The biggest baseball news so far this offseason came unexpectedly on Sunday night, as an entire franchise—not just one player—will be changing uniforms. According to The New York Times, Cleveland’s MLB club will soon have a new identity after playing as the Indians for 105 years.
Cleveland has spent most of the past decade taking incremental, tentative steps away from its definitive imagery. The team first announced its intention to replace the racist Chief Wahoo logo with a block C in 2014, before mothballing the former altogether after the 2018 campaign. These decisions came decades after Native American protestors marched outside Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium at the Braves-Indians World Series of 1995. (Speaking of teams whose brand identity is operating on borrowed time.) And even in the mid-2010s, the Cleveland organization had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the ’90s, culturally speaking.
After relegating Chief Wahoo to secondary status, Cleveland wore its nominal alternate caps in every playoff game on its 2016 World Series run, then in three-quarters of its regular season games the following year. In explaining the choice to get rid of the logo, Paul Dolan—the team’s chairman—told the Cleveland Plain Dealer it was “the hardest decision we’ve had to make during our entire ownership.” (The team continued to sell officially licensed Chief Wahoo merchandise at Progressive Field through last year.)
Still, better late than never.
Or rather, better later than never. Both the Times and Cleveland.com, which confirmed the report shortly after, cited unnamed sources who say the club will continue to play under its appropriated moniker in 2021 before changing to a new mascot—or no mascot at all—in 2022. The last team official to speak about the issue on the record is team president Chris Antonetti, who two weeks ago said he’d been “enlightened by the conversation” about the team name, and that specifics about a hypothetical rebranding were still to be hammered out. If Cleveland does play next season as the Indians, it would seem to indicate that the franchise believes the nickname is racist enough to be changed but not so racist that it must be changed immediately. Instead, it would get a farewell tour, like Derek Jeter and Chipper Jones got when they retired.
When positive change happens years and years later than it should, contradictory emotions necessarily ensue. There’s the obvious happiness and gratitude that it’s happening at all, balanced by frustration that it took so long. Should we praise Dolan’s organization for doing the right thing, or continue to hold it to account for othering and implicitly mocking a racial minority whose centuries of subjugation are one of our country’s greatest and most indelible sins?
The protracted timeline of reform would seem to indicate something other than a Road to Damascus moment. Even Washington Football Team owner Dan Snyder up and changed his franchise name the moment it became politically and commercially untenable. This might seem like a gratuitous potshot, but when a team’s management is not only later to the party than Snyder but less progressive once it gets there, it’s reasonable to respond with only muted applause.
This being a front in the American culture wars, there will undoubtedly be a noisy and numerous minority who oppose Cleveland’s belated name change as an affront. Such voices have chimed in as long as North American sports have been reckoning with and rolling back the fetishization of Native Americans—which is to say, for more than a generation now. The most contentious and controversial case of all was not in Washington or Cleveland or Atlanta, though, but at the University of North Dakota.
In 2012, North Dakota voters chose by a two-to-one margin to retire the school’s “Fighting Sioux” nickname and logo—which was broadly similar to the iconography of the Chicago Blackhawks and Florida State Seminoles, or the logo that formerly appeared on the Washington Football Team’s helmets. Despite the popular support for a new name, it was more than three years before North Dakota changed its mascot to the Fighting Hawks. In terms of success and fan devotion, the Fighting Hawks are the Alabama football of college hockey, and many of their diehards have all but ignored the name change. Ralph Engelstad, the donor who financed the team’s eponymous arena, had the old logo built in throughout the building to make a potential name change more expensive. And fans overwhelmingly wear old Fighting Sioux gear to games and keep up the old chants.
Nothing legally or practically is preventing aggrieved Cleveland fans from doing the same: using the old name, wearing the old cap or jersey, cleaving to the abandoned vernacular. At least on an individual level. But capitalistic organizations—like Cleveland’s baseball team or MLB itself—exist to sell tickets, TV subscriptions, and ice cream in plastic souvenir helmets, and they’ll take on whatever stance allows them to sell more, while repudiating those that would cause them to sell less. Until recently, the cultural mainstream found it acceptable to use Native Americans as sports mascots, so the team held on. Now that proposition has become sufficiently unpopular as to inconvenience Cleveland’s business operations, so the name must go.
Regardless of the motives behind the name change, this team now has a tremendous opportunity—a chance not just to rebrand but to remake its identity. The last time this club changed its name, in 1915, “Indians” won a newspaper contest. The long-established story that the club chose the name to honor Penobscot outfielder Louis Sockalexis is only a myth. From 1903 to 1914 the team was known as the Naps, after Hall of Fame second baseman Nap Lajoie; when Lajoie left the club, it needed to rebrand, but it would’ve been curious to name the team for an otherwise forgettable outfielder who’d played just 94 games in the majors.
Now, another rebrand is in the cards. The Times mooted a path forward without a nickname, as the Washington Football Team has done. But that could invite unflattering abbreviations, as “Baseball Team” is truncated to “B-Team” or “CBT,” which in MLB parlance is short for “competitive balance tax.” Cleveland’s refusal to spend near the CBT threshold has led to the exodus of numerous star players and is likely to send superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor out the door in years to come.
The front-runner for a new nickname seems to be the Spiders, which would not only be a unique moniker among North American pro sports clubs but nod back at the city’s long baseball history—the defunct 19th-century National League club Sockalexis played for was known as the Spiders.
As much as people from bigger, more glamorous cities tend to lampoon Cleveland as a cultural backwater, northern Ohio’s history, culture, and ecology are distinct enough to provide a wealth of options for a new and improved team nickname. Or even new team colors. One somewhat surprising development of the Chief Wahoo debacle is that absent the old logo, Cleveland’s red, white, and blue uniforms are surprisingly forgettable, a half measure that almost recalls Chief Wahoo because the old logo’s absence is so pronounced.
What comes next is an opportunity to create something new and special from scratch. And more importantly, to show that removing unrepentant racism gives room for something better to grow in its place.