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MLB Finds Some Cultural Leadership in Cleveland

Cleveland have announced their intention to change their name after the 2021 season. The Cleveland organization’s decision offers an updated blueprint for how teams with historical ties to racist names, logos, or cheers can begin to make positive changes in the wake of their contribution to false and harmful ideas about Native peoples.

In all of my bylines writing about Major League Baseball, it’s been my standard operating procedure to never refer to Cleveland’s team by their century-old moniker. To me, they’re Cleveland, nothing else. This choice is a reflection of my ability as a baseball writer to stop adding to the harm done by the demeaning iconography and shameless racism of Cleveland’s team name. We’ll get into all of that in a minute.

In this one instance, I’m choosing to waive my rule in order to talk about how Cleveland is actually doing something good – they have announced their intention to change their name after the 2021 season. This coming from MLB, and in North American organized sports in general, where the use of Indigenous peoples as mascots and playthings is both widespread and largely unapologetic. The Cleveland organization’s decision offers an updated blueprint for how teams with historical ties to racist names, logos, or cheers can begin to make positive changes in the wake of their contribution to false and harmful ideas about Native peoples.

In my eyes, accepting Indigenous activists’ word as fact when they say the team’s name is harmful demonstrates behaviour that’s ahead of where the team could be. It’s mild praise, but I still think it’s worth noting. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that baseball is notoriously conservative and slow to change. Owner Paul Dolan and Cleveland leadership took significant ideas away from the summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations: that it’s easy for institutions to feign ignorance, easy to rely on dense bureaucracy as a reason not to seek change, and that it’s the institution itself that must change in order to improve the lives of the individuals it impacts. Dolan saw an opportunity in his own institution, part of America’s pastime, and decided to engage with it.

That being said, the organization has decided to keep the name through the 2021 season and, disappointingly but unsurprisingly, will continue to sell merchandise emblazoned with Chief Wahoo. The team will reportedly “donate profits from the sale of Chief Wahoo merchandise to Native American-focused organizations and causes.”

In the words of blogger Chris Thompson, “If Dolan and the organization believe that the name is offensive and should change, but it’s not offensive enough to change immediately and can still be sold on merch…do they actually believe the name is offensive?” It’s a good question in my opinion, outside of the logistical challenges of copyright and outright rebranding for an MLB team. Overall, the mixed messaging in Dolan’s decisions is just one piece in a parade of half-steps in North American sports to nod to widespread social changes but that otherwise resist action that would impact their bottom line.

For 2021 to be the final season of hearing and seeing “Cleveland Indians” is still a momentous signal to the sports world. This shows that there can be good faith change that’s driven by a commitment to supporting a community negatively impacted by decades of words and actions. The question now is, will other teams follow suit? Are leagues really committed to breaking with their traditions in support of marginalized community members?

Cleveland’s long history with their nickname poses a curious example of a team whose relationship with their identity has been steeped in racism from the beginning, but that has benefitted from the backing of public opinion.

History of Cleveland’s team name and logo

Louis Sockalexis
Louis Sockalexis – Credit: https://www.usetinc.org/news/our-view-statue-would-help-tell-the-remarkable-story-of-louis-sockalexis-not-enough-mainers-know-how-the-indian-island-man-became-a-baseball-star-50-years-before-jackie-robinson-422018/

From their 1901 graduation to major league franchise until 1914, Cleveland’s team went by a few different names. First the Bluebirds (1901), then the Broncos (1902), then the Naps (1903-1914), named for then player-manager Napoleon Lajoie. Upon Lajoie’s departure from the team, owner Charles Somers put out a call to sports writers to suggest a new name, of which “Indians” was selected.

So the story goes, the National League’s short-lived and notoriously terrible Cleveland Spiders (1887-1899) carried the nickname while outfielder Louis Sockalexis, of the Penobscot Nation in Maine, played for the team. He was known for spectacular defensive plays and record-breaking throws for a mere two seasons until the effects of alcoholism contributed to his retirement from the game.

According to some versions, one reader responded to a writer’s requests for suggestions with specific reference to the Indigenous heritage of Sockalexis. Other versions have the writers select “Indians” because the then Boston Braves had just completed a miraculous comeback to win the pennant, which arguably pushed Native names into vogue.

Cleveland’s own media guide indicates that the name is meant to honour Sockalexis and the Penobscot Nation, but that perspective has been discredited thanks to the well-known and wide-ranging discriminatory treatment of Sockalexis during his career. It’s more likely that he was singled out for being a dartboard for every piece of anti-Indigenous stereotypical rhetoric the papers (and the fans, and his teammates) could throw at him.

Thanks to the research of NBC Sports’ Joe Posnanski, here’s a smattering of the kind of coverage Sockalexis received during his career, and the way even his own teammates spoke to and about him:

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.

[When future Hall of Famer Jesse Burkett was asked if Sockalexis was ever asked to sacrifice bunt] “Don’t ask me about that bead peddler,” Burkett said. “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.”

“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.”

On the other hand, local newspaper coverage on the day of the new name’s announcement leaves little question as to its position on Native affairs. The Wire’s Eric Levenson looked into it further:

“The cartoon is full of insensitive, racist images. In the center, a smiling, long-nosed Native American is labeled by his name “Heap Big Stick.” In the right side, one player says “Wukwog-o” to an umpire, the Native American version of rudely saying “ching chong bing bong” to an Asian person. “When you talk to me, talk English you wukoig,” the ump responds in The Plain Dealer artist’s words. “That last word is in Indian,” the writer explains. “Will it come to this?” In the top right, the cartoon suggests “new rooting lingo for the fans,” a series of grunts suggesting a subhuman language.”

