Huh. I was looking up something I had written about Chief Wahoo because of this riveting and powerful piece written by Sterling HolyWhiteMountain.
And I came across this old piece — I believe it’s the first long blog piece I ever wrote. It originally appeared on some long ago version of this blog, five or six bloggy generations ago. It was written with the Clevelands up three games to one on the Boston Red Sox during the 2007 American League Championship Series.
The Erie Reader found it somehow four years ago and republished it.
I’ve written a lot about Wahoo and the Indians name since then but I think this was the one where I got my hardest feelings down. Here it is again, edited for context, updates and various things I’ve learned since then.
The Indians are one game away from the World Series, there’s mayhem and excitement and so much to write about. But for some reason, I’m motivated tonight to write about Chief Wahoo. I wouldn’t blame you for skipping this one … not many people seem to agree with me about how it’s past time to get rid of this racist logo of my childhood.
Cleveland has had an odd and somewhat comical history when it comes to sports nicknames. The football team is, of course, called the Browns, technically after the great Paul Brown, though Tom Hanks says it’s because everything Cleveland is brown. He has a point. You know, it was always hard to know exactly what you were supposed to do as a “Brown” fan. You could wear brown, of course, but that was pretty limiting. And then you would be standing in the stands, ready to do something, but what the hell does brown do (for you)? You supposed to pretend to be a UPS Truck? You supposed to mimic something brown (and boy does THAT bring up some disgusting possibilities?) I mean Brown is not a particularly active color.
At least the Browns nickname makes some sort of Cleveland sense. The basketball team is called the Cavaliers, after 17th Century English Warriors who dressed nice. That name was chosen in a fan contest — the winning entry wrote that the team should “represent a group of daring, fearless men, whose life’s pact was never surrender, no matter the odds.” Not too long after this, the Cavaliers would feature timeout act called “Fat Guy Eating Beer Cans.”
The hockey team, first as a minor league team and then briefly in the NHL, was called the Barons after an old American Hockey League team — the name was owned by longtime Clevelander named Nick Mileti*, and he gave it to the NHL team in exchange for a free dinner. Mileti had owned a World Hockey Association team also, ane he called that one the Crusaders. Don’t get any of it. You get the sense that at some point it was a big game to try and come up with the nickname that had the least to do with Cleveland.
Nickname guy 1: How about Haberdashers?
Nickname guy 2: No, we have some of those in Cleveland.
Nickname guy 1: Polar Bears?
Nickname guy 2: I think there are some at the Cleveland Zoo.
Nickname guy 1: How about Crusaders? They’re long dead.
*Mileti is still alive — he is 85 now — and he has recently written several books, my favorite title being: Closet Italians: A Dazzling Collection of Illustrious Italians with Non-Italian Names.
Cleveland’s baseball nickname history has its own crazy history. The baseball team in the 1890 Players League was called the Cleveland Infants. My best guess is they were named that for 16-year-old pitcher Willie McGill, who won 11 games that season, but I don’t know. Maybe they brought infants to the games. Maybe they had a deal where you could use your infant as a ticket into the game.
In other years, the baseball teams were called the Blues, the Bronchos and, of course, the Spiders. We’ll get back to the Spiders in a few minutes. Then, from 1903-1914, they were known as the Cleveland Naps. This was after the great Napoleon Lajoie, who signed with the team as a free agent in 1903. II’m guessing it was in the contract that they name the team after him; I’m surprised Roger Clemens didn’t ask for this. Though Lajoie was a great player, you do have to admire a team that would name itself after a quick afternoon sleep. Then, in 1914, the Naps lost 102 games, and Lajoie hit .258, 80 points below his career average. He was 39 then and clearly done (he did play two more mostly ineffective years in Philadelphia), and so Cleveland needed a new nickname. You know what’s coming. This is when legend and fact blur.
The way I had always heard it growing up is that the team, needing a new nickname, went back into their history to honor an old Native American player named Louis Sockalexis. Sockalexis was, by most accounts, the first full-blooded Native American to play professional baseball. He had been quite a phenom in high school, and he developed into a a fairly mediocre and minor outfielder for the Spiders (he played just 94 games in three years). He did hit .338 his one good year, and he created a lot of excitement, and apparently (or at least I was told) he was beloved and respected by everybody. In this “respected-and-beloved” version, nobody ever mentions that Sockalexis may have ruined his career by jumping from the second-story window of a whorehouse. Or that he was an alcoholic. Still, in all versions of the story, Sockalexis had to deal with horrendous racism, terrible taunts, whoops from the crowd, and so on. He endured (sort of — at least until that second story window thing).
