with stripes coming off the back to make it seem as if it is travelling real fast. Another thought, a totally unique to the region thought, how about the “Walleyes” for the fish so well know to come from Lake Erie? Lots of things you could do with that logo.

    • Geoff says:

      I LOVE the idea of just having the team officially called something like The Cleveland Baseball Club, and allowing the team name to evolve based on a current manager or player, or whatever name the fans/media adopt. How cool would it be if they became the Fightin’ Franconas, or the Kips? A few years ago they could have been the Grady Bunch or the Hammerin’ Hafs…maybe they’ll be the eventually be the Franciscos or something. How do we make this happen??

      • NevadaMark says:

        The Cleveland Eries?

        • Geoff says:

          Lots of good suggestions…Eries, Rapids, Spiders, etc. But I think the idea of a constantly evolving name is brilliant. I’m sure it violates some basic rules of brand-building, but I also think it opens up new opportunities to get creative and react as new themes emerge. People might buy new apparel more often, since they want to keep up with the latest trends.

          • richiew13 says:

            You can solve the brand-building problem by having a brand pick the name – like stadiums!

            The Cleveland Pepsis Pepsi pays them $10m/year for 5 years naming rights. Then in 2019, Coke outbids Pepsi for the Cleveland Cokes.

      • Cuban X Senators says:

        I thought DC had a great chance to do a call back to the generic names of yore with “DC Supreme 9”.

    • vp19 says:

      The Cleveland Rapids would be a good name, both for Rapid Robert Feller and for the local trains (called the “rapid”) that run on Cleveland’s RTA system:

    • Vidor says:

      Spiders! Spiders!

    • Jud says:

      The Cleveland Tribe gets my vote

  10. David Cohen says:

    Once saw an exhibit about Sockalexis at a museum in Bar Harbor, Maine. Unfortunately, I have no idea what the exhibit said about him and the name of the Cleveland Indians.

  11. Vidor says:

    “my point here is not to start the fight again”

    You should start the fight again, and the fight should be kept up until the Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins change their ugly, racist names.

    “Spiders” is a great name. Just imagine all the marketing that Cleveland could do with that now.

    • John Gale says:

      While I certainly do not endorse all the views of the people at the time, at least they had the good sense to despise Spiders, which is perhaps the worst name in the history of baseball. Put it this way: I’m an Indians fan. I’m somewhat ambivalent to a name change (though Wahoo has to go). I’m open to suggestions. But if they change it to Spiders, I’m finding a new team. I’ll loyally stick through decades of no World Series titles. But that’s a bridge too far. Why would anyone want to change their name back to a team that was famously the worst in the history of baseball? The fact that some people think this is a good idea is infuriating.

      • richiew13 says:

        Are the Cleveland Spiders technically considered the same franchise as the Cleveland Indians? (I’m just asking – I don’t know.)

        The Spiders were a National League team. According to wikipedia the Spiders folded, and sold their assets to Charles Somers for a team that eventually became the Indians.

      • Vidor says:

        I think it’s a good idea. Just imagine the marketing opportunities.

        • John Gale says:

          What marketing opportunities would be available that would not be available for any other name that isn’t already taken? What’s so special about Spiders? Is it just that there was a team in Cleveland known as the Spiders over a century ago that “featured” the worst season in the history of baseball? Hard to see how that’s a major marketing opportunity on any level.

          As for your question, Charles, I *think* (edit: thought) that they are. Actually, you are correct. The Spiders were disbanded after their disastrous 20-132 season.

          According to Wikipedia, the current franchise began as the Grand Rapid Rustlers before moving to Cleveland in 1900 and being renamed the Lake Shores. They were renamed the Bluebirds in 1901 and were one of the charter members of the AL, which was a minor league up to 1900. The team was renamed the Naps in 1903 and finally became the Indians in 1915.

          So the current team was never known as the Spiders at all*. Yet another reason to oppose the asinine suggestion to change the name to it. I wish I had known this earlier. Thank you for asking the question and bringing it to my attention.

