As Northeast Ohio baseball fans anticipate the start of a truncated season of Cleveland Indians baseball, they are suddenly faced with the possible end of their beloved ballclub as they know it. On July 3, the Indians released a statement explaining how the team was “committed to engaging our community and appropriate stakeholders to determine the best path forward with regard to our team name.” The statement came after the National Football League’s Washington Redskins announced a “review” of their team name, a review that quickly and predictably ended with the team bowing to corporate pressure and discontinuing their nickname and logo. Tribe fans should be worried. It does not matter that “Indians” has never been a pejorative term for this hemisphere’s indigenous population. The argument for changing the team’s name has never been couched in logic or popular support (among any ethnic group).
Indians CEO Paul Dolan knows this. Or at least he did in January 2018 when he declared that he was “adamant” about keeping the team’s name and that both he and Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred were “not troubled” by its use. These comments were made in the context of Dolan’s decision to remove the Indians’ “Chief Wahoo” image from the team’s uniforms.
Dolan is a savvy baseball executive who presides over an organization that consistently gets the most out of its roster despite the constraints of operating in a small market. He should have known that removing Chief Wahoo’s image would never satiate the team’s critics. Now Chief Wahoo is just another Indian killed off by the white man, his death having made few happy. It would be a shame if the Indians’ team name met the same fate. The Cleveland Indians have an obligation to prevent this as their entire franchise is dedicated to one particular Indian, Louis Sockalexis.
Sockalexis, the product of a Penobscot Reservation, was a multisport athlete at Holy Cross College before becoming the first acknowledged American Indian to play major league baseball. This occurred in 1897, a half century before Jackie Robinson ended the pro sport’s collusive ban on black ballplayers. Enduring the same racial taunts and abuse as Robinson, Sockalexis was a sensation, dazzling fans with his hitting, running, and throwing. So indelible was the impression he made, his team (the Cleveland Spiders, a National League predecessor to Cleveland’s current American League franchise) became informally referred to as the Indians by players and fans alike in honor of baseball’s original aboriginal.
Sockalexis’ career and ultimately his life were sadly cut short by alcoholism, but as they say in the movie The Sandlot, “Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.” The legend of Louis Sockalexis survived the man and in 1915, when the Cleveland Naps needed a new name after their namesake (second baseman Napoleon Lajoie) was sold, they were officially renamed the Indians.
It has become fashionable for media cynics to cast doubt on the notion that the Indians were thus named in 1915 to honor Sockalexis. The Sockalexis theory deniers suggest that the team’s name was merely result of the popularity of American Indian motifs at the time. They cite as evidence their inability to find contemporary newspaper accounts mentioning the Sockalexis connection. But there is a piece in the Cleveland Plain Dealer from January 18, 1915 (the day following the announced name change) recalling the phenom Sockalexis was, how the entire Spiders team came to be called the “Indians” in his honor, and how the 1915 Cleveland Indians, despite not featuring any actual American Indians, “will recall fine traditions” and “revive the memory” of Sockalexis. The inscription on Sockalexis’ grave marker concludes with “He was a talented and spectacular player and colorful in all his actions. Soon after the Cleveland team was renamed the Cleveland Indians, the name it still carries to this day.”
Changing the name of the Cleveland Indians would be the worst decision in Cleveland baseball history since the infamous Rocky Colavito trade and the biggest betrayal of the fans by a Cleveland sports owner since Art Modell relocated the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. But most of all it would erase Sockalexis’ legacy and destroy a monument to a man, who with great courage, stepped up to the plate and hit a home run for racial justice. But unlike other racial trailblazers, Sockalexis is not enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame. The Cleveland Indians have a proud history of advancing racial equality, having been the team responsible for integrating the American League and pro baseball’s managerial ranks. Getting Sockalexis into Cooperstown would be consistent with that tradition. Taking his legacy out of Cleveland would not.
Paul F. Petrick is an attorney in Cleveland, Ohio.