The (Sort of) End of Chief Wahoo
January 30, 2018 § Leave a comment
The Cleveland baseball team took a positive step this week. It announced on Monday that it was going to remove the deeply offensive Chief Wahoo from its caps and jerseys for the 2019 season. This is an important start. Chief Wahoo is an offensive caricature of an indigenous chief, drawn in a cartoonish, stereotypical manner. Note that not only is he grinning, he is actually red. Like, you know, ‘redskin’. (The Washington football team is a whole other problem, for another day).
Chief Wahoo has a long genesis. The Cleveland baseball team was originally founded in Grand Rapids, MI, in 1894, and known as the Rustlers. It moved to Cleveland in 1900, calling itself the Lake Shores. Seems pretty obvious how that name didn’t stick. Up to that point, the Grand Rapids/Cleveland team was a minor league team, in the Western League. In 1900, the Western League evolved into a major league, rebranded as the American League (the National League dates back to 1876, hence, it is sometimes called ‘the senior circuit’). The Cleveland baseball team is a charter member of the AL, and for the launch of the new league in 1901, it also rebranded itself as the Bluebirds. In 1902, they were the Barons (this name was revived by the sad sack NHL team based in Cleveland from 1976-78; they didn’t last long, in 1978, they merged with the Minnesota North Stars, which is now the Dallas Stars franchise). From 1903 to 1914, they were named after their star player, Nap Lajoie. But, in 1914, Lajoie left Cleveland to go play for the Philadelphia (now Oakland) Athletics. So, the Naps needed a new name.
And so, we ended up with the Indians. This was meant to be a nod to Cleveland baseball history. The original major league team in town was the Cleveland Spiders of the National League; they folded in 1899, precipitating the Rustlers’ move to the big city. The Spiders had had an indigenous player, Louis Sockalexis, who played his whole career with the team Thus, the Indians. So, in a way, the name came about as a tribute both to the defunct baseball team and to one of its star players. But, of course, this is one of those historical obscurities that got lost, it has become anachronistic over time.
In 1932, the Cleveland Plain Dealer used a cartoon precursor of Chief Wahoo as a logo to stand in for actually using the full name of the team. This version became known as ‘the little Indian,’ and the Plain Dealer used the logo in its coverage for the next several years. In 1947, the team’s owner, Bill Veeck hired a graphic design firm to create a new logo for his team. And thus, we got the original Chief Wahoo. He wasn’t called that at the outset, in fact, he had no name. Also, while a cartoon stereotype, he wasn’t red-skinned. A red-skinned version appeared in 1948, but was not the official logo of the team until 1951.
The name Chief Wahoo eventually came from Cleveland sports writers. The guy who created the original, in 1947, Walter Goldbach, was only 17 years old at the time. Goldbach has noted several times since that he didn’t mean to offend anyone, and that he actually had a hard time to render an indigenous man as a cartoon. He also has argued that Chief Wahoo isn’t actually a chief, he’s a brave. He only has one feather. (That of course, brings us to the Atlanta baseball team, another issue for another day).
Chief Wahoo remained the primary logo of the Cleveland baseball team until 2013, when it decided that perhaps it was time to start rethinking Chief Wahoo. At that time, the team unveiled a new logo, a stylized C, for Cleveland. It’s actually the superior logo. I much prefer it.
The Clevelands have not, of course, won a World Series since 1954, the longest running drought in professional sports (now that the Chicago Cubs have won the World Series). Cleveland sports writers have wondered if Chief Wahoo is actually a curse.
So the announcement this week that Chief Wahoo is being retired next year is welcome. Except that’s not entirely the case. You can believe there will be a run on this offensive cartoon logo as this season and year progresses. And, in order to maintain the trademark, the team will continue to sell Chief Wahoo-branded gear in the Cleveland region after banishing the logo from the uniform.
So this isn’t a total victory. But it’s an important start. The next thing is to get the Cleveland baseball team to change its name, perhaps to the Spiders. And then there’s the Washington football team, and the Atlanta baseball team. But, baby steps?