There’s little leeway to argue that the 1914 Cleveland sports writers were inspired by Sockalexis’ skills as a baseball player or any positive reputation of Indigenous peoples as a foundation for their new team’s name. “Indian” at the time was used as a pejorative; it was an insult hurled at him by white audiences watching him play. The reporting reveals the kind of public opinion directed toward Indigenous peoples at that time: fetishized, subhuman, irredeemable, and yes, savage. This was no honour, despite the original Spiders nickname potentially evolving from a place of renown.

I want to be clear: there’s no debate to be had about whether the name “Cleveland Indians”, their nickname of “The Tribe”, or their use of the Chief Wahoo logo is racist. They all are, and the organization has been hearing about it since at least 1971, when members of local nations and even the Penobscot Nation itself protested the logo and a long list of ongoing cultural violence during the city of Cleveland’s 175th anniversary that year. Protests against the team’s iconography and name have since been a fixture of opening day ballpark goings-on, so it’s not as if ownership hasn’t known what’s up for almost fifty years.

An opportunity for change

Cleveland owner Paul Dolan
Cleveland owner Paul Dolan

“The name is no longer acceptable in our world.” Perhaps it never was, but Cleveland owner Paul Dolan is doing what Atlanta won’t and what the Washington NFL team only did after big-name sponsors like FedEx and Nike threatened to pull out of their market.

Dolan’s decision to actively consult with Native groups about the impact his team’s name has on them happened in the summer:

“The biggest change was what’s happened this year, starting with George Floyd’s death and the recognition that our world has changed,” Dolan said. “For me, that raised the question of whether we should continue using a name like Indians in this new world and what lies ahead for us. That wasn’t the decision, it was merely the decision to answer the question. We went to answer the question by talking to a wide array of local and national groups. I think the answer was pretty clear that, while so many of us who have grown up with the name and thought of it as nothing more than the name of our team and that it did not intend to have a negative impact on anybody, in particular Native Americans, it was having a negative impact on those folks.”

In a statement to the press, Dolan specifically references the difference between intent and impact. While he explains that the intent behind the name in the modern era is a celebration of Native culture, and “nobody intended anything negative by our attachment to the name,” he concedes that that’s not the reality for Native peoples. After hearing from people living in the community affected by everyday racism, he acknowledges that “the impact has been tough.”

Dolan’s change of heart has reminded me of a story about legendary baseball radio voice Jerry Howarth. His 36-year career calling the Blue Jays spanned from 1981-2017, and in his capacity as a broadcaster he stopped making references to “the Indians” and instead referred to the team only as Cleveland starting in 1992. He says he received a letter from a fan after Toronto’s 1992 World Series win over Atlanta that caught his attention. The fan’s letter detailed how hurtful it was to see the “tomahawk chop” and mascots like Chief Wahoo, how offensive it was to hear phrases like “powwow on the mound”, and to witness teams like Cleveland and Atlanta reduce entire cultures down to their most degrading stereotypes.

“I would really appreciate if you’d think about what you say with those teams,” the letter read. And so Howarth dropped references to “Indians” and “Braves” from his vocabulary, switched from “powwow” to “meeting” when talking about mound visits, and was able to continue his award-winning play-by-play career for another 24 seasons.

With little fanfare, Howarth made small changes that limited the amount of harm done to Native peoples who already carry generations’ worth of trauma, institutional violence, and intentional disenfranchisement. Removing references to Indigenous cultural ideas from baseball lets those concepts remain with the peoples who legitimately live them.

Howarth’s choice and Dolan’s epiphany both create slightly more separation between the dehumanizing sporting mascot version of Native life and the real people whose existence continues to be subject to attempted genocide as it has been for hundreds of years. It’s the everyday changes like this that create the conditions for healing. Resurrecting languages and rebuilding entire cultures isn’t just the work of Indigenous peoples; everyone has the ability to shift the public narrative around racist and colonial ideas.

The future

The Braves' Tomahawk Chop logo
The Braves’ Tomahawk Chop logo

2020 was a year that challenged even the most fundamental understanding of what it means to seek justice and to live in service of a collective. However basic it is, to see this kind of reflection play out in public is a step in the right direction for Major League Baseball. Cleveland’s leadership is a small step, but a meaningful one, toward dismantling some of the harm done by using false and racist Native iconography for profit in sport.

This represents surprising leadership from Paul Dolan in a league that has yet to look in the mirror regarding deep-seated cultural issues plaguing every level of its structure. Atlanta leadership has said they are not planning to change their name, nor ban racist chants that occur during their games. Their plans only include to review the use of the “tomahawk chop.”

Moving forward, Dolan bringing some level of compassion to the discussion of Cleveland’s brand may be a jumping off point for other teams to do the same. There are opportunities to exercise community care through powerful institutions like Major League Baseball and I hope other professional sports teams follow his lead.

His statement to detractors works well as a place to continue the conversation:

“I hope that those who do not [agree with the decision] take the time, like we did, to better understand the issues and think about a role a sports team plays in the community and whether we can play that role with a name like Indians.”

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