What’s in a name?

Tracking the origin of the Cleveland Indians

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So, you probably heard that Toronto Blue Jays announcing legend Jerry Howarth will not say “Indians,” when referring to Cleveland’s baseball team during this year’s American League Championship Series. He apparently has refused to use the word since 1992, when he received an eloquent letter from a Native American about the hurt caused by such nicknames.

So I’d like to, once again, talk for a few minutes about the Indians name got started. I wrote a very long piece on this subject a couple of years ago and added an addendum a few days later. That piece is not quite that long (but it’s not short either).

When I was a kid, it was an accepted fact that the Cleveland Indians were named to honor a Native American player named Louis Sockalexis.

When I was older, it was an accepted fact that the Cleveland Indians DID NOT name the team for Sockalexis, and that whole story was an invention to cover up for the nickname’s racist origins.

And, as I wrote in the even longer piece, neither one is quite fact. The truth is not exactly in the middle either; it sort of floats from side to side like a balloon dancing in the wind.

Louis Sockalexis was a brilliant, haunted, inspired and troubled baseball player as the 19th century came to a close. He was the first full-blooded Native American to play baseball in the Major Leagues. In many ways, he was the first Native American to splash on the American sports scene. He predated Jim Thorpe by about 15 years.

Sockalexis joined the Cleveland baseball team in the same decade as the Wounded Knee Massacre, to give you an idea of the timing.

He was a physical marvel, sort of a smaller Bo Jackson. His arm was legendary. It was said that he threw a ball across the Penobscot River, a throw of more than 600 feet. It was documented that in a college game at Harvard — this while he played center field for Holy Cross — he made a throw from centerfield that sailed for more than 400 feet. He plainly had blazing speed, and there is some evidence that he could hit with power. He was something else.

The Cleveland Spiders signed Sockalexis in 1897 when he was still at Notre Dame. There are various legends about that — I highly recommend Ed Rice’s informative “Baseball’s First Indian,” for details — but two things seem clear:

1. Socklaexis was an amazing talent. Cleveland reportedly paid him $1,500, a tidy sum. And his signing was pretty big news.

2. Sockalexis already had a drinking problem. He had been arrested while at Notre Dame for an incident at a bar. There is some evidence that Cleveland had a “no-drinking” clause in the contract.

Sockalexis was an immediate phenomenon. Part of this was his play. In his first six exhibition games, according to reports, he had eight outfield assists — four of them at the plate. But it was his ethnicity, as a full-blooded American Indian, that sparked the wonder of fans and the creative juices of reporters. Fans cheered and taunted him from the start. And reporters filled story after story with war whoops and tomahawks and firewater. The Sporting News called him “The Best Advertised Player In The Business.”

Here, in the Louisville Courier-Journal, would be one of the more positive mentions of Sockalexis:

“Sockalexis, the Indian, was cheered at almost every move,” wrote the Louisville Courier-Journal after his first game. “The crowd tried to have some fun with Socklalexis’ name and imitated the war whoop of various Indian tribes, to all of which the handsome Indian smiled good-naturedly. He is educated and cultivated.”

Most of the other stories were much darker.  At games, he received threats, was called every conceivable name, and he never could escape the whoops that echoed wherever he played. In the papers, he was called a savage (sometimes a noble savage), a red man, a redskin, and so on. Sometimes, he was called these things in a matter-of-fact way, the way you might call a pitcher a “lefty.” Sometimes, he was called these things in an obviously degrading way.

“Had I cared,” he told the Milwaukee Journal in 1898, “they would have driven me out of the business long ago. I got it from the very first day I played.”

This is not the story of Sockalexis, not exactly. What’s important to know is that his career turned sour very quickly. He might have been an alcoholic when he joined the Spiders, but his drinking grew worse as he endured the strain of being a pioneer. After a very good first year in 1897, his skills declined rapidly. By 1898, he was essentially done as a player. By 1899, he was out of baseball.

But, it is true that during his time he had a real impact on the Cleveland Spiders. During that time, the Spiders were often referred to in newspaper stories as “Indians” or “Red Men” or “Warriors” or some such thing. There are at least three reasons for this.

One, just about everybody DESPISED the Spiders nickname.