          *In fact, Charles Somers never owned the Spiders. They were owned by a man named Frank Robison, who was the second owner of the St. Louis Cardinals. In fact, the reason why the 1899 Spiders were so bad is that Robison owned both teams at the same time and transferred the Spiders’ best players’ to the then-“Perfectos” and left Cleveland with a de facto minor league team.

          • John Gale says:

            Good grief. I just realized, richiew13, that I called you “Charles” (almost certainly because of Charles Somers). Whoops. Sorry about that.

          • Vidor says:

            What marketing opportunities? Well, loads. That isn’t hard to figure out.

            As for the current franchise never being named Spiders, that’s hardly relevant. The Baltimore Orioles and New York Metropolitans both took their names from prior franchises that they had no connection with.

            It’s a unique name, and it has history in the city of Cleveland–before they were gutted in 1899, btw, the Spiders were pretty good.

          • Pat says:

            Following Vidor’s point, the current Cleveland Browns have no common lineage with the old Cleveland Browns. Just to bring it (ahem) closer to home.

            On a related strand of thinking, were the team renamed the Naps, Cleveland would then have two teams ostensibly named for former managers/coaches. The Cavs could then complete the circuit by changing their name to the Cleveland Kloppenburgs.

          • John Gale says:

            Sorry, but the Browns have nothing, and I mean *nothing* in common with the Spiders beyond that very tiny similarity. The Browns were founded in Cleveland in the mid-1940s and proceeded to win the first four All-America Football Championships. After being absorbed into the NFL in 1950, they promptly won the title in the same year and won three more in 1954, 1955 and 1964 (Cleveland’s last title of any kind).

            The team obviously has had a rough run since then (though they were good enough to contend in the 1980s), but they were a beloved fixture in Cleveland until Art Modell moved them to Baltimore after the 1995 season. This led to a legal settlement in which Cleveland retained the Browns’ name, logo, uniforms, and history, while the moved team was renamed the Ravens. The Browns were then reborn in 1999.

            So on the one hand we have a beloved team with a strong championship tradition (albeit not recently) that the people of Cleveland fought to return to town with the same name three years after it left. On the other, we have the worst team in the history of baseball that was disbanded well over a century ago, that no one missed and had a name that the people of Cleveland actively hated. Yep, exactly the same.

            And at any rate, neither of you actually addressed my initial question, so I’ll repeat it: What marketing opportunities would be available that would NOT be available for any other name that isn’t already taken? Obviously, a name change will lead to some marketing opportunities. But you have to come up with reasons why Spiders is better than the alternatives. I can only think of reasons why it would be worse.

            The *only* reason some people think Spiders is a good idea is because there used to be a pro baseball team in Cleveland with that name. That is why the fact that the Spiders are not the same franchise as the Indians is relevant to the discussion. Even putting that aside, there were also pro teams in Cleveland named the Forest Citys, Blues, Infants, Lake Shores, Bluebirds, Broncos, Naps, and Molly McGuires.

            Of those names, I don’t think Forest Citys, Lake Shores, Naps or Molly McGuires would work. Bluebirds is too close to the existing Blue Jays, and no one would take a team named the Infants seriously. But even if we’re just restricting the name to pro baseball teams that once played in Cleveland (and there’s absolutely no reason to be so narrow-minded), both Broncos and Blues are vastly superior to Spiders.

    • I love the idea of the Spiders. You could maintain all of the “C” and “Cleveland” apparel, and just turn the red Chief into a red spider. And, with Peter B Lewis gone, maybe seek out a new corporate sponsor for the ballpark, like say “WebMD” to pay homage to the city’s efforts to be the City of Medicine.

      Who wouldn’t want to watch the Spiders play at “The Web” (WebMD Field)?

      • John Gale says:

        I’m failing to see how any of this is something that couldn’t be done with another nickname. The “C” and “Cleveland” stuff would be universal to any name. And the logo can be red no matter what the name is too. The WebMD has nothing to do with Spiders either (ok, there’s a terrible pun that we’d lose, but that seems like a bug, not a feature, and there’s plenty of potential sponsors that the team could court for naming rights to the field). None of these things have anything whatsoever to do with Spiders.

