Depending on who you ask, the Cleveland Indians name, and their logo, Chief Wahoo, are either an incredibly racist depiction of Native people, or respectful representations of the lengthy history of that Major League Baseball team in Cleveland, Ohio.
With Cleveland now playing in the World Series for the first time in almost two decades, it’s appropriate to again examine the question, though the majority of Indian Country finds the name and logo offensive and Native activists in that city regularly find themselves in battles with fans wearing “Keep the Chief” t-shirts.
Here are eight surprising facts and photos about the “Indians” and their Chief Wahoo.
The Indians Name Didn’t Necessarily Come From Cleveland’s First Native Player
Even though a 1915 Cleveland Plain Dealer claimed “many years ago there was an Indian named [Louis] Sockalexis who was the star player … the team will be named ‘Indians’ to honor him” — several historians and sports reporters say the story was wrong due to the fact that the Boston Braves had just risen from worst to best in 1914 and the Cleveland team likely wanted to cash in on the popularity of Indians at that time.
According to several historians, the team name was not for their first Native player, Sockalexis, who played in the late 19th century. The Cleveland team ran through a series of names in the early 1900’s, including the Infants, the Blues, the Broncos, and finally the Naps in 1903, after future Hall of Famer Napoleon Lajoie. But after Lajoie left the club in 1914, they had to find a new name.
Longtime sportscaster and baseball fanatic Keith Olbermann has called the Sockalexis claim straight-out “lies.”
National News Smeared Sockalexis with Racism and Stereotyping
After a successful season with Cleveland in 1897, many newspapers praised Sockalexis. Yet even the writers who heralded his play mocked him; one called him “Big-Man-Not-Afraid-of-His-Job.”
In July of 1897, Sockalexis fell on hard times and was reported to be drinking heavily. One sportswriter said he played like one a wooden Indian, struggled at the plate and was under suspension “because of his too infrequent indulgence in the flowing bowl.”
In October of that year, the Baltimore News ran a poem/article entitled “The Song of Sockalexis,” which read in part:
All your wampum couldn’t
Coax me from the cup that cheers me …
I’d rather play a date with Booze than anything I know of!
Thus departed Sockalexis
To the Land of Awful Headaches,
To the daffy land of Dopedum
And the forests, dark and lonely.
When Sockalexis died on a reservation in Maine in 1913 the Plain Dealer lauded him as the “the greatest natural baseball player that ever lived,” but the article finished with: “Flattery and homage turned the head of the aborigine: he fell into bad habits and became utterly beyond the reach of discipline. He was only an Indian, after all.”
The Official Origin of the Chief Wahoo Logo May Not Be So Official After All
According to the Cleveland Indians’ official history, in 1947, Indians owner Bill Veeck hired a 17-year-old ad agency artist named Walter Goldbach to design an Indian face for the team’s logo.
Though Goldbach gets the credit, Plain Dealer sports cartoonist Fred G. Reinert had been drawing a well-known character “The Little Indian” 15 years prior to the creation of Goldbach’s logo.
No One Really Knows Where the Name Chief Wahoo Comes From (Or Do They?)
Neither Goldbach or Reinert ever claimed to have named Chief Wahoo, and Goldbach publicly stated that his caricature was not even a chief. “He’s a brave… He only has one feather. Chiefs have full headdresses.”
Some historians speculate that since Chief Wahoo was a common nickname for Native characters and that there was a popular comic strip called “Big Chief Wahoo” that ran from 1936 to 1947, the name likely came from there.
However, the Cleveland’s unofficial mascot name of Chief Wahoo didn’t appear in print until 1950. (Or does it? Keep reading.)
Cleveland Gave Their Best Native Player to The New York Yankees, and the Yankees Won Six World Series With Him
On September 17, 1942, Allie Reynolds (Muscogee Creek) pitched in his first major league game for Cleveland and later earned the name “Unsigned Tribesman.” Yankees star hitter Joe Dimaggio reportedly told his team bosses he could not hit Reynolds’ fastball and they should get him.
Cleveland traded him to the Yankees, and Reynolds went on to win six World Series championships with them, including five in a row from 1949 to 1953. Reynolds averaged almost 18 wins a season in his first six years. In the summer of 1951, he threw two no-hitters.
His first no-hitter in 1951 was against the Cleveland Indians, and New York writers dubbed him “Super Chief,” a nickname that stuck and now is on Reynold’s gold plaque in the Yankee Stadium tribute yard.
Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo Name Likely Came From Native Player Allie Reynolds – A Six-Time New York Yankee World Series Winner
On October 6, 1950 a Plain Dealer article titled “Chief Wahoo Whizzing” wrote a complimentary article about Yankees player and famous former Cleveland Indian pitcher – Allie Reynolds.
In the article that referred to Reynolds as Chief Wahoo, he was described as “The copper-skinned Creek who used to throw his sizzling stuff for the tribe that has its reservation high above Cuyahoga’s waters in Cleveland.”
Several articles on Reynolds later appeared in Cleveland in which he was called “Chief Wahoo,” “Old Wahoo” and “Wahoo.”
All this suggests the Chief Wahoo for the Cleveland team likely comes from the nickname for Reynolds. (Go Yankees!)
Chief Wahoo’s First Mascot Appearance Was at a Kids’ Party
The first ‘official’ time Chief Wahoo appeared as a physical mascot was at a kids party in Cleveland put on by a group of dentists.