Sunday, October 30, 2016


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 a 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, 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. (...)

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.”

by Joe Posnanski, Joe Blogs |  Read more:
Image: Michael F. McElroy/ESPN