So this version of the story goes that in 1915, less than two years after the death of Sockalexis, the baseball team named itself the “Indians” in his honor. That’s how I heard it. And, because you will believe anything that you hear as a kid I believed it for a long while (I also believed for a long time that dinosaurs turned into oil — I still sort of believe it, I can’t help it. Also that if you stare at the moon too long you will turn into a werewolf).
In recent years, though, we find that this Sockalexis story might be a bit exaggerated or, perhaps, complete bullcrap. If you really think about it, the story never made much sense to begin with. Why exactly would people in Cleveland — this in a time when native Americans were generally viewed as subhuman in America — name their team after a relatively minor and certainly troubled outfielder? There is evidence that the Indians were actually named that to capture some of the magic of the Native-American named Boston Braves, who had just had their Miracle Braves season (the Braves, incidentally, were not named AFTER any Native Americans but were rather named after a greasy politican named James Gaffney, who became team president and was apparently called the Brave of Tammany Hall). This version makes more sense.
Addition: There is compelling evidence that the team’s nickname WAS certainly inspired by Sockalexis — the team was often called “Indians” during his time. But even this is a mixed bag; how much they were called Indians to HONOR Sockalexis, and how much they were called Indians to CASH IN on Sockalexis’ heritage is certainly in dispute.
We do know for sure they were called the Indians in 1915, and (according to a story written by author and NYU Professor Jonathan Zimmerman) they were welcomed with the sort of sportswriting grace that would follow the Indians through the years: “We’ll have the Indians on the warpath all the time, eager for scalps to dangle at their belts.” Oh yes, we honor you Louis Sockalexis.
What, however, makes a successful nickname? You got it: Winning. The Indians were successful pretty quickly. In 1916, they traded for an outfielder named Tris Speaker. That same year they picked up a pitcher named Stan Covaleski in what Baseball Reference calls “an unknown transaction.” There need to be more of those. And the Indians also picked up a 26-year-old pitcher on waivers named Jim Bagby. Those three were the key forces in the Indians 1920 World Series championship. After that, they were the Indians to stay.
Chief Wahoo, from what I can tell, was born much later. The first official Chief Wahoo logo seems to have been drawn just after World War II. Until then, Cleveland wore hats with various kinds of Cs on them. In 1947, the first Chief Wahoo appears on a hat.* He’s got the yellow face, long nose, the freakish grin, the single feather behind his head … quite an honor for Sockalexis. As a friend of mine used to say, “It’s surprising they didn’t put a whiskey bottle right next to his head.”
There’s something of a riddle here: Chief Wahoo was commissioned by Bill Veeck one of baseball’s great showmen. Veeck was instrumental — as instrumental in his own way as Branch Rickey — in the African American integration of baseball. But he was numb to the awful way Wahoo depicted Native Americans. Or, more likely, he just didn’t think about it, didn’t connect the image to real people. This has been the disconnect that has endured for 70 years.
Three years later, they changed the Wahoo logo — I suspect this is not because people thought it was racist (nobody really cared) but because they liked a newer, cleaner version of Wahoo. This new Wahoo was another grinning, slightly-smaller-nosed, one-feather Indian, only this time his face was all red.
This is, more or less, the Chief Wahoo of today.
This is also the Chief Wahoo I grew up with, though it should be said that there was a time during my childhood when the Indians seemed more or less embarrassed by Wahoo. I never thought this was because of any PC sensibilities — I think they Indians were just so bad they were looking for a new start wherever they could find one. They started going back to trying various Cs on hats throughout the 1960s and 1970s, including the unforgettable “Crooked C” blue and red thing of 1975.
Wahoo was always around — there was a giant Wahoo on Cleveland Municipal Stadium, you could see it from a half mile away. I know I wore lots of clothes with that grinning Wahoo on them. I had no problem doing that. I liked Wahoo. To me, he was funny. Then, that’s the point, isn’t it? I never thought about it.
Here’s when I started thinking about it: I was walking through the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem — Yad Vashem — and found myself starting at these caricatures of Jews that were in stories and games and comic books and such for kids in 1930s Germany. I looked at these things in horror for a long, long time. You know why? The logos themselves weren’t so different from Wahoo. I could see kids finding them “funny.”
Now, I’m not comparing anything but the style of logos — obviously, the Jewish caricatures were sinister, part of a government plot. They were meant to raise generation after generation of people who would see Jews as subhuman, as comic characters, as fictional. Wahoo is, I think, just a stupid sports logo that outlasted its time.
