Report: Cleveland Indians to Drop Name This Week

According to a report Sunday night in the New York Times, the Cleveland Indians will be dropping their controversial name with an announcement to come as soon as Wednesday of this week.

The report cites three sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity, one of which stated the club would continue using the Indians name in 2021 before replacing it in 2022 while another said the team was considering a (perhaps temporary) nameless option similar to what the NFL’s Washington Football Team announced earlier this year.

Cleveland would follow both the Washington Football Team and the CFL’s former Edmonton Eskimos (now known, temporarily, as the EE Football Team) as teams to change names that were based on Native Americans and indigenous people.

The Indians first adopted their name back in 1915, a common theory suggests the team named themselves the “Indians” to commemorate the memory of a former Native American player, Louis Sockalexis.

Let’s explore that.

Sockalexis, a standout ballplayer with Holy Cross at South Bend, Indiana, was signed by the Cleveland Spiders, a National League club with no official ties to the modern Indians franchise on March 10, 1897, becoming the first Native American to play baseball professionally. Despite being known as the Spiders, the team was almost immediately referred to as “Cleveland’s Indians” or simply “Cleveland Indians” (alongside the actual name “Spiders”) in reports about the team in newspapers throughout the United States. Was this done so in reverence or was it in mockery? It’s not always easy to read sarcasm in 19th-century newspapers.

Sockalexis, as you would have expected to happen at most any point in our history, was, of course, the target of racial taunts from fans. A news report following a game at Philadelphia in June 1897 tells the story of a brawl which nearly broke out between Philly fans and Spiders manager Patsy Tebeau when, as the team was leaving the field, they began “giving imitation ‘war whoops’ in honour of Sockalexis”, local police were finally called to escort the ballplayers to the team bus when the fans continued to “honour” Sockalexis with threats of physical violence.

Following an impressive start to his rookie season, Sockalexis struggled as he battled injuries and bouts with alcoholism, after just seven games with the 1899 Spiders (largely considered the worst sports team of all time) he was released.

A new Cleveland team joined the American League in 1901 and, despite Sockalexis no longer being with the team, the “Indians” name continued to be attached to the team in articles as were the official Cleveland ballclub names such as Blues and Naps well into the 1910s. Sockalexis died in December of 1913, a year shy of the Naps adopting the “Indians” name officially, which they announced on January 16th, 1915, following a meeting between team officials and local sports reporters. The new name was said to be “in recognition of the fighting spirit of the team”, the change made because Napolean “Nap” Lajoie, the inspiration for the Naps name was sold to the Philadelphia Athletics earlier that month.

There was no mention of Sockalexis in any article regarding the name change at the time or in most of the accounts in the years to follow. It would seem the team was named just out of familiarity to newspaper writers and not at all directly to honour the memory of Sockalexis, though its origins can certainly be traced back to him signing with the club nearly 20 years earlier.

Although the club had taken on the “Indians” nickname back in 1915, there was no indication of this in any of the team’s uniforms or logos until 1928, when the head of a Native American, complete with feathered headdress, was added to the front of their home jersey.  The logo was altered slightly and shifted to the sleeve a year later where it would remain until 1938.

The infamous “Chief Wahoo” would be adopted by the Indians in the mid-1940s, first used on team letterheads and official documents before being added to their uniforms in 1948 as a sleeve patch. Over the course of its life, the logo has been reversed, turned, given a crown, and on two different occasions had a body added to it and shown in an active hitter’s pose. It was put on the cap paired with a wishbone-C in 1954, then removed in ’58, returned in ’62, and removed a year later. Twenty-four years later it returned without the “C” in 1986 (reportedly at the recommendation of Indians players Joe Carter and Pat Tabler) where it stayed before finally being removed forever-ever for 2019.

Fans shop for Indians merchandise below a timeline of logos at Progressive Field in 2019

Now it seems the Cleveland Indians Baseball Team, just two seasons removed from having Chief Wahoo still on their uniform sleeves, are dropping the Indians name entirely. So, what happens next? A season or two without a name? Maybe a throwback to a name of another era — the Cleveland Spiders seems to be a popular choice but do you really want to go back to the team with the worst season in professional sports history? Buckeyes would be perfect if not for the fact that it’s already used by a fairly well-known college team in that state.

Perhaps it’s time for something entirely new. How often does a franchise with *over 120 years of history* get the opportunity to reinvent itself? This team is older than the Boston Celtics, Green Bay Packers, and Montreal Canadiens. My only wish from this is that they pick *something*, don’t do the “Baseball Club” thing beyond a placeholder name… I think I kinda like the Cleveland Spiders.