Look, the fight is over. Monday was the last time that the Cleveland baseball team will wear Chief Wahoo on their hats.
It’s also the last time that they will wear Chief Wahoo on their sleeves.
It’s done. Starting in 2019, in a deal worked out before the season between MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and Cleveland ownership, the Tribe will focus their logo energies on the Block C. After 71 years of stops and starts, protests and rallies, fervent philosophical fights about what any of it means or if any of it means anything at all, Chief Wahoo will be retired. It’s long past time.
I grew up on Wahoo. There was an enormous Wahoo at the top of Cleveland Municipal Stadium; he was holding a bat (he was actually choking up on it, so there must have been two strikes), and he had his leg up in the air (for timing purposes, like Josh Donaldson), and even now when I see a photograph of it, all of those feelings rush back. We’re in my Dad’s blue Chevy Nova, the one so rusted out that there’s an actual hole in the floor of the backseat. A wooden plank is back there so that Dad can drive without fear of a child’s leg falling through that hole in what would have undoubtedly been a tragic Flintstones foot-on-the-ground accident.
But my brother and I would quietly remove the plank and watch the concrete pass beneath us. And then, after watching the ground go by for so long, we’d get car sick, and we would make our way through downtown Cleveland and, in the distance, there was Wahoo.
Cleveland was typically gray, but Wahoo was bright red with a white, toothy smile — he was so happy. That’s all I saw as a kid. Happiness. I loved Wahoo because I loved baseball and, in my hometown, the two went together.
I think that’s why the fury to keep Wahoo long after it made any sense sizzled the way it did. In Cleveland, we didn’t think of Wahoo as a nasty caricature of an indigenous people’s culture — with that feather coming out of his head and that blood-red face and body and that big nose and … Wahoo IS a nasty caricature of an indigenous people’s culture, but we didn’t think of him like that.
No, we thought of Wahoo as baseball, as Cleveland baseball, as Sunday doubleheaders, as cheers and the unmistakable smell of stale beer and impossibly colorful afternoons after long workdays in dim factories and a ground ball to Buddy Bell at third, this one’s going to be close, oh, what a throw, got him by an eyelash!
When people called Wahoo racist, the urge for so many people I grew up with was to lash back. Racist? I’m not racist! How dare you call me racist! I can still hear friends and relatives of friends and friends of friends at backyard barbecues talking about how ridiculous it all was, how people were too sensitive about stuff, how they just read an interview with a Native American saying that he didn’t care about Chief Wahoo, hell, he LIKED Chief Wahoo. This guy wanted Cleveland to keep Wahoo! And he was a real Native American!
“There are so many bigger problems in the world,” they said, and they were right.
“We focus on all the wrong things,” they said, and they were right again.
“It’s a baseball logo, for %$^&# sake,” they said, and Wahoo was, indeed, a baseball logo.
A couple of months ago, I saw this — it’s a single-page sticker set of all 30 MLB team logos — you can pick it up for $7.94 at Amazon (plus free shipping if you have Amazon Prime). I looked at it for a very long time.
There are three logos featuring living things. The first one you see is the most obvious, top left; it’s that happy Baltimore Orioles bird logo. I have no idea what he’s so happy about after this season. I suppose it’s because he has a baseball cap. How many icterid blackbirds get their own baseball caps?*
*If you look closely, you will notice that the Orioles cap that the oriole wears has a completely different logo on it; he wears the cap with a script O. I love that. It’s like the old Miami Dolphins logo, where the Dolphin wore a football helmet with the capital M on it.
The second living thing logo is that Toronto Blue Jay, who’s wearing an enormous red maple leaf earring. At least in this sticker pack the Blue Jay has the decency and good sense after this season to look down.
And the third: Wahoo. I think seeing Wahoo in this environment, seeing what an outlier he is, seeing how flagrantly and shamelessly he smiles off of a page of colorful and cheerful and non-aggressive letter treatments representing great American cities, that gives the whole thing a different context. See how out-of-place Wahoo looks!
The point was never that Wahoo was some devious attempt to dehumanize Native Americans or anything like that. He’s from another time.
Take a look at the 1971 MLB logos.
Is Wahoo more offensive than the screaming Braves guy? Is he weirder than the Padre swinging the bat? How about the two colonialists just flipping a ball in the air, just talking a little baseball, or the fat Brewers dude, clearly having just downed a six-pack, swinging the bat in what’s clearly an unhealthy way, or the two gigantic Minnesotans shaking hands over what I assume is the St. Croix River, or the grinning Calico Jack with a skull and crossbones on his hat, getting ready to plunder and kill but, first, he’d like to catch a ballgame in Pittsburgh.
All across the board, you see dumb logos, rude logos, stupid logos, but here’s the difference: They were put away. They were muted. They were brought up to the times. To see the 1971 baseball logos and then the 2018 logos is to see the years pass by; it’s like looking at an old photo and groaning at the clothes we used to wear and the haircuts we used to accept. Time passes. We adapt.
All except Wahoo.
He’s gone now. Well, he will still be around for a while. There will be some, no doubt, who will purposely wear their Wahoo gear in order to prove some point about political correctness and the softening of our society and the importance of tradition.
And a handful, I suppose, will wear Wahoo belligerently, for what makes them truly angry is not tradition but being told that other people’s feelings matter too. I saw a man screaming obscenities at a Native American who was at the stadium protesting Wahoo. I know it was a scene repeated often, but it was the one time I saw it in full, this angry howl of a man screaming gleefully about how Native Americans LOST, man, you LOST, and you have NO RIGHT to protest Wahoo, and it’s JUST A CARTOON, it’s a HARMLESS CARTOON, and maybe you should STOP DRINKING and LEAVE WAHOO the bleep alone and YOU LOST and …
As it went on, some people looked away, others moved in closer, and I could not help but notice whose face was red, whose smile was sinister, whose identity was tied up in what he insisted was a harmless cartoon. No, the world’s problems don’t end now that Wahoo is gone. But at least Wahoo is bleepin’ gone.