        Also, out of curiosity, are any of you Spiders advocates actually Indians fans? Because if not, I’m not particularly interested in your opinion on what the name of the team I’ve followed for two decades should be going forward. Lobby the owners of your own team to change the name to Spiders if you like it so much. If you *are* Indians fans, I’ll hear you out to some degree, but the name remains terrible.

        Honestly, my preference is that they dump Wahoo and keep the name in a responsible manner (designing a more appropriate logo, building a statue of Sockalexis outside the stadium, educating the populace, making a hefty donation to a Native American organization, etc.). If it must be changed, there are several names I would accept. Off the top of my head, I like both Knights and Warriors, but I’m certainly open to suggestions. But Spiders? As I said at the beginning, I’ll find a new team.

  12. DG says:

    Really outstanding work Joe. I’m a diehard Indians fan, and I absolutely, firmly believe that they could ditch the logo tomorrow and it wouldn’t change the number or intensity of fans in any way. Just do it already Cleveland.

  13. DjangoZ says:

    Calling them the Cleveland Indians doesn’t honor Sockalexis or his tribe at all. It honors Columbus being confused about where the heck he had landed (hint: not India).

    Calling them the Cleveland Penobscots makes a similar error, honoring the European person who first heard the name of the tribe and misunderstood it.

    Call them the Cleveland Panawahpskeks (or whatever the tribe would prefer) and it would be a really cool way to honor Louis.

  14. Frog says:

    Non American here – I know nothing about Cleveland except what has come up in Joe’s posts from time to time. I understand that it may not be a proud part of Cleveland’s history but I think a great (fun) name would be the “Cleveland Rivers Of Fire”. It’s got drama, history and has “Fire” in it. Something for everyone.

  15. Daveyhead says:

    I can’t believe nobody has suggested “Steamers” yet. Not that *I* am, of course.

  16. Sirk says:


    You stated that you could not find a single mention of Sockalexis in 300 newspapers from 1915.

    As luck would have it, not more than three or four days ago, I read a Sockalexis quote attributed to the Plain Dealer in 1915 on the day the name change was announced. I have now scrambled to dig it up and transcribe it for you.

    The book “Indians Baseball: 100 Years of Memories”, published by the club, cites the following text as having appeared on page eight of the January 18, 1915, edition of the Plain Dealer:

    Many years ago there was an Indian names Sockalexis who was the star of the Cleveland baseball club. As a batter, fielder, and baserunner, he was a marvel. Sockalexis so far outshone his teammates that he naturally came to be regarded as the whole team. The “fans” throughout the country began to call the Clevelanders the “Indians.” It was an honorable name, and while it stuck, the team had an excellent record.

    It has now been decided to revive this name. The Clevelanders of 1915 will be the “Indians.” There will be no real Indians on the roster, but the name will recall fine traditions. It is looking backward to a time when Cleveland had one of the most popular teams in the United States. It also serves to revive the memory of a single great player who has been gathered to his fathers in the happy hunting ground of Abenakis.

    I haven’t dug through the ancient archives or anything, but the Indians organization has attributed those two paragraphs to page eight of the January 18, 1915, Plain Dealer, upon the announcement of the name change.

    Since you have the cartoon from that edition, maybe you can also double-check the veracity of that text and attribution.

    One way or the other, I hope this helps!

    Steve Sirk
    Columbus, OH

  17. Sirk says:

    Found a typo in my quick transcription.

    *named* Sockalexis, not *names* Sockalexis.

  18. Sirk says:

    I should also add that even if the text and attribution are correct, the cartoon speaks far louder than those words. I think your overall point is spot on. The name Cleveland Indians does indeed legitimately derive from Sockalexis, but the true motivations for the 1915 name choice surely weren’t as honorable as the story came to be told. (And the benign/tribute version of events didn’t have much traction in its time.)

  19. Herb Smith says:

    I don’t believe Poz said anything about Sockalexis being # 49. And the only other legit possibility (named in the article) was Nap Lajoie. However, I agree with most of you that #49 would be awful low for Lajoie.

