EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published on May 16, 2019 by the Ohio History Connection. Ashland Source has entered into a collaborative agreement with the Ohio History Connection to share content across our sites.
During the Spring 2019 semester, Otterbein University sponsored a class in conjuncture with the Ohio History Connection to teach students about public history and allow them hands-on opportunities in a real museum. The following blog post was written by an Otterbein student who took this class. Throughout the semester, students were given the chance to contribute objects to Ohio History Connections new “Ohio Champion of Sports” exhibit, and every week they were given the opportunity to speak with various museum professionals. Their final project for this class was to create a public outreach connected to the museum and Ohio sports. This blog is part of the authors final outreach project, which also included a student panel on the use of Native American mascots. This panel was hosted on Otterbein University’s radio station, WOBN 97.5 the Wildcard on April 17, 2019.
Like many lifelong Cleveland baseball fans my childhood was filled with fond memories of warm summer days spent on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. I know the excitement of singing Cleveland Rocks after a hard-won game and the disappointment of yet another big loss.
Amid my many memories one stands out to me for a different reason. I was about 10 years old and it was a normal day at the ballfield, except for one thing. Outside the stadium, a group of people were protesting Chief Wahoo and the Indians name.
As you can imagine, 10-year-old me was very confused. Why would anyone be protesting the Cleveland Indians? They’re the greatest team in the world if not the universe. What could they have possibly done wrong?
I asked my mom what the protesters were doing. Embarrassed she told me that they were protesting Chief Wahoo and the Indians because some people didn’t like the name. How could someone not like the Indians? Wasn’t it an honor to have a team named after your people? Wouldn’t it be cool to be a team’s mascot?
At 10 these were the thoughts that went through my mind. To me the Cleveland Indians were just a team that I loved. I didn’t know that their name and mascot had histories all their own that were far from honoring any Native Americans.
That day at Jacobs (now Progressive) field stuck in my mind but I didn’t have a reason to research the topic until recently. As a senior at Otterbein University I was given the opportunity to contribute to Ohio History Connection's new Ohio Champion of Sports exhibit.
I knew almost immediately that I wanted to display something related to the Cleveland Indians. It was during my search for an object that I encountered Louis Francis Sockalexis, the first Native American to play Major League Baseball. Sockalexis is also, according to the Cleveland franchise and many fans, the Native American player that the Indians name honors.
Legend has it that Sockalexis was a ballplayer of mythic proportions. He could reportedly throw a ball over 600 feet, sprint like and Olympian, and knock a ball out of the park like the best of them.
In 1897, he was signed to the Cleveland Spiders, the National League team in Cleveland at the time. As the season began Sockalexis seemed to be living up to his hype. In every city Sockalexis played people would come from miles around to see a “real” Native American.
Some of these spectators came out of genuine curiosity for a great baseball player. However, more often than not, onlookers came to jeer and taunt Sockalexis. To many baseball fans, Native Americans were still America’s biggest threat to expansion West. Only 20 years earlier General Custer had been defeated, and it had only been 15 years since the famed Geronimo’s capture.
Yet, despite cruel treatment everywhere he played, after just three months on the team Sockalexis had a .338 batting average and was making the top salary in the league ($2,400). Unfortunately, in July of 1897 Sockalexis’ growing alcoholism combined with an ankle injury brought the beginning of the end of his baseball career. Sockalexis would play briefly in Cleveland for two more seasons before slipping away into infamy.
Sockalexis’ name would not return to Cleveland until 1915 (two years after his untimely death), when the city’s new Western League team (former name of the now American League) was experiencing an identity crisis. Since 1903 the team had gone by the nickname Naps after their star player Napoleon Lajoie. When Lajoie left in 1914 the team was left nicknameless.
In response, the owner of the Cleveland team, Charles W. Somers, contacted the four local Cleveland papers and formed a committee that would choose the new name. After two weeks of deliberation these sportswriters chose the name “Indians,” announcing it with an array of disrespectful Native American caricatures and analogies. The papers claimed that the name harkened back to a former nickname of the team.
The nickname “Indians” was indeed applied to the team in 1897 because of Sockalexis’ presence. In this period of baseball history nicknames were more fluid than they are today. They often changed based on new circumstances of the team, like having a Native American player.
Nevertheless, after countless hours of research reading old newspapers and Sockalexis biographies, it became clear to me that having something named after you doesn’t necessarily mean the name is honoring.
Sure, maybe it would be cool to have a baseball team named after me or my race, but only if I had a say in how my name or identity were used. Sockalexis wasn’t alive to be asked if this is what he wanted, and no one asked his tribe, the Penobscot, if that’s what they wanted either. Even today, Cleveland does not consult any Native American tribes on their name or logo usage.
Today’s Cleveland team justifies its name by tying it to Sockalexis. However, while Sockalexis had extraordinary talent he also struggled with alcoholism that eventually prevented him from performing for the team as well as they had expected.
This reality makes me then wonder, why would Cleveland want to honor Sockalexis? And, if they did decide they wanted to truly honor him, why isn’t his name displayed prominently in the stadium? Or why isn’t there a statue of him greeting fans as they enter the field instead of Bob Feller? Where is the honor?
I don’t see it and neither do many Native Americans whose very identities are harmed by Cleveland’s insensitive imagery and name.
When you step on someone’s toes and they say ouch you don’t tell them that the action didn’t really hurt, that would be rude. As Durango Mendoza, a Native American from the Midwest put it, “What part of ouch do you not understand?”
When you step on someone’s toes you apologize. Cleveland fans are stepping on Native Americans toes, and just because they didn’t mean to doesn’t mean it doesn’t still hurt.
As a Cleveland fan, I know that it is hard to accept that we’re in the wrong. To me Chief Wahoo does just feel like a mascot, but he’s not. To thousands of Native American people his image is a reminder that to many Americans they are still not seen as less than.
Taking the time to educate ourselves and ask the hard questions is the first steps to change in Cleveland. It will not be easy and it may not be what we want but, Cleveland baseball is about more than a name and a mascot, it’s about a city and team that we all love. Let’s work together and take practical steps towards change like not buying Chief Wahoo merchandise or by publically showing support for Native Americans. By taking these actions we can be a community with a team and origin story that make everyone feel welcome to enjoy Cleveland baseball.