Chief Wahoo is an offensive cartoon stereotype and it’s indisputably a good thing that the Indians are ditching the caricature from their uniforms in 2019.
Oh, wait, sorry. Let me try and simplify that.
Chief Wahoo is racist.
Darn it. Hold on. Now that’s too vague. Let’s just start from the beginning.
The Cleveland Indians have been a baseball team since 1894, as the Grand Rapids Rustlers. They were one of the eight original members of the American League when it was established in 1901, and one of four to remain in their original city to this day. After several other name changes, the team officially became the Indians in 1915, a nickname derived from the Cleveland Spiders ballclub between 1897-99 because of Louis Sockalexis, a Native American ballplayer that the media smeared with racism and stereotyping.
Owner Charles Somers tasked baseball writers to come up with a new name, and that’s what they collectively agreed on, though the truth of writers naming the team in honor of Sockalexis may not be entirely true. Some historians and baseball writers say it was due to the rise in popularity of the Braves in 1914 and the writers wanted to “cash in” on the popularity of Indians at that time. Though that’s still not honoring Native Americans, it’s just cashing in on popularity for maximum profitability and marketability.
So, that’s a good start.
Organized activist groups have been protesting on Opening Day each year since 1973, along with individuals who have been separately. Naturally, people protested the protests, and arrest and legal action ensued in multiple cases. Activists have tried to legally remove the mascot, to no avail. So, right off the bat, this is not the result of the “PC snowflake culture” as the claim may be. No, this is because it was racist when it was made and has never stopped being racist since.
The logo wasn’t always the grinning, red-faced caricature that we know today. In fact, it looked a lot like the current Chicago Blackhawks logo from 1925 to 1945, and in 1946 fans saw the first iteration of Chief Wahoo. Indians owner Bill Veeck hired a 17-year-old artist, Walter Goldbach, to design a new logo for the franchise. This is what Goldbach’s first design looked like.
Fifteen years before Goldbach penciled the design, the Cleveland Plain Dealer had been running a cartoon Indian to illustrate the previous day’s game result. The cartoon, called The Little Indian, was enormously popular and ran for over 30 years. Goldbach’s design may not have been the very first of the Native American caricature, but that doesn’t make it any less racist.
The 1946 design might have been too racist. They then made his nose smaller and skin red to look more like a cartoon than an actual human being.
The problem is, however, making him look less human and more like a cartoon makes the problem worse. Racism was a big problem in early cartoons—even the cherished Looney Toons had ugly issues with racism against black people. Cartoon depictions are always exaggerated and they normalize what a certain race of people look like to the public, perpetuating ugly stereotypes. Native Americans do not and will never look like this. So why are people so upset that they’re ditching this logo?
History, perhaps. Well, duh, of course! The Indians have a very rich history: They were on the receiving end of the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Ray Chapman, the only player to die from an injury sustained on field in 1920, was their shortstop his whole career. They haven’t won a World Series since 1948. They had a 33-year stretch where the highest they ever finished was third place. They were an inning away from winning the 1997 World Series, but the Florida Marlins beat them in seven games in just their fourth year of existence as a major league team. And they blew a 3-1 lead in 2016.
Okay, so looks like we can rule team performance and nostalgia out. But what about the claims people have made that the logo and name are actually honoring Native Americans? Well, if fans were really out to respect the culture and the people, they wouldn’t paint their faces red, put some pretty blue and red feathers onto a paper hat and yell at real, actual Native Americans. If you want to see the logo done right, look at the Chicago Blackhawks. No exaggerated features, no red skin.
I never had a particularly strong Chief Wahoo take, but this picture always felt like the argument-ender pic.twitter.com/P1KpiaVNQm
— Ben Axelrod (@BenAxelrod) January 29, 2018
Native Americans have been struggling for their rights as long as any marginalized group in the US. Tribes weren’t even granted free speech, the right to a jury or protection from unwarranted search and seizure until 1968. In 1949, the Hoover Commission set into motion the mass relocation and assimilation of natives from their tribes. If the logo was ever about honor, America had a funny way of showing it in every day life.
The bottom line is, Chief Wahoo is racist. The logo is on display at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Kudos to Rob Manfred for putting pressure on Cleveland chief executive Paul Dolan to officially take away the logo. Amid the great Washington Redskins debate, this is a huge move for a sport that has been historically white, has historically catered to white people and is still dominated by white people—baseball is 57.5 white, according to the 2017 MLB race and gender report card.
The National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest organization to represent Native Americans, put it well when they said, “Often citing a long held myth by non-Native people that ‘Indian’ mascots ‘honor Native people,’ American sports businesses such as the NFL’s Washington ‘Redskins’ and Kansas City ‘Chiefs’, MLB’s Cleveland ‘Indians’ and Atlanta ‘Braves,’ and the NHL’s Chicago Black Hawks, continue to profit from harmful stereotypes originated during a time when white superiority and segregation were common place.”
At the end of the day, this debate is about the racist logo that some people don’t seem to think is racist. It is. And unless you’re Native American, you don’t get to determine what’s offensive and what’s not. Baseball has always been slow to change, but now that they’re on the progressive side of things for once, I hope other franchises can follow suit.