By Chris Ricchetti | 3 October 2021
The End of an Era
The Cleveland Indians have played their last game as the Indians—a 6-0 shutout of the Texas Rangers today at Globe Life Field in Arlington.
The Tribe’s last-ever home game was an 8-3 win against the Kansas City Royals, on September 27, in which Cleveland center fielder Bradley Zimmer homered off his brother, Kansas City reliever Kyle Zimmer, to lead off the bottom of the 8th.
I have lived in Chicago since coming here for undergrad in 1985. But I grew up in suburban Cleveland and, though I raised a son here and have since become a passionate White Sox fan, I have never lost my deeply felt love for my boyhood team, the Cleveland Indians.
My father’s father emigrated to the United States from southern Italy and settled in Cleveland in 1919—four years after the ballclub elected to call itself the Indians. The team and its name have meant something now to four generations of Ricchettis, including some who have never lived anywhere near The Land. I carry with me many cherished memories of outings to Cleveland Municipal Stadium, and later, to “the Jake,” with my father, middle school, high school and college buddies, and my extended family.
I heartily support the name change and accept that it is long past time to move on from imagery and nomenclature that have been harmful. Whether or not and to what extent the harm was intended is not the point. Harm is harm.
Nonetheless, I am feeling sad and nostalgic today, as I watch the Indians Era come to a close.
A Club by Any Other Name
The Cleveland franchise dates back to 1901, when the American League, hitherto a minor league, declared itself a major. The minor-league forerunner to the 1901 ballclub had competed in the league, making Cleveland one of the eight charter members of the “upgraded” American League.
In its early years, the team experimented with several monikers, starting with the “Bluebirds,” often shortened to the “Blues.” The players disliked the name and tried, unsuccessfully, to change it to the “Bronchos.” Inexplicably, some sportswriters continued to use the extremely unpopular name “Spiders” for several more years after the formation of the new major league franchise (see below, and Endnote 1).
In 1902, Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie, star second baseman with the Philadelphia Phillies, defected to the new American League, playing briefly for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. But early in the season, he moved over to the Cleveland ballclub, lured by a three-year contract for $25,000—more than double what the Athletics were paying.
Nap was an immediate hit with Cleveland fans, and it wasn’t long before the team was renamed the “Naps.” In 1905, he became the club’s player-manager. The team struggled in the late oughts and early 1910s, leading some reporters to refer to them as the “Napkins.”
Between 1912 and 1914, the team was known (unofficially) to some as the “Molly McGuires,” a reference to a group of Irish-American immigrants prone to violent retaliation against their employers over exploitive and dangerous working conditions. Whoever invoked the “Molly McGuires” as an alternative to the “Naps” must have been “trolling” club co-owner Charley Somers, who had made his fortune in the coal business—the industry in which the majority of real-life Molly McGuires unhappily labored.
After the 1914 season, Lajoie, very much past his prime, returned to the Athletics, precipitating the search for a new team name. With input from sportswriters, the team was renamed the “Indians” in 1915.
Baseball historians and fans have long debated whether the Indians were so named, at least in part, as a tribute to Louis Sockalexis, a Native-American who played the entirety of his brief, major league career (1897-1899) as an outfielder for the Cleveland Spiders—a National League team that found itself no longer able to compete at the major league level, following a dismal 1899 season. Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot Nation, was among the first Native Americans (many believe he was the first) to play major league baseball.
For decades, the Cleveland Indians organization propagated the narrative that the team’s name was meant to honor Sockalexis, who, they insisted, was a “fan favorite.” It is true that, during his time with the Spiders, reporters and fans—with the encouragement of the club’s owners—often referred to the team as “Tebeau’s Indians,” purportedly in deference to both player-manager Oliver “Patsy” Tebeau and Sockalexis.
Skeptics have argued that because so many white people looked down upon Native Americans, it’s implausible that white owners of the early twentieth century would have named their team in honor of one. In a 2007 blog post, former Sports Illustrated writer and Cleveland native Joe Posnanski wonders, “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?”
Reporting on the name change in 1915, a writer for Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer opines that the name “also serves to revive the memory of a single great player who has been gathered to his fathers in the happy hunting grounds of the Abenakis,” perhaps reflecting both appreciation for Sockalexis’ athletic talent and insensitivity toward his indigenous heritage.
NYU Professor Emeritus of Education and History Jonathan Zimmerman contends that, far from being a player beloved by fans, Sockalexis was the player that fans quite literally loved to hate. According to Zimmerman, the Indians moniker was intended not to honor Sockalexis, but to mock him. During his short stint in major league baseball, he endured constant taunts—frequently, but by no means exclusively—from opposing-team fans, for whom abusing Sockalexis apparently was an integral part of the “fun” of rooting against the Spiders. References to the “Cleveland Indians,” Zimmerman asserts, were intentionally sarcastic and demeaning.
Ed Rice, author of the Sockalexis biography, Baseball’s First Indian, agrees: “They called [the Cleveland Spiders] ‘Tebeau’s Indians.’ But it wasn’t meant to be flattering, of course. It was meant to make fun of the spectacle that Cleveland was going to be in 1897, putting an American Indian on the field.”
To muddy the waters further—because, why not?!—the Cleveland Spiders were sometimes referred to as “Tebeau’s Indians” and “Tebeau’s Braves” well before the club signed Sockalexis.
Moreover, a bunch of Cleveland players and managers have been referred to as “Chief” or “Chief Wahoo,” both before and after the 1915 name change. And the “Chief (manager) / Indians (players)” metaphor has been used in reference to many teams, and may be as old as baseball itself.
Apart from any historical connection to Sockalexis, the name “Indians” may have appealed to white baseball fans of the time because it conveyed the supposed ferocity of a group that many regarded as “savages.” Shortly after the name change was announced, on January 17, 1915, the Cleveland Leader published this commentary: “In place of the Naps, we’ll have the Indians, on the warpath all the time, and eager for scalps to dangle at their belts.”
That same day, The Plain Dealer published a cartoon loaded with stereotypes and racist tropes, captioned “Ki Yi Waugh Woop! They’re Indians!”
Beneath the cartoon, the paper reported the decision of the name selection committee convened by co-owner Charley Somers to solicit the input of sportswriters from Cleveland’s four daily newspapers: “The title of ‘Indians’ was their choice, it having been one of the names applied to the old National League club of Cleveland many years ago.” Notably, the name was not intended to be permanent. The writer continues
The nickname, however, is but temporarily bestowed, as the club may so conduct itself during the present season as to earn some other cognomen which may be more appropriate. The choice of a name that would be significant just now was rather difficult with the club itself anchored in last place.
Perhaps the name was chosen to take advantage of the excitement surrounding the 1914 “Miracle Braves” of Boston, who had come from last place in midseason to win the National League Pennant. Perhaps the name “Indians” could replicate for Cleveland the “magic” of the Boston club’s sanitized Native American ethos (see comments over the phallus in the center of the cartoon above).
According to sport sociologist and Ithaca College Professor of Sports Media Ellen Staurowsky, there were no references to Sockalexis in any accounts of the name selection process published in any of the four Cleveland newspapers—compelling evidence that the choice of the name “Indians” in January 1915 was not a direct reference to Sockalexis. In a 1998 scholarly article on the subject, Staurowsky writes
As seen in the 1915 accounts, when the team faced the mammoth task of moving out of the basement in league standings while forging a new identity, there was no need to mention Sockalexis because it was the generic, plural "Indians" signifier that provided the marketing angle club President Charley Somers and the sportswriters sought.
However, use of the moniker in connection with the Cleveland Spiders, some eighteen years earlier, had been directly referential to Sockalexis, as evidenced by dozens of contemporaneous sources referencing “Indians” or “Tebeau’s Indians.” This one, about the newly-signed outfielder’s arrival in Cleveland, is from the March 27, 1897 issue of Sporting Life:
Sockalexis, the Indian, came to town on Friday, and in 24 hours was the most popular man about the Kennard House, where he is stopping... Why he has not been snatched up by some League club looking for a sensational player is beyond my comprehension... They're Indians now.
Perhaps something like the transitive property of equality (i.e., A=B and B=C. Therefore, A=C.) is applicable here:
➤ The 1897 Spiders were called Indians because of Sockalexis,
➤ The name Indians was chosen in 1915 because of the 1897 Spiders.
➤ The 1915 Indians were so named (indirectly) because of Sockalexis.
Cleveland-based sports historian Morris Eckhouse seems to agree: “Without Sockalexis, it’s unlikely the team would be called the Cleveland Indians.”
Of course, this tidy simplification leaves unresolved the question of why Sockalexis’ “Indian” heritage was evoked as a nickname for the Cleveland Spiders—was it out of disdain for him, or in celebration of his remarkable skill as an outfielder and as a hitter, or a confounding mixture of attitudes and beliefs that were characteristic of the time?
If, over these many years, anyone associated with Cleveland baseball—from owners, to managers and coaches, to players, to fans—has had any heartfelt intent to bestow honor upon Native Americans as a group and/or upon any specific Native American, or to empathize with their actual lived experience, it seems clear that none of us have done so very well.
A precursor to the Native American caricature that came to represent the Cleveland Indians first appeared in 1932, on the front page of The Plain Dealer. For years thereafter, the “Little Indian,” as he came to be known, made regular appearances in the newspaper’s sports section, drawing readers’ attention to the latest Cleveland baseball news.
The first version actually commissioned by the Indians ballclub was designed by seventeen-year-old Walter Goldbach in 1947. The logo continued to evolve, culminating in the 1951 redesign that remained (with periodic minor design changes) until it was abandoned altogether after the 2018 season.
Use of the nicknames “Chief” and “Chief Wahoo” in connection with certain Cleveland players predates the logo by several decades. In 1952, the nickname and the caricature were united, and Chief Wahoo became the official name of the Cleveland Indians mascot.
Some have noted that Chief Wahoo is actually a brave, not a chief, because his head is adorned with a single feather, whereas a chief would have worn a full headdress. Earlier team logos had included the full headdress.
Today, the twenty-eight-foot, neon-illuminated representation of Chief Wahoo stepping into his swing, that for thiry-one seasons (1962-1993) was mounted high above Gate D at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, is on exhibit in the Reinberger Gallery at the Western Reserve Historical Society.
Wahoo is a switch hitter. He is the same on both sides and, back in the day, he rotated. Depending upon which side of Wahoo you looked at, he would appear to be batting righty or lefty. In his new home at the museum, it seems that he’ll be batting lefty forevermore.
Not All Heroes Are White
It is worth remembering that professional baseball in the 19th and early 20th centuries was an entirely different animal than the orderly, tightly-controlled product we see on our 4K and 8K televisions today.
In Sockalexis’ time, baseball was a rowdy, unsportsmanlike, often lawless, often violent brawl, played mostly by gritty, hardened, working-class immigrants, in which “might made right” and “winning at any cost” were both the expectation and the norm. Bullying, threats, intimidation, bribery, and flagrant physical assault were everyday occurrences. The game was a little cleaner by 1915, but not much.
Few players of that era were “honored” by sportswriters, teammates, or fans in the ways that decades of sports marketing have conditioned us to think that Sockalexis was “honored.” It simply was not part of the zeitgeist. It was raucous, take-no-prisoners entertainment, and the dignity of many was sacrificed in the production of it. In any such environment, people who are seen as “other” inevitably bear the worst of the pain. There is no reason to believe that Sockalexis would have been spared. As a Native American playing major league baseball just seven years after the Massacre at Wounded Knee, he was an American hero, simply for having had the courage to step onto the field.
The Dawn of a New Era
The Indians Era has come to an end. Cleveland’s Major League Baseball club will henceforth be known as the “Guardians,” a name inspired by the eight statues (“Guardians of Traffic”) capping the pylons of the Hope Memorial Bridge that spans the Cuyahoga River, leading to the ballpark from the west.
The 1901 Cleveland ballclub was an amalgam of two existing Cleveland teams. One of these, the Cleveland Lake Shores, were a minor league club affiliated with the American League, which promoted itself to major league status, effective for the 1901 season. Charley Somers, co-owner of the Lake Shores, was a driving force in the early development of the American League. He purchased the Lake Shores ballclub (formerly the Grand Rapids Rustlers) and moved it to Cleveland, in anticipation of the American League’s ascension to major league status. American League President Ban Johnson, Somers, and the other AL club owners were determined to break the National League’s near monopoly in professional baseball. The other existing Cleveland team, the Cleveland Spiders, were a major league club that competed in the National League. The Spiders roster had been decimated in 1899 when most of their star talent migrated to the National League club in St. Louis, at the direction of the Robison brothers—Frank and Stanley—who were the owners of both the Cleveland and the St. Louis National League teams. St. Louis was a larger market, and the Robisons had decided to go “all in” with their St. Louis team. They sold the Spiders remaining player contracts and other assets to the Cleveland Lake Shores. The combined club was thus a charter member of the new American League, calling itself the Cleveland “Bluebirds,” or “Blues,” for short. ↑
The Spiders performed miserably in 1899 because owners Frank and Stanley Robison (brothers) had bought the St. Louis Browns out of bankruptcy and transferred most of Cleveland’s star talent—including Cy Young and other eventual Hall-of-Famers—to the St. Louis club, renamed the “Perfectos.” ↑
According to Joe Posnanski and others, this lone sportswriter was the only reporter in any of the Cleveland newspapers to suggest an explicit connection with Sockalexis in the months after the name change was announced, in January 1915. Posnanski claims that Sockalexis was not named in The Plain Dealer a single time during the next ten years. ↑
Cleveland’s four daily newspapers of the time were the Cleveland Leader, the Cleveland News, the Cleveland Press, and The Plain Dealer. ↑