Change is happening in Cleveland

Marcus Smith

THAT TOOTHY GRIN stretching out his cheeks. Those triangular eyes, the bulbous nose. And the ear, pointing to the big red feather on his head.

I know his features well. But this isn't about me, though it kind of is.

This is about one of the most popular and talked-about figures in Cleveland sports history. He was there when Jim Brown was bowling over tacklers and long before LeBron James was born. Hall of Famers such as Bob Feller, Satchel Paige and Roberto Alomar have kept him close to their hearts and minds. He has starred in Major League and Major League II. Without saying a word, he has spoken to and for the good people of the Forest City, promising a swell time -- and maybe even a win -- if they go to the ballpark. He is Chief Wahoo, of course. Since 1947, he has withstood a 40-year postseason drought (1955-94), a relocation when the team moved downtown from Municipal Stadium in 1994 and annual protests by Native American groups on Opening Day.

And he's still smiling.

But a growing number of people want to wipe that smile off the face of the franchise. They see Wahoo not as the jolly old soul of Cleveland but, as attorney Peter Pattakos of ClevelandFrowns.com puts it, "the only professional sports logo in the Western world that caricaturizes a race of people." They have come to agree with a Feb. 28 editorial in The Plain Dealer that called for his removal because "Wahoo contributes nothing to the performance of the Indians on the field and makes the team hopelessly backward in the eyes of the world."

That's the same newspaper, by the way, that started the whole thing when it anointed the team the Indians 99 years ago. If that sounds hypocritical, well, people change their minds with the times. People like yours truly.

For years, Wahoo brought back pleasant memories. In the summer of 1980, I was assigned by Sports Illustrated to do a story on rookie sensation Joe Charboneau. I befriended Cleveland's PR guy, Bob DiBiasio, and I sat in the last row of the right-field bleachers with John Adams, a fan who pounded a bass drum to rouse the nonexistent crowd at Municipal Stadium.

And when the 1987 baseball season rolled around, I talked my then-bosses at SI into doing a cover on the Indians, feeling certain they were on the cusp of contention. (What did I know? They would lose 101 games.) We arranged a photo shoot with young stars Joe Carter and Cory Snyder posed in front of a wingspan of barn siding with Chief Wahoo artfully painted on it. It looked spectacular -- and we didn't use it. Too dark, thought the bosses. The barn siding became mine.

So whenever I moved offices for the next 20 years, I took the Chief with me. My connection to him had nothing to do with civic pride or fan allegiance. I had a simpleminded affection for cartoons and comics, and the Indians were a fun team to cover. Each workday, I would look at him, channeling my inner child, rationalizing his presence, cherishing my conversation piece.

Now that conversation is national, and heated. Native American poet and activist Suzan Shown Harjo sums up Chief Wahoo this way: "He is the graphic equivalent of the name of the Washington NFL team." As the clamor over the slur in our nation's capital reaches fever pitch, Wahoo is the next offensive symbol to go. And rightly so.

But there are distinct differences in the two situations. While Washington owner Daniel Snyder remains truculently defiant about his team's name, both Cleveland CEO Paul Dolan and president Mark Shapiro are sensitive to the issue -- or at least more reluctant to dig their heels into a losing battle. "We do not have an intractable position on this," Shapiro says. "We want to do the right thing for all our fans." And those fans are becoming ever more precious: Cleveland is second to last in the majors in ballpark attendance.

Plenty of those remaining supporters are still rooting for Wahoo. In a recent Cleveland.com poll, 70 percent of respondents said they wanted to keep the Chief and 28 percent were against him. That's where things get tricky for the franchise. The temporary departures of the Browns and LeBron are still fresh in the minds of Clevelanders, and they don't want to be told Wahoo has to go. Besides, the Chief's nonthreatening smile appeals to kids, and kids grow up to be adults with a connection to the cartoon figure.

The franchise's solution, it appears, has been to try to wean the fan base off of Wahoo, making the new block C on the Indians' caps as synonymous with the team as the Chief has been. The first sign of this came in 2009, when Cleveland took Wahoo off its road batting helmets. While the Chief still beams from the left sleeve of players' jerseys, and occasionally from their caps, he isn't a visible presence at Progressive Field or in the 2014 media guide. And he's basically not invited to spring training in Goodyear, Arizona, where the Native American community is much larger than it is in northeast Ohio. The phaseout seems to be working: Last year three of the four top-selling Cleveland caps were devoid of Wahoo, who was once a top seller.

