Starting in 2019, the Cleveland Indians will no longer use the Chief Wahoo caricature on their uniforms or field. The decision comes four years after the club promised to deemphasize the racist logo, after decades of widespread protests, and 70 years after the image’s introduction. Though removing Chief Wahoo is as welcome as it is overdue, neither Major League Baseball nor the club, which dragged its feet for years and will continue to sell Chief Wahoo merchandise beyond 2018, deserves praise for almost reaching a bare minimum standard of taste and decency.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has been trying to get rid of the logo for years, and this decision would’ve come a lot sooner had the club not fought the league at every turn. In an interview with Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, club chairman Paul Dolan said removing Chief Wahoo was a “compromise” and that it was “the hardest decision we’ve had to make during our entire ownership,” a tenure that stretches back to 1999. The club first promised to deemphasize the racist logo in 2014, when it made a block C its primary emblem and relegated Chief Wahoo to a sleeve patch and an alternate cap. Cleveland wore the block C in spring training and on MLB’s special event days — Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, various military-appreciation weekends — but slowly reintegrated the controversial image otherwise. Cleveland wore Chief Wahoo hats in every single game of its 2016 postseason run to the World Series and a further 122 times in 2017. One wonders how the studiously noncontroversial Manfred reacted privately when his sport’s biggest showcase featured a club that dressed like it had wandered off the screen of Disney’s Peter Pan.
The National Congress of American Indians responded positively to the Chief Wahoo news, but noted that there is much work left to be done.
“These mascots reduce all Native people into a single outdated stereotype that harms the way Native people, especially youth, view themselves,” the NCAI’s statement reads. “Today’s news is a big step in the right direction, but much work remains, and NCAI will press on with this struggle until every single one of these harmful mascots is gone from the sports landscape.”
In the past decade, American sports culture has gradually come around to the line of thinking that it might not be a good idea to make mascots out of people who have been oppressed, marginalized, and nearly wiped out in this country over the past 400 years. And while numerous college and high school teams have changed their names and/or retired controversial mascots, professional sports teams had, until now, dug their heels in.
The putative reason for retaining Chief Wahoo was tradition. In his emotional Plain Dealer interview (“The usually reserved Dolan’s voice cracked a bit at different times during this interview,” Pluto wrote), Dolan, an Ohio native, remembered the logo as part of fond childhood memories of the team. In other words, Chief Wahoo is an important piece of local cultural symbolism. I wonder if this guy has thoughts about cultural symbolism.
Cleveland’s American League franchise adopted the nickname “Indians” in 1915, after 14 years as the Blues, the Bronchos, or the Naps. The name was supposedly a tribute to Louis Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot tribe who had played for the crosstown Cleveland Spiders from 1897 to 1899. It’d be curious if the team was named for a player who appeared in 94 games for a different franchise nearly 20 years prior, and, sure enough, contemporary newspaper coverage shows that naming the team the “Indians” was never intended as much of a tribute. Chief Wahoo popped up decades later in 1948, like a statue of a Confederate general erected to promote the Lost Cause myth.
The link between Sockalexis and Chief Wahoo being total horseshit, though, is beside the point — whatever its origin, a grinning caricature of a race of people that white Americans nearly swept off the map is an inappropriate logo for a baseball team, certainly in 2018, if not in 1918.
That’s not going to make the Indians change their team name, however, or keep them from wearing a logo for the entire 2018 season that is, by their own proclamation, racist. Nor will it keep them from selling Chief Wahoo gear in their team store even after they stop wearing it on the field, nor will it lead to a crackdown on fans wearing redface and headdresses.
“In this day and age, that kind of caricature is subject to various interpretations,” Dolan told Pluto. He was talking about the logo, but his club’s own caricature of decency also welcomes interpretation.