Two, the Spiders were a mediocre team (then a dreadful one) and even though they did feature Hall of Famers Jesse Burkett and Cy Young, Sockalexis was the most interesting thing going on.

And three, the “Indians” nickname was, more often than not, used pejoratively — “derogatory slurs directed at Sockalexis,” as Ed Rice writes.

People tend to think there’s a direct line between the Cleveland Indians today and the Spiders of Sockalexis, but it isn’t so. The Cleveland Spiders played in the National League and for various reasons — mainly because the Spiders’ owner bought a team in St. Louis and decided to abandon Cleveland — the team drew so few fans in 1899 that they were forced by the other teams to play 112 of their 154 games on the road.

After the season, the Spiders were contracted along with teams in Washington, Baltimore, and Louisville. It was that outrage that, in part, led to the ascension of the American League.

And it was a completely different Cleveland team that debuted with the now-major-league American League in 1901. The team was supposed to be called the Cleveland Bluebirds, because that apparently was the only name anyone could think of that was more humiliating than Spiders (and the players were sent out wearing bright blue uniforms).

For headline use, the name was shortened to Blues, but nobody liked that either. In 1902, the players voted to call themselves the Bronchos because of course they did*. Nobody bought the Bronchos name though, and then during the 1902 season the team acquired the phenomenal Nap Lajoie.

*It’s sort of like the way Brian decided to call his crime-fighting gang the “The Bruntouchables” on “Limitless.” I miss that show.

Lajoie was already a legend. He’d won two batting titles, and he’d hit .426 for Philadelphia in 1901. The American League was, in many ways, built around him. So when Cleveland got him, the team almost immediately started being known as the Naps. They were the Naps for a decade or so.

By 1914, though, the Naps name seemed pretty ridiculous. The team was terrible and Lajoie was 39 years old and done. More than one joke was made about how the team needed a Nap. Lajoie limped back to Philadelphia for a couple more seasons, and Cleveland needed a new nickname.

It’s often said that there was a contest to name the 1915 Cleveland baseball team, but that isn’t exactly right. Owner Charles Somers put together a task force of sportswriters from the four Cleveland newspapers and charged them with coming up with a name for the team.

Best I can tell from all the research, there were two major factors in choosing Indians.

1. Native American names were all the rage in 1914 because that was the year of Boston’s Miracle Braves, who were in last place on July 4 and then somehow won 70 of their last 89 games to win the National League by 10 1/2 games. Boston then swept the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. The nation was whooping for the Braves, and so a Native American nickname made a lot of sense.

2. Cleveland did have that Sockalexis connection from the 19th century when the team was often called the Indians. This from the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

“Many years ago there was an Indian named Sockalexis who was the star player of the Cleveland baseball club. As a batter, fielder and base runner he was a marvel. Sockalexis so outshone his teammates that he naturally came to be regarded as the whole team. The fans throughout the country began to call the Clevelanders “the Indians.” It was an honorable name, and while it stuck the team made an excellent record. It has now been decided to revive this name.”

People will argue forever about whether the Indians name was created in a cynical ploy to both mock and cash in on Native American culture — not unlike singing in blackface — or if it was a way to honor a pioneering Native American baseball player who, for a short time, thrilled people with his play. People will forever argue if the Chief Wahoo logo, which apparently was inspired by the “Little Indian” cartoon that would run in the newspaper, is a harmless caricature or a racist one. The split is fierce and passionate.

I have made my opinion clear on the subject: Even as a lifelong Cleveland baseball fan I still would LOVE for the team to change its name and, even more, I would LOVE for that Chief Wahoo logo to disappear. Getting rid of both seems to me such an easy way to raise the discourse at a time in America when we could use that.

Others fight ferociously to keep the name and the logo because they believe it has tradition (and, they might add, too many don’t respect tradition) and they will say it clearly is not meant to demean anyone.

In other words: The nickname fight has come to stand in for other larger fights, fights over political correctness and the scope of empathy and the power of history and the importance of connecting with and breaking from the past. That stuff sounds a lot like politics. We try not to do politics here.

In other words, I think there is only one thing we all can agree on: Bronchos is a cool name. The H is what makes it cool.