My first recollection of attending a Major League baseball game was seeing the great Mickey Mantle and the legendary New York Yankees play the Indians at the cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
Decades later, the Cleveland Indians and their iconic logo, Chief Wahoo, are an inextricable part of who I am. I was there for the bat day crowds of 80,000, freakish, exhilarating anomalies in otherwise forgettable 100-loss seasons. I was there for the final game at the old “Mistake on the Lake,” and smuggled in a bottle of champagne so we could toast to the last time we would ever have to see our team play at the old dump, built atop, well, an old dump. I was there to see President Bill Clinton throw out the first pitch at virgin Jacobs Field in that thrilling inaugural game. After hearing rumblings for years about the team possibly relocating, walking into that pristine, gorgeous new ballpark that fine day gave me comforting assurance that one of the few things in life I really cared about was around to stay.
I was there at 2:08 A.M. when Tony Pena swung through a take sign and ripped a walk-off homer in the first postseason game in Cleveland since 1954. The agony of my team blowing a 9th inning lead in game seven of the 1997 World Series is only overshadowed by my grief over the crushing 10th inning loss in game seven of the 2016 classic.
Growing up with the team, and the grinning, red-faced caricature that represents it, I never saw Chief Wahoo as a racist symbol. Like a kid growing up in Texas hearing the N-word rolling off tongues so casually, it seemed normal, acceptable, innocuous. Every year on opening day, I sported the logo with pride as I walked past the small but vocal band of protesters calling for the Chief's abolition. But as I got older, it began to nag at me. Was Chief Wahoo really a racist symbol? Was the very name Indians itself racist?
I won't rehash all the arguments for getting rid of the logo. But I submit that both the logo AND the name Indians need to go. Why? Because, like the Washington Redskins and Atlanta Braves, the team is going to have to do it sooner or later anyway. It's inevitable. Doing the right thing is far more credible when you do it on your own before you are made to do it.
Most sports team names are simply generic and don't mean anything (Red/White Sox, Pirates, Tigers) Good ones reflect something about the city they represent (Mets, Patriots, Heat, Astros). The best actually capture the essence and the history of the city – Milwaukee Brewers, Colorado Rockies, Dallas Cowboys, and, as much as it pains me to admit it, Pittsburgh Steelers. So are the clever ones – Baltimore Orioles, Minnesota Twins, Buffalo Bills. Some were great, but make no sense now. Lakers was a perfect for the land of 1,000 lakes, but are there even any lakes in Los Angeles? The New Orleans Jazz? Cool name, but does anyone in Utah listen to Jazz? And what do people dodge in L.A., mudslides?
Apart from the myth that the team was named to honor Penobscot tribesman Louis Sockalexis, the name Indians has nothing to do with Cleveland. With Native Americans comprising only a trace of the city's population, the only time you see a real Indian in Cleveland is on opening day. So if the Indians were to change names, to what?
First off, please don't ask the fans or we will end up with something hideous like Walleyes. Cleveland's onetime WNBA team had a great name, the Rockers. But can you have both the Rockers and the Rockies? Probably not. So, what defines Cleveland? What is the city's dominant characteristic? Lake Erie, of course. So why not a name with a nautical theme? How about...the Cleveland Captains. It's alliterative, it reflects strength, leadership and authority, and the marketing possibilities would be endless. The name is already used by the minor league Lake County Captains, but since they are the Indians' Class A affiliate, I'm sure something could be worked out. Imagine all the fun you could have with the name. The ballpark could take on a nautical motif, with a lighthouse with search lights going around madly and a foghorn blaring when a Captain hits a home run (OK, the fireworks can stay, too).
It absolutely killed me that, outside of Northeast Ohio, the entire country seemed to be rooting for the Cubs to win the World Series, and the vitriol on social media toward “that team with the racist logo” broke my heart. One legend says that an angry medicine man put a curse on the team, declaring that the Indians would never win the big one unless they got rid of the logo and name. I'm not one for such hooey, but as a long-suffering Cleveland baseball fan, I'm ready to try anything. Ideally, the Tribe wins the World Series this year and sends Chief Wahoo out a winner. But either way, he's got to go.