    Interestingly, on the list of 50 that I originally submitted, I had Bob Feller at #50 (I had misinterpreted the rules, and had named 51 players because of Joe’s revelation about the “tie.”). I had to drop one player, and I dropped Feller. That might have been a poor decision, because I could certainly see him being ranked around #49 by Mr. Posnanski.

    • Which Hunt says:

      Did the article mention Feller? That would have been my guess but I scanned it twice. Joe did mention Cobb, Speaker, Nap and The Babe, all of whom would be spoilers ranked so low…

      • Patrick Hogue says:

        Seems like Nap since the article is about the team’s name and they were called the Naps at one point. If looking for just any Indians player, Satchel Paige has not been mentioned yet. But 49 is too low for him, I predict

  20. Herb Smith says:

    Btw, I would have certainly paid good money to have see Sockalexis play ball.

  21. carter says:

    the claim that it “could” honor him is clearly a work of childish imagination. The history you tell is interesting and powerful. The history that you don’t tell is of countless genocides, theft, and illegal actions taken by the government and people of these United States. Not to mention the reality of today’s racist and nationalist policies that deny sovereignty and….y’know what. It’s too much to get in to.

    Just try telling that history or looking at that reality, and then saying with a straight face that the name “Indians” COULD be an honorific.

  22. Which Hunt? says:

    Too much parsing? Joe says you “might” find the next player “in here”. The comments seem pretty likely to turn towards Feller in a Cleveland Indians article with us speculating on #49…..

  23. DM says:

    I have to admit that when I first saw the title of Joe’s post and saw his reference to the next top 100 player, my mind went straight to Feller. After reading it, though, I agree with the suggestion that it’s Lajoie. It’s little lower than I predicted (I think I had him at 40), but not a whole lot lower. Not a big shock to me if he’s the one named here.

    • DB says:

      I read this article and had one of those, I am an idiot moments which seems to happen more and more lately. I swear I had Lajoie on my list and then I went to the spreadsheet. Crap!

  24. DM says:

    Regarding team names…..I like the suggestion someone made earlier about the River Fire…..or maybe just “Fire” for short. That would be great. The “Cleveland Fire”. I like it!

    I also thought the “Cleveland Rockers” would work, but then I found out that there was an old WNBA team that had that name. Maybe the Cleveland Rollers?

  25. Carl says:

    How about the Cleveland Midges? An annoying bug and would honor the bugs that helped beat the Yankees in 2007.

    How about the Cleveland Lake Burners? They don’t hit worm burners, they hit lake burners!

  26. EnzoHernandez11 says:

    How about the Cleveland Grovers? It can honor the president, all the C- history students who think the city was named after him, and (indirectly) Pete Alexander.

  27. invitro says:

    Oh heavens, they don’t make good team nicknames any more. They would probably be called the Cleveland Storm.

  28. Todd Pack says:

    Great read. Thanks man.

  29. […] as Joe Posnanski, in his excellent account of the history of Sockalexis and the “Indians” name, concludes: “I don’t believe the Indians were named to honor Louis Sockalexis, not exactly. […]

  30. […]  Maybe if the protest was happening a thousand years from now.  But even then probably not.  The ‘Indians’ name should probably go, and Chief Wahoo should definitely […]

  31. Leslie Allen says:

    I think now I have read all — or at least many — of the articles and addenda you have written on this subject, and I thank you for every word, image, and link. It was just a couple of days ago that I noticed the Chief Wahoo logo on the celebrating Indian players and thought: Wow, how creepy. I’m sure I’ve seen the logo before as I am no stranger to baseball. (I am, however, a National League fan. For many reasons I’ve always disliked the Braves, their parody of a near-massacred race of people being just one.) Anyway, opinions abound, as you well point out, and history can be murky, contradictory, and misinterpreted, but nonetheless it is there and should not be overlooked. Thank you for the research. History makes the controversy much more interesting and as well reinforces my recent reaction to “Wahoo” — how creepy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *