If I had to select one thing to change about the Cleveland Indians, the choice would be an easy one for me. Before I ever addressed any roster issues, I’d axe the team’s longtime mascot, Chief Wahoo. Before I explain my distaste for the Chief, and my argument for his elimination, I want to explain the origins of the Indians’ team name and Chief Wahoo.
After Cleveland became one of the American League’s charter franchises in 1901, it went through several different name changes from 1901-1903. In 1903, the team came to be known as the "Naps" in honor of Hall of Fame second baseman Napoleon "Nap" Lajoie. After Lajoie’s contract was sold to the Athletics in 1914, the Cleveland team’s ownership wanted to find a new name. A committee of sportswriters was established to select the new moniker, aided by local fan input. The outcome was the name "Indians," supposedly in honor of the first Native American to play in the major leagues, Louis Sockalexis. (Sockalexis played for the Cleveland Spiders from 1897-1899). There is an alternate cause listed for the name’s origin -- the Cleveland club simply hoped to feed off the popularity of the Boston Braves, who just won the 1914 World Series.
It took more than 30 years for Chief Wahoo to make his first appearance on Cleveland Indians uniforms. In 1946, new owner Bill Veeck went to the J.F. Novak Company to design a mascot that "would convey a spirit of pure joy and unbridled enthusiasm." The design job went to 17-year-old Walter Goldbach. The new logo drawn by Goldbach lasted on team uniforms from 1947-1951, when it was reformatted into the present-day incarnation of Chief Wahoo. The name Chief Wahoo was eventually coined by sportswriters a few years after his creation. It’s interesting to consider that a logo widely described as racist and offensive made its first appearance during the season that the Cleveland Indians integrated -- the first American League team to do so, with Larry Doby.
With the addition of other Cleveland logos over the past several years, such as the script I and the block C, it shows that Chief Wahoo has at least been somewhat marginalized. As I watched the Indians and Rays series, I still saw the Chief’s smiling face looking back at me from the Indians’ home caps. With other legitimate options, why is he still necessary? It’s worth noting that the block C is very reminiscent of the Indians’ initial logo, used from 1915 to 1920. It is stylish with a retro feel; I think it should displace Chief Wahoo completely.
I know that many people complain about an overabundance of "political correctness" in our society, and use that as an excuse as to why Chief Wahoo should continue to exist. People make nostalgic connections to the Chief, and talk about their remembrances of him growing up as an Indians fan. However, every time I look at Chief Wahoo I see a racist caricature, something akin to Little Black Sambo. I think that we, as a society, have marginalized the "Sambo" image and name, so why should Chief Wahoo be allowed to persist? It’s not like the Chief is connected to a long tradition of World Series victories, so why not purge him and rid yourself of what I consider the "curse of the racist mascot."
Chief Wahoo has already been eliminated from several different places connected to the Indians. For example, I challenge you to find any evidence of Chief Wahoo’s existence at the Indians spring training complex in Goodyear, Ariz. He is no place to be found; I’ve only noticed his presence on some of the items in the team shop. This makes sense, since Arizona has a sizable Native American population that would obviously take offense to the image. Chief Wahoo was also purged from the "stars and stripes" hats that teams wear on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. In 2008, the Indians wore a cap with a "stars and stripes" Chief Wahoo plastered on the front. By 2009, MLB pulled the Chief and replaced him with a "stars and stripes" block C.
In my opinion, these two cases show that there is potentially some shame in regards to Chief Wahoo. He was very visible at the Indians' spring training complex in Winter Haven, Fla.; there was obviously an effort to remove his image from the new facility in Goodyear. The fact that he was replaced on the "stars and stripes" hat for the 2009 season shows me that there was some hesitancy in placing the image of an American flag over such a controversial symbol. There’s visible discomfort with the continued use of this image, and there would be no harm in removing Chief Wahoo and retiring him for good.
Stephanie Liscio writes for the It's Pronounced "Lajaway" blog that covers the Indians.