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  1. #1
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    Chief Wahoo: A No-Win Situation

    Chief Wahoo: A No-Win Situation
    By Drew Pelto, AKA *censored*

    The tomahawk finally fell: The famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) Cleveland Indians logo known as Chief Wahoo will ride off into the sunset after the 2018 season.

    Many of you may know I grew up on the outskirts of the Cleveland area, Painesville to be exact—close enough for Browns games to get blacked out if there wasn’t a sellout, but far enough that it made traveling to and from the Stadium a not-so-fun experience along the Shoreway. Couple that with parents who were afraid that we might fall of the earth by going west of Euclid, and suddenly it makes sense why I only got to one to three ballgames per season as a kid, and only one Browns game ever.

    Other than having the name Indians—which did not appear on their jerseys until Wahoo was adopted—the only Indian imagery used by the club early on was first a red profiled Indian head, similar to the logo presently used by the Washington Redskins in the NFL, in 1928. It then moved to a sleeve patch in 1929-1938 on home jerseys, depicting a solemn, profiled Indian head in a feathered headdress. These early uses were fairly solemn, dignified depictions. While some may argue that the use of any human group as a logo is out of line, I believe many would agree that this depiction was at least made respectfully.

    The original sleeve patch, circa 1929-38

    The earliest form of the smiling Indian caricature, originally in a brown tone rather than bright red, was adopted on the sleeve of the uniform in 1947, residing there until the bright red version replaced it in 1951. It moved to a more prominent chest display in 1963 before being demoted back to sleeve duty in 1970. In 1972 the logo was nowhere to be found, returning to even less prominence in 1973 as part of a full-body Chief in a baseball uniform, about to step into a swing. This appeared on the sleeve through 1978. The head-only version found itself on the sleeve again in 1979, residing only there through 1985.

    In 1985, the logo moved to the hat for the first time since brief uses in 1954-1957, and again in 1962. It remained the preferred hat logo from 1985 through 2010, after which the current Block C made its first appearance on the team’s primary road hats in an odd dual-logo timeshare. Over the past few seasons, Block C has made more home appearances as well. From its debut in 1947 through its final on-field uses in 2018, the logo has only been in a prime, non-sleeve spot for 46 of 72 years, and was split with another logo fairly evenly or in a lesser role for eight of those 46.

    Chief Wahoo for me and many others will always be associated with some of the best and worst seasons in team history. It was on the players’ heads for four World Series appearances and its early variation was on their sleeve for the last Championship in 1948. It also was on their forehead for a 105-loss 1991 season, a 101-loss 1987 season, and hanging out on the sleeves of 102-loss teams in 1985 and 1972—teams that were so bad that there was even a series of movies made about their badness. Many fans my age and older-- and even some younger-- will rebuke its removal due to it being a tradition.

    But can you really claim "tradition" for something that only has been in prominent placement for half of its existence, and for barely one-third of the time the team had the Indians name?

    If anything, a variation on a Block C logo is rooted more in tradition than Wahoo. Since their entry into the American League in 1901, the Cleveland Baseball Club—whether the Blues, the Naps, or the Indians—has had a single letter C as a main and prominent hat and/or jersey-front logo for 76 of its first 85 years. It has been used again as a hat logo as of 2008, and at least half the time since 2011. So it has been a part for 84 of 118 seasons. Now THAT is tradition.

    A brief history of hat logos, from
    For those wanting "tradition," I see a lot more C's than Wahoos.

    Claims of Indigenous Americans either being highly opposed to or highly in favor of the logos are questionable at best. Polls on the topic are plagued by small sample sizes, resulting in anything from less than ten percent favoring removal according to a Sports Illustrated study in 2002, to 67% wanting removal according to a study from the Center for Indigenous Peoples’ Studies at CSU-San Bernardino in 2014. Both studies asked fewer than 500 out of a group of 5 million. Most respondents didn’t care one way or another.

    Protests over the imagery have been taking place since the 1970s, though most were ignored until the early 1990s when the Atlanta Braves and their fans’ "Tomahawk Chop" played in a World Series and the Washington Redskins appeared in a Super Bowl within the span of only a few months—both played in Minnesota, a state with a large Indigenous population. Even as far back as the 1940s, the National Congress of American Indians were raising concerns over the negative stereotypes of Indigenous people in the American media, including sports. It’s not just America either: having half of my family coming from mixed Sami and Finnish DNA, I am well aware of the continued mistreatment and misrepresentation of the Sami people for centuries in Swedish, Norwegian, Russian, and Finnish culture; representations that are just now beginning to be corrected, though still often inaccurate.

