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Cleveland’s Baseball Team Has Experienced a Tumultuous History With Its Name

Updated: Oct 16, 2021

In the summer of 2020, the Cleveland Indians announced a major change to their baseball team.  Their name would be changing for the 2022 baseball season.  This change comes amidst increasing calls around the country for racial equality. The Cleveland baseball team thinks this name change is a necessary step in “improving as an organization on issues of social justice.”

Over the years, Cleveland’s professional baseball team changed its name from the ‘Cleveland Spiders,’ to ‘Cleveland Naps,’ and most recently, to the ‘Cleveland Indians.’ Since the change, controversy has ensued over the name and mascot of the team, recently reaching a tipping point.

Throughout discussion over the Cleveland Indians’ brand, the name Louis Sockalexis often comes up. Sockalexis was the first Native American to play in major league baseball, playing for the Cleveland Spiders for three seasons and finishing his career in 1899. The team started off as the Spiders, matching the skinny appearance of many of the players. Following Sockalexis’s retirement, the Cleveland Spiders began playing poorly, prompting low attendance in the stands.

Owner of the Spiders, Frank DeHaas Robison, had bought the St. Louis Browns in 1889. To punish Spiders fans for their low attendance, Robison moved players around, putting the best on the Browns and moving the worst to Cleveland. Eventually, future hall-of-fame players such as Bobby Wallance and Cy Young were moved to St. Louis, which caused the Spiders to worsen. Attendance continued to decline and the team was dropped from the league.

A new lineup of players was created in Cleveland to compile a new team in 1903. Initially the team was called the Naps, for their best player, Nap Lajoie, but when he was sold to a different team there was, once again, a name vacancy. In 1915, the team settled on a permanent name and began their career being known as the Indians. The name change to Cleveland Indians occurred shortly after Sockalexis’s death in Dec. 1913; many people often argue that the name honors his legacy.

In 1942, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a Cleveland local newspaper, started running cartoons connecting the Cleveland Indians with an unofficial mascot known as “The Little Indian.” The comic ran for more than 30 years, its purpose being to announce game scores. Though the comic began as a humorous way to announce scores, it had a larger impact. In 1947, the Cleveland Indians, who were in need of a mascot, adopted the cartoon and altered it to become “Chief Wahoo,” who became the face of the team from 1947-2018.

Each opening day since 1973 protests against the name and mascot of the team have occurred. During these protests, Native Americans pushed that the team’s name is not honoring Sockalexis nor Native culture as a whole. The executive director of the Cleveland American Indians Movement, Sundance, protests the logo; he described it as “problematic, exploitative and obscene.” During the 2016 World Series, tensions surrounding the name and mascot grew, bringing the Cleveland Indians into the spotlight.

In 2018, MLB commissioner, Rob Manfred, announced “The logo is no longer appropriate for on-field use in Major League Baseball.” After a discussion with the Indians’ Organization, an official change was made; Chief Wahoo would no longer be included on the team’s uniforms. Sundance described this decision as a “half century too late.” When interviewed by NPR, the aforementioned Muscogee Tribe member, Sundance, described his dissatisfaction with the Cleveland baseball team’s decision, as the team continues to hold the mascot as a trademark, thus continuing to make money off Chief Wahoo merchandise.

To protesters, removing Chief Wahoo was seen as a step in the right direction, but there was more to be done.

Following the protests in the summer of 2020 over the killing of George Floyd, the Cleveland baseball team released a statement, expressing the need to “advance social justice and equality.” The statement explained that their name is one of the immediate ways people connect with their team and stated that they are determining the “best path forward in regard to our team name.”

On December 14th, the Cleveland Indians posted that they will “begin the process of changing our team name ‘Indians’” following the 2021 season. The team has yet to announce what their new name will be. Nevertheless, this post was met with a variety of responses ranging from some saying they have “lost loyal fans” to others congratulating the baseball team and suggesting possible name options. Some thought that the decision would take away the team’s identity, while others believed that the process of change should have begun sooner.

Through this time of increased awareness of racial inequalities, debate has opened up criticism on other professional sports teams, deeming their names as offensive as the Indians, namely the Washington Redskins football team. The Cleveland baseball team is taking the first steps in making the world of professional sports more inclusive for everyone involved.

Through Teen Lenses: The Cleveland Indians are taking steps to change their name from the Indians to a more inclusive title. Do you think this is a step in the right direction or an unnecessary change? Why?

“I think that focusing on petty name changes like this are missing the true point of equity for Indigenous people’s living in America. I’d like to see a world that didn’t have names like Washington RedSkins but ultimately I think Indigenous people are facing far worse than the name of a team. Like things such as land rights and proper funding for native populations is far more important but it doesn’t seem to get as much traction as football team names.” Owen Schmidt, 18, Henry Clay High School, Lexington, Kentucky.
“I think that changing their name is a step in the right direction. Times are changing, and as we learn more and progress as a society things that once may have been ok are now becoming taboo, for very good reason. such is the case with the Cleveland Indians name.” Philip Maxson, 16, Craft Academy, Morehead, Kentucky.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction but I feel as though they should not take Native American representation out of the MLB. Considering that, I think they should change the new team name to something that has to do with Native Americans still, to keep them represented in pop culture.” Will Baumann, 18, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky


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