But that strategy feels a little like wishful thinking -- the hope that later will win out over sooner. In the meantime, the cartoon once created to bring fans together is increasingly pulling them apart. So when citizens should have been talking about pitcher Corey Kluber and outfielder Michael Brantley and the Indians' valiant fight to make the postseason as a wild card, they often found themselves choosing sides.

There were those who bought out "Keep the Chief" T-shirts and those who "de-Chiefed" by ripping and unstitching Wahoo from their hats and shirts. State Sen. Eric Kearney (D-Cincinnati) recently introduced a resolution calling for the franchise to "adopt a new nickname and a new mascot free of racial insensitivity" and got a reaction he describes as "caustic." Indeed, a look at the comments after any online story about Wahoo is a journey into the depths of the human soul.

The divide got an optic at the home opener on April 4, when a fan in "redface" named Pedro Rodriguez was photographed arguing with Robert Roche, a Chiricahua Apache who, on behalf of an organization called People, Not Mascots, plans to file a federal lawsuit against the Indians for $9 billion in damages. As Roche later described the confrontation, "He said, 'I'm trying to honor you.' I told him, 'Honor me? Do you know how ridiculous you look?'"

Honor was one of my rationales for hanging on to Wahoo for so long -- I bought into the notion that the Indians were named after outfielder Louis Sockalexis, the Penobscot Indian and former Holy Cross student who electrified Cleveland in 1897.

I would like to say that I had an epiphany, that one day I woke up and decided Wahoo had to go. In truth, it was one more office move a few years ago, to a workspace that couldn't accommodate him. So I thought of my friend Bob DiBiasio, now the senior vice president for public affairs, and asked him if there might be a place in the Indians' offices for the barn siding. When he said there was, I packed him up and sent him "home."

I saw that Wahoo again the other day, during a visit to Progressive Field. He's in a hallway, smiling at passersby as they go about their Indians business. That's when it finally hit me, after one more pang of guilt. I didn't miss him at all. "Over the years," DiBiasio told me, "ad agencies have tried to convince us to do more with Wahoo. But we've resisted because we wanted him to be about tradition, not profit."

I talked with John Adams, who's now in the back row in the left-field bleachers, still pounding away on his bass drum and wondering what the fuss about the Chief is all about. "People all over the world see him," he says, "and they go, 'Oh, you're from Cleveland.' I like that."

The time has come, though, for Cleveland to say it is not Wahoo but something much better. It's the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bob Hope, Langston Hughes, John Heisman and, if you need a comic figure, Superman. As for the baseball team, it's clearly headed in the right direction.

So what is the franchise going to do with Wahoo? "I'm not smart enough to figure it out," says manager Terry Francona, whose father, Tito, wore the Chief on his sleeve when he played for Cleveland. "All I know is this: Times are changing. And we have really good people in this organization whom I trust to do the right thing."

For now, the club is hiding him in plain sight, polling the fans and watching those souvenir sales. Terry Pluto, the sports columnist for The Plain Dealer, has long advocated getting rid of the cartoon and conducting a contest in which fans select an image created by Native American artists.

The National Congress of American Indians calls for a change of name as well, and, indeed, there are other traditional handles from which to choose -- the team Sockalexis played for was the Spiders for 11 years. That also happens to be the name Mark Shapiro chose when he sponsored his son's youth baseball team. (Cool logo too.)

The proper place for the Chief is actually a few miles east of downtown, at the Western Reserve Historical Society. That's where the 28-foot neon Wahoo that used to revolve outside Gate D of Municipal Stadium now stands. He's been fully restored thanks to the generosity of Cleveland fans.

At first, the museum invited patrons to express their feelings about the Chief with Post-It notes, but as a museum guard recently explained, "Some people were too stupid with their posts, and it got out of control." Now there are storyboards titled, "Chief Wahoo: Brief History of a Civic Icon," "Enthusiasm! That's Chief Wahoo!" and "The Legacy of Racism Continues."

There he stands, floor to skylight, preserved for posterity to remind Cleveland of how much he once meant to everyone -- and how far we've come as a society.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's October 13 Cleveland Issue. Subscribe today!