But — and this is the point — those cartoons, like Wahoo, were of real people only they were not of real people. They were cartoony and goofy and exaggerated and meant to make a child laugh. Yes, we often see the vicious caricatures that the Nazis would used to instill fear and loathing in adults. But these were much less fearsome. They were for children. And, in that way, they were more haunting. And, yes, they made me think of Wahoo.
Here’s a newspaper quote you might enjoy, taken from the same article I mentioned earlier: “To insist that Native Americans be given equal rights with other citizens is one thing. To insist that their particular sensibilities entitle them to exercise a kind of sensorship is quite another.” T
hat’s the argument for Wahoo, isn’t it? The argument is that Native Americans are being too sensitive. What’s the big deal anyway? Chief Wahoo doesn’t hurt anybody. Don’t Native Americans have much bigger problems to deal with than a logo on a baseball cap? Wahoo has been around for a long time, we don’t need censorship of our sports because a few Native Americans are marching, right?
Trouble is, that quote wasn’t about Native Americans. It was actually a quote taken from The Washington Post in 1947, and you can replace “Native Americans” with Negroes. It was an editorial The Post wrote about how Little Black Sambo was a fun little storybook character, and anyone who took offense to this grinning, big-lipped abomination was just acting silly and politically correct. Symbols do matter.
The funny thing is, everybody really does understand this on both sides of the argument. People sometimes PRETEND not to the understand the other side, but you have to believe they do understand. I do not believe it is possible to look at Chief Wahoo and not see that it is an insulting portrayal of Native Americans. Nobody could look at that grinning mug and say, “No, it’s really a flattering portrayal of Native Americans, who were conquered, nearly wiped off the planet by our ancestors and then forced to live on reservations.”
The argument is that you care more about Chief Wahoo’s history than those insulted by it. The argument is that, because it is not INTENDED to be racist, that it is not racist. The argument is that it’s just a SPORTS LOGO, and it doesn’t have anything to do with real Native Americans. The argument is that it is such a part of Cleveland’s sports history that you don’t want to give it up, it bonds you to the city and the past, and people who are insulted by it should toughen up because they have other problems.
The argument is: Come on. This doesn’t matter.
I know the arguments. I grew up with Wahoo. I’ve worn him on my head, over my heart and on my sleeve. I know.
I think so many of us, because we did not know Native Americans growing up and learned history from a certain point of view,were raised to think of Indians as cartoon characters, as movie villains, as the American Indian who had a tear in his eye because people kept dumping garbage all over this great land. We have become desensitized. I heard someone doing a comedy bit on XM Radio about Native Americans and casinos and alcohol and how nobody should care anyway because they lost the wars, and though I’ve heard similar bits (and I think I have pretty tough comedy constitution), this particular one was so cruel, so mean-spirited, so wrong, that I realized there was probably no other group in America someone could say such awful things.
The only reason Chief Wahoo is around is because Native Americans don’t have a strong enough political voice in this country to put a stop to it. When Native Americans protested at the 1997 World Series, they were mostly laughed at. Three were arrested. Is this really the kind of country we want to be? And for what? To stand up for our inherent rights to enjoy a racist sports logo?
I love Cleveland. I love the Indians and I even love Wahoo in a weird way because it is such a part of my childhood. But it is not just time to get rid of Wahoo, it is way, way past time. I don’t think this is the biggest problem facing the world, or even the 5,4993,287th biggest problem facing the world. I don’t care about political correctness either. No. It’s just wrong. Very wrong.Get rid of it. The fewer wrong things in the world, better.
And it brings me all the way back to this … why can’t we just go back to calling the team the Spiders. That’s a great name, and it’s not taken by anybody in major sports. There’s history there. It actually fits Cleveland. And there are a million incredible logo and mascot possibilities.
Even if they don’t get rid of the Indians nickname, clearly they should bury Wahoo. It would be so easy. They don’t even have to make an announcement. Just stop having it on the uniform. When people ask about it, just say, “Yeah, we’re building around the C now.” They have this cool Block Letter C hat now, it’s so awesome, I just bought two of them, a red and a blue. All the Wahoo clothe in my house are gone. Block Letter C rules.
Let’s end this.
I wrote this in 2007, and it’s even more true in 2016: This would be a good year to make it happen. The Indians are IN the World Series. There is some real joy happening. There are a lot of good feelings in the Cleveland air. It would be the ideal time to end a logo that should never have been born to begin with.