Go, Cleveland Baseball Team!

After decades of protests and controversy, the Cleveland Indians will adopt a new name and mascot


Rachel Coxon

Progressive Field before the name change.

As Major League Baseball’s Opening Day rolls around each spring, Native Americans who protest the team’s identity annually gather at the gates of Progressive Field.

Despite sneering baseball fans who yell and throw beer, the protestors continue to show up as they have since 1973, when they protested at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, which was demolished in 1996.

For decades, the organization has defended the team’s identity as part of its tradition, until now.

Starting with the 2022 season, the Cleveland professional baseball team will adopt a new identity — with a new nickname, logo and, perhaps, colors. 

But how did they get to this decision, and why did it take so long?

The team first adopted “the Indians” in 1915, but there is confusion and debate about how the name came about. The franchise claims that it’s a reference to Louis Sockalexis, a Native American who played for Cleveland in the 1890s. He was the first Major League player of indigenous heritage. However, news stories were published to announce the name made no mention of Sockalexis; instead there were racist and insulting references to Native Americans. 

According to Jacob Bogage of The Washington Post, baseball historians argue about when the mascot, Chief Wahoo, was officially created. The majority recalls Chief Wahoo first appearing namelessly in the Plain Dealer on May 3, 1942. Wahoo, which became the official team logo in 1947, was drawn by Walter Goldbach at just 17 years old. Goldbach grew up in Cleveland and began sketching Wahoo when Bill Veeck, the team owner from 1946-1949, called his uncle’s comic book shop looking for a new logo. 

In 2016, team owner Paul Dolan announced that the team would use the block C as their primary logo and begin to slowly phase out the use of Chief Wahoo. In 2018, the Chief was officially removed from players’ uniforms but was still present in merchandise.

In 2020, both the Indians and the NFL’s Washington Redskins announced they would review their names following a surge of protests regarding systematic racism and police brutality last summer. The NFL team’s owner, Dan Synder, bought the team in 1999 and previously said he’d never change the name. However, on July 3, 2020, he changed his mind “in light of recent events around our country and feedback from our community.” 

The Indians seconded this decision. “We are invested in engaging our community and appropriate stakeholders to help determine the best path forward with regard to our team name,” the organization wrote in a statement on July 3, 2020. 

The Washington Redskins temporarily changed their name to “The Washington Football Team” for the 2020 season. Cleveland fans may ask if the Indians can just go by “The Cleveland Baseball Team,” but Teddy Cahill, a national writer for Baseball America and former Shakerite Raiderzone editor, explained that there are dangers in that approach. 

“If you don’t give them a nickname, fans will just keep using the old name, and I think that some fans will continue doing that in their personal form of protest,” he said. 

On Dec. 13, 2020, the New York Times reported the Indians’ official decision to drop the name. President Donald Trump wasn’t thrilled. “Oh no! What is going on? This is not good news, even for ‘Indians’. Cancel culture at work!” he wrote in a tweet. 

But Manager Terry Francona is “proud” of the organization and says it’s the right thing to do moving forward. I think what’s important for people to understand is what we’re really proud of is the first name of our team, which is Cleveland,” Francona said in a winter MLB meeting, “Maybe in the next year or so, the fans and the people can have fun with [a new name] moving forward. I just don’t want it to ever get lost — we’re not trying to be disrespectful to anybody, believe me. We’re trying to be the opposite and that’s being respectful.”

Sundance, director of the American Indian Education Center in Cleveland, wasn’t satisfied after the team officials only changed their logo in 2018. “The only way that I see for us to get rid of the offensive environment is to change the name, to something that’s non-Native. I don’t care what it is, I just want it to not reference Native People,” he said. 

Sundance is a member of the Muskogee Tribe, which is based in Oklahoma.

Cleveland.com conducted a virtual survey after the team announced they would consider changing their name. About 55 percent of readers said they didn’t want to change the name, 33 percent advised a change, and about 11 percent were indifferent.

Fans haven’t hesitated to share their new name ideas on social media. 

According to Sporting News, the “Cleveland Spiders” has been the most popular choice among fans, referencing Cleveland’s baseball team that lasted from 1889-1899. WKYC News reports that this name is “currently the 3-1 favorite.”

Baseball fan Peter Khayat, a senior, approves of the Spiders and already owns merchandise that he had obtaintained before the name change was announced.I think it’s neat and I don’t like wearing Indians stuff because of the name,” he said.

There’s also the “Cleveland Guardians,” in reference to the Guardians of Traffic statues on the Hope Memorial Bridge. Clevelanders are already familiar with these figures, which makes it another popular choice. 

Fans have also suggested “Rockets,” “Rocks,” “Naps” and “Buckeyes.” But the Indians organization hasn’t made any statements about a specific name.

Cahill has fun throwing around some ideas with friends. “I put out ‘Dreams.’ No one seems to really like that, but it links to [Langston] Hughes’ poem,” Cahill said. Hughes, a notable Black poet, was a Cleveland native. “I don’t know, I think there’s something romantic about it,” he said.

Cahill also suggested naming the team after its current furry, fuchsia mascot.  “I’m definitely joking about the ‘Cleveland Sliders,’ but at the same time I’m not. The mascot’s there. It would be easy, and they chose that name when they were naming the mascot for a reason; it has a baseball connection.”

Khayat played around with a name idea as well. “The state flower of Ohio is the carnation, so I was thinking ‘Cleveland Carnations.’ That’s alliteration, and I think flowers are kind of neat. You can make some cool uniforms out of that,” he said.

The Indians have decided to keep their name through the 2021 season, which came as a surprise to Cahill. Cleveland had made the announcement that they were going to review the name in July, which seems to give them a lot of lead time. “I just think that it’s interesting that you’re saying you can’t have this name going forward for these reasons, but this one last season it’ll be OK, so I was surprised. But maybe I shouldn’t be,” he said.

The organization’s delay doesn’t come as a curveball to Khayat. “When they said they were considering changing their name, I honestly thought that they just hoped everything would blow over and they could keep it, so waiting is definitely not surprising to me,” he said.

Cahill also noted the work required to rebrand a team. Changing uniforms, signage, merchandise and stadium decor is a lengthy process. “I don’t even know how long you would have to order a neon sign in advance,” said Cahill. “It’s a significant undertaking, so hopefully we’ll have a name relatively soon.” 

Cahill said that there will still be fans resisting the name change in their personal form of protest, but he’s expecting this group to shrink as time goes on.

To the fans arguing that the name ‘Indians’ is tradition and honors Natives, Khayat said, “I find it hard to believe that in the late nineteenth century, the team was being called the Indians in a non-racist way. There’s just no way that can’t be racist.” 

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