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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: What's in a name?

by Philip Martin | July 27, 2021 at 4:01 a.m.

Some people hate change.

I get that. I still don't like the designated hitter rule. There are many aspects of the digital revolution I would roll back if I could. I miss record stores and serendipity. I hate shorts on men in public places. Not everything is improved by revision.

But many things are.

That's what we have to hope, isn't it? We have to believe in human progress, even if the evidence doesn't always help our cause. (I miss seasons. I miss Septembers when you could comfortably wear your letterman jacket to football games.)

Karen is a Cleveland native; when she was a little girl one of the rewards for a good report card was a pair of tickets to a Cleveland Indians baseball game at Municipal Stadium. When I was first introduced to her family, I was amused by the proliferation of Indians signs in her father's suburban neighborhood. During baseball season, it seemed that two out of three houses had a sign in the picture window or planted in the front lawn. Almost all of them bore the likeness of the Indians' big-nosed, red-faced, grinning cartoon mascot Chief Wahoo.

Yanko, my late father-in-law, was a long-suffering Indians fan, often given to sighing, "Stupid Indians" after a loss.

(Yanko was impressed that one of my baseball coaches had been Albert Belle Sr., the father of the Indians slugging left-fielder who would be in the Hall of Fame if sportswriters hadn't perceived him as a surly malcontent. I remember the younger Belle as a precocious and well-mannered pre-teen.)

So Karen grew up with the Chief; his ubiquity was such that he became part of the landscape, invisible in the same way power lines and telephone lines and poverty can become invisible. You can get inured to ugliness.

Chief Wahoo started as a human interest story. Bill Veeck, owner of the Indians, called a local ad agency and graphics store in 1946. He said he was looking for a new logo for the team. (Veeck was, among other things, cheap.) The 17-year-old nephew of the agency's owner, recent high school graduate Walter Goldbach, knocked off a sketch of a grinning yellow-skinned Indian brave with a prominent hooked nose. Veeck loved it, and it became part of the team's uniform in 1947.

For his part Goldbach, who died in 2018, never meant to offend anyone.

"For all the controversy," he told Cleveland Magazine in 2008, "only one Native American has ever approached me to talk to me. We were at the Western Reserve Historical Society when a man walked by with his wife. He was a Native American. He looked at our display as he walked by our table. He came back about an hour later, and he said, 'I feel sorry that some of my brothers feel like they do, because I take no offense.'"

It should be noted that Goldbach's drawing looks very much like "The Little Indian," a comic stereotype that began appearing on the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer during baseball season in 1932. Staff artist Fred G. Reinert drew the Little Indian for the Plain Dealer; for a time in the '50s, he partnered with a local company to manufacture rubber squeaky toys based on his Little Indian.

Also, Goldbach didn't draw "Chief Wahoo"--as he frequently pointed out, he drew a single-feathered brave, not a chief. Reinert said he wanted to call his character "Tommy Hawk." The original Chief Wahoo was a comic strip character who wore a 10-gallon hat and whose name became kind of an all-purpose epithet for both real and fictional native Americans.

Sportswriters for the Plain Dealer often referred to Allie Reynolds, the Muscogee Indian who pitched 13 seasons in the American League, as Chief Wahoo (or simply Wahoo) when he was pitching for the New York Yankees. Though Reynolds--whose better-known nickname is "Super Chief"--pitched for Cleveland from 1942 to 1946, there's no evidence he was called Wahoo before 1950.

Those who insist these sort of nicknames were innocent honorifics that gave no offense should understand that Reynolds' Yankee teammates never called him "Super Chief" or "Chief" to his face.

Goldbach's caricature got overhauled in 1951; it got a smaller nose and red rather than yellow skin.

Apparently the first time Chief Wahoo was used to refer to the Indians' mascot was in 1952, when a man in costume (it's unclear whether he was in full headdress or a single feather) showed up for a party sponsored by a group of dentists.

One of the rationales given for naming the Cleveland team the Indians is that they wanted to honor Louis Francis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian who played very well for the Cleveland Spiders of the National League for a few weeks in 1897. I'm not sure I believe that.

Sockalexis, sometimes credited as being the first Native American to play professional baseball, was a talented hitter who had no trouble with major league pitching, but his career was short and troubled. His first season was cut short by a leg injury, allegedly sustained by jumping from the second story of a brothel. Cleveland sportswriters insinuated his troubles were the result of a "tryst with a pale-faced maiden" as well as a "dalliance with grape."

He played parts of two more seasons with the Spiders and was out of baseball completely by 1903.

The Sockalexis story has always smacked of exculpatory revisionism--we're not engaging in anything so vulgar and insensitive as cultural misappropriation, we're honoring the spirit of these people we so admire. (Yeah, right; stuff a Sockalexis in it.)

It's more likely the Cleveland team (the Naps until they sold star Napoleon Lajoie to the Philadelphia A's; one sportswriter called them the Napkins, because they folded so easily) decided to call itself the Indians because the Boston team that had just won the 1914 World Series called itself the Braves. Monkey see, monkey do.

Racial and ethnic slurs got thrown around in the early 20th century. The deaf baseball player William Hoy was nicknamed Dummy. The Zulu Cannibal Giants, an all-Black baseball team, barnstormed the country in 1934; they played their games in war paint and grass skirts. We didn't think about things like that then. Now we do. Good for us.

That said, "Guardians" is lame. And I've seen the sandstone Guardians of Traffic carved into the pylons of the Hope Memorial Bridge over Cleveland's Cuyahoga River. Meh. They could have done a lot better.

I suggested the Moondogs, after the Alan Freed rock 'n' roll show.

But Karen, and Ian Hunter, had the best idea:

Cleveland Rocks.

Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at

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