Spring is here, and with it comes baseball. And, from the first pitch on, I will wonder anon: why do umpires favor pitchers? Any strike gets a demonstrative signal and a loud call. And a called third strike sees many umpires bellow, pirouette, and finger-point toward the vanquished batsman. But, when a pitcher throws a ball, the call is barely audible. And, should the pitcher walk the hitter, the arbiter does not stigmatize the hurler, nor does he yell, “Ball Four” so that the folks in the bleachers can hear him. Just wondering.
This is slated to be the last year the Cleveland Indians wear the grinning cartoon image of Chief Wahoo on their caps and uniforms. That bad caricature – around only since 1947 – has been a source of criticism from Native Americans and others opposed to such outrageous racism. But, take heart, those of you whose heritage harbors racist hatred, the Indians organization will continue to sell said stereotyped caps and what-nots.
The Indians have a peculiar place in the racist mascot debate. They were actually named for an Indian, one guy, Lou Sockalexis. In 1897, Sockalexis joined the Cleveland Spiders of the National League. Playing steadily only in the first half of the season, he was phenomenal, before hurting his ankle and hitting the bottle, not necessarily in that order. He finished the year with a .338 batting average in 66 games. His flair made him a fan favorite. And many stars who saw him play waxed eloquently about his talents. But, his lack of discipline made him a manager’s nightmare. He played in only 28 more games over the next two years.
1899 was the year the Spiders’ owners shifted their better players to the St. Louis Perfectos (the year before they became the Cardinals), which they also owned, leaving Cleveland to set the low-water mark for futility with a 20-134 record and with attendance so poor that the team played out the season on the road. The syndicate teams of the 1890’s gave some owners their own minor league reservoirs at the major league level. Worse than Derek Jeter giving his old Yankees’ pals Giancarlo Stanton for next to nothing, it was similar to the way the Yankees used the Kansas City A’s of the 1950’s and early ‘60’s as a developmental team.
Anyway, Chief Sockalexis had become so unproductive that he cracked the lineup only seven times for the worst team in baseball history. He was out of the majors after that – though he later cleaned up his life – and he died in 1913 at the age of 42.
Cleveland, meanwhile, went from worst to out of the league in 1900 before becoming a charter member of the American League in 1901. The first year they were the Blues. The next year, the Bronchos. Due to inter-league lawsuits, Cleveland wound up with Hall of Famer Napoleon Lajoie at the end of the ’02 season. He was so good that sportswriters started calling the Cleveland team the Naps, which stuck until he was traded to the Philadelphia A’s after the 1914 season. When a Cleveland newspaper held a contest to rename the city nine, the winning entry was Indians, and the man who suggested that sobriquet said he did so in memory of former fan favorite Lou Sockalexis, whose meteoric career had been refreshed in the local fans’ minds by his recent death.
Starting my baseball fandom in Indiana, I knew of the Indians mainly because ace Herb Score had stopped in Indianapolis on his way up. That, and rock ‘em, sock ‘em, knock ‘em outta the park Rocky Colavito. But, my attention turned west toward Harry Caray and Jack Buck, Stan the Man and Kenny Boyer and Lindy and Larry. It was only much later that I learned that the Indians’ mascot even had a name.
The only Chief Wahoo I knew in my youth was former OU standout and nine-year pro footballer Wahoo McDaniel, who wrestled off-seasons under that name. He played more pro games than Brian Bosworth, Dusty Dvoracek and Teddy Lehman combined. (It’s a rough profession.) And Pro Football Reference rates his career on par with his OU predecessor, Jerry Tubbs, the first of Tom Landry’s middle linebacking stalwarts in Dallas.
McDaniel, who said his father was one-sixteenth Choctaw and one-sixteenth Chickasaw, would enter the wrestling arena wearing a Plains Indian style war bonnet – not a standard feature of Southeastern tribes – and whoop and holler in a way that would likely draw much rebuke today. But, it should be noted that McDaniel five times won National Wrestling Alliance heavyweight championships. Wahoo was a heavyweight in both of his athletic endeavors.
Needless to say – but maybe not for those who don’t remember the 1950’s and ‘60’s – those were different times. We had Bill Dana doing his “My name Jose Jimenez” routines, along with Speedy Gonzalez and the Frito Bandito – perhaps the most disgusting advertising stereotype until a dog was attired to defame the Zapatistas. The Amos and Andy TV show was ending a successful run. Westerns dominated TV, perpetuating every Indian stereotype – with some rare exceptions. Probably the worst example of vicious stereotyping from that era was Mickey Rooney’s “Japanese” caricature in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” It’s as dehumanizing as the WW II era cartoons it echoes.
Chief Wahoo the wrestler and Chief Wahoo the mascot fit right in with those times. But, those days are long gone. In fact, the Baseball Hall of Fame has announced that no new Cleveland inductees will feature Wahoo caps on their plaques. Slugger Jim Thome, heading into Valhalla this year, had already said he wanted the Cleveland C and not the caricature.
Early Wynn is the only player whose plaque bears the emblem – inside the C — though Bob Feller, Lou Boudreau, Bob Lemon and Larry Doby spent several years so capped, Doby the entirety of his Cleveland career. But, the plain C was also worn, and that is the cap on their plaques.
The Indians tepid pseudo-retraction of the racist caricature indicates that they probably won’t be changing their nickname any time soon. But, Blue Sox (Socks) could honor their origins and an old favorite without any racist overtones while providing a brand new line of merchandise to hawk.
(Gary Edmondson is Stephens County Democratic Party Chair.)