    It would appear that many Indigenous people and Nations appreciate being honored, but that’s what is missing in Chief Wahoo: the honor. Take Florida State: nicknamed the Seminoles, they have become very careful in their imagery, with their use of it actually being publicly lauded by the Seminole Nation, who rarely make public statements for or against public policy. The University has made sure to be inclusive of the Nation in all events, and to meet with them regularly to keep all imagery authentic. They are not just being honored: they are full participants and being honestly represented.

    The long-propagated story is that the team was named to honor Louis Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot Nation who is believed to have been the first Indigenous American to play professional baseball, patrolling the Cleveland Spiders’ outfield from 1897-1899. Before alcohol derailed his promising career, he was a .338 hitter his first season with three home runs in an era of limited power numbers: when future Hall of Famer Amos Rusie publicly boasted that he would strike out Sockalexis every time he came to the plate, Louis instead knocked a curveball for that third home run of the season. Unsubstantiated claims indicate the team got its name from a young girl who cited Sockalexis in a team-naming contest, but articles announcing the Indians’ new name in 1915 made absolutely zero mention of him. If the team was truly being named in his honor, that would seem like a perfect time to mention it. Joe Posnanski has done some excellent writing and research on the dubious Sockalexis claims; I will defer to him if you want to look into it more.

    More than anything, I am shocked by how much vitriol over the change has come from outside of Cleveland, from people who aren’t even Indians fans. Where was your outrage when the Mariners went from the trident M, to the yellow S in 1987, to the compass in 1993? Or when the White Sox went from the batter logo to the black and white Olde English script SOX in 1991? Where was it when the Brewers went from the glove logo to the interlocking MB in 1994? Or the Angels going from the haloed A, to the interlocking CA in 1992, to the light blue winged-A Anaheim Angels, back to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim monstrosity? Okay, there was some significant backlash there, but that was mostly over Disneyfication and then the ridiculously long name (I want to see them just go all-out and call them the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of Orange County of the State of California of the United States of America of the Continent of North America of the Western Hemisphere of the planet Earth of the Solar System of the Orion Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy of the Local Group of the Virgo Supercluster of the Laniakea Supercluster of the Observable Universe). If you weren't outraged then... why now?
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    Indigenous Americans may not be fully opposed, nor fully in favor, and they have plenty of bigger problems than a sports team logo: they’re just like any other person in that regard. But in most controversies involving marketing and branding, a smart businessman will likely err on the side of caution and make a change. View it as just another rebranding.

    I still wear Wahoo. It’s been the main logo for most of my life. I’ve had the same Indians hat since 2006 with it. My jerseys all have the Chief on the sleeve patch. I even have a t-shirt with the late-1940s logo on it. But what’s most important to me is the first part of the team’s name: Cleveland. I care about the city and the players more than what they use as their name. You could put them in neon green, hot pink, electric blue, and ultraviolet and call them the Cleveland Totally Rad Awesomeness and I’ll be first in line to buy a hat and jersey. Spiders, Blues, Naps, Indians, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s about the place it represents and the players representing it first and foremost. New branding or not, it's the same product.

    If the Cleveland Indians wish to perpetuate a tenuous claim that the team was named for Louis Sockalexis, perhaps they should meet with his Penobscot Nation and develop a logo that truly honors them. If not them, perhaps the Erie or Seneca who originally lived in Northeast Ohio. I do agree with critics who say that the current Block C logo is bland, but there are options to spruce it up and combine it with Indigenous imagery. As Florida State has shown, there are plenty of ways to utilize it in a respectful and accurate way.

    Honor, accuracy, and respect. Let's see one of these on the hat in 2019.

    Keep the Chief, drop the Chief, there's no way to please everyone. As an Indians fan with a degree of Indigenous blood and who will support the team no matter what logo they choose to wear, I see Chief Wahoo as neither respectful nor accurate. It’s time to move on to something better.

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Drew Pelto is Cleveland AF. Ironically he currently lives in Texas as a photo editor, autograph collector, and musician with his wife, two cats, and a journalism degree which he does not use. If anyone is angry enough over the change that they plan to stop collecting Indians cards, he requests that they send their items to him; he will cover postage costs.

  2. #2

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    Interesting article.

    My take: The depiction of Chief Wahoo is nowadays considered a cartoon character, and the anachronistic image is just that, an anachronism, a product of a different time. Let's consider going back to a more respectful image such as the one used before the debut of Chief Wahoo. Wahoo certainly can use a makeover, complete with name change. After all, Atlanta retired Chief Noc-a-homa a while ago, but retain the tomahawk chop, also used at FSU.
    "You can't have an oversight committee on stupidity!"--Woody Paige, "Around the Horn", 2/11/08

  3. #3
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    It is an interesting article and I agree with hobbyfan, time for a makeover and retire Chief Wahoo.
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    I am an Indians fan and I don't have an issue with this.
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