Simile Saturday: For-Serious Edition

The whole Simile (Saturday/Sunday) concept pretty obviously lends itself to levity. If I’m going to do this thing, I should make silly and tenuous comparisons between one baseball thing and one non-baseball thing and then kind of try to defend the comparisons. That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing for the last three weeks here, and what I expect I’ll do next week (I’ve had this great baseball simile loaded up in my head for a week that ends up comparing playing hockey to a life of petty crime, for which I’m sure all you nice Canadians will just love me).

But then, yesterday, two completely different and not particularly light and funny things came up that I think I have to write about. So it goes.

Harmon Killebrew is like my grandpa.

On Friday morning, through the Twins, Harmon Killebrew issued a statement that was essentially his farewell to this world. Suffering from esophageal cancer, Killebrew (with the help of his doctors) has decided that it’s a battle that he can’t win, and will spend the rest of his days in hospice care. It’s heartbreaking just from a basic human standpoint — how often to you see someone come to terms that clearly and openly with death? — but to lose a man like Killebrew so relatively suddenly and so relatively early (he’s not yet 75) is quite a blow.

I grew up a Twins fan, but having been born in 1979, I never saw Killebrew play. I knew him only from things like autograph signings, interviews and old-timers’ games; gray-haired, on the short side for a ballplayer but freakishly strong, generally at once the oldest and most physically impressive guy around. On those few occasions when I did see him (and/or have very short interactions with him), he always had a smile on his face, always had a story to tell, always interested in what others had to say. From everything I’ve ever heard and read about Killebrew, that was pretty much who he was. Soft-spoken, but kind and unprepossessing, mild-mannered, active in charities, the whole real-midwestern-hero thing. He may have been the Twins’ best all-time player, and he was definitely their best ambassador.

Really, he was “like my grandpa” in only the vague general sense: he sent out the kind of nice-older-guy vibe most people associate with grandfathers. An actual comparison with my grandfather, W.B. (Bill) Parker, is kind of strained. My grandpa was 20 years older and had a career in the Air Force, and was a World War II vet  and an Orioles fan; Killer just hit baseballs a long way, having debuted in the majors a month or so after finishing high school. Very different lives.

But my grandfather passed away Tuesday evening, at age 95. In his final couple years, as the inevitable aches, pains and infirmities of old age pressed in more and more on him and increasingly strained his fiercely independent existence, he took whatever came with a great strength and dry sense of humor, displaying very much the same kind of grace and dignity Killebrew showed in his statement yesterday morning.

I’m thinking about Harmon Killebrew today, and how I’ll miss the hell out of him; in that way, Killebrew’s a whole lot like my grandpa.

Chief Wahoo is like blackface in a minstrel show.

On Friday afternoon, Stephanie Liscio of the new ESPN SweetSpot blog It’s Pronounced “Lajaway” put up what I thought was a very insightful piece on the main ESPN SweetSpot Blog (where — plug! — something by me should be appearing very late tonight or early tomorrow) arguing that it was time to retire Indians mascot Chief Wahoo.

You can find quite a lot of complaining about Wahoo on the internet (and I’m always a fan; to me, dumping Wahoo has always been kind of a no-brainer), but it was refreshing to see an Indians fan making the argument. And she does a particularly good job of it.

And, I mean, just look at him. He’s got red skin. Literally, red skin! (Unnecessary note: most Native Americans I’ve seen do not actually have red skin.) He’s got a huge nose, a cartoonish grin, and kind of a mischievous look about him.

If this isn’t offensive for most of the same reasons that minstrel show performers appearing in blackface were offensive…well, I can’t finish that sentence, because it just is. Blackface involved a white performer accentuating, and consciously exaggerating, all the differences he perceived or imagined between himself and African-Americans — dark skin (made literally black), larger lips (made ludicrously oversized and bright red), certain behavioral characteristics — in order to make fun of the other race, to make him/them look and sound silly, frivolous. Wahoo, on the other hand, involved a white artist drawing a picture that accentuated, and consciously exaggerated, all the differences he perceived or imagined between himself and Native Americans — red skin (again: literally red skin? Really?), big nose, headband and feather, etc. — in order to render him (and remember that by “him,” here, as with the minstrel shows, we’re pretty much referring to an entire race) into a silly little mascot for a usually-notably-inept sports team.

I don’t think the intentions driving the two are remotely comparable — certainly, blackface came from a much more hateful place than Wahoo did — but at some point, the intention behind blackface stopped mattering. You can’t dress up in blackface just for fun and head out to a party, no matter how pure you might think your intentions are — the image itself, the exaggerated (perceived) differences, are themselves hurtful and offensive. Given that, the persistence of Chief Wahoo becomes awfully problematic.

Which isn’t at all to say that the current Indians are racist, or that Indians fans are (or ever have been) racist, or that liking the Wahoo image because it has represented the team you grew up with makes you a racist. That’s not it at all. The image itself, though, as Craig Calcaterra pointed out last fall, becomes awfully difficult to distinguish from this, and this, and this.

And after all, it’s just a dumb little logo — other teams (like the Twins, and the Jays) change logos and designs about as fast as their players change in and out of their uniforms, and it doesn’t have a particularly noteworthy impact on the way those teams’ fans perceive or identify with the team. Keep your Chief Wahoo blanket, toaster and toilet seat, but let’s let the team kill him quietly and stop embarrassing you and your city.

The arguments in favor of keeping Wahoo — which you can see spelled out mostly in partially-literate form in the readers’ comments to Liscio’s post, and often interspersed with truly enlightened shots at female sports writers and “liberals” — seem to break down, and are easily dismissed, thusly:

  • It’s tradition! All that horrifying racist stuff you see in museums was tradition once. Minstrel shows were popular entertainment for nearly a century, decades longer than Wahoo’s been around. When it was time to go, they went. People have this weird way of convincing themselves that the fact that something has been itself justifies a conviction that the same thing should continue to be.
  • Most Native Americans aren’t complaining about it. Or, worse: “I’m (part-) Native American, and I love Chief Wahoo!” You know, I think it’s actually true that most members of the race being lampooned by him aren’t bothered by Wahoo. A vast majority, even — they probably just don’t think much about it. But the whole reason that the United States has laws protecting civil rights is that those questions aren’t to be offered up to be decided according to majority rule. (N.B.: I’d be curious to see a poll of African Americans in the 1920s or so asking whether they were offended by minstrel shows.) We know for a fact that some Native Americans are offended by Wahoo, and common sense shows us that that’s not without good reason. And I wonder if all of that isn’t just beside the point; you’ve got a team that’s named after a race of people, and a mascot that’s kind of a grotesque caricature of that race. Even if not a single member of that race is offended, aren’t we just a little better off as people representing Cleveland’s baseball team with something a little less…dumb?
    And: one reason (one of many, no doubt) that racial issues impacting African-Americans get more vocally debated or denounced than those impacting Native Americans is a sheer question of numbers; as of 2008, 0.8% of the US identified as Native American, compared to the nearly sixteen times as many — 12.4% — who identified as Black Americans. To some degree, I think that if you’re defending Wahoo because Native Americans don’t seem to complain about him that much, you’re basically saying “they’re such a minority that there’s no harm in making fun of them.” So that’s, um, wrong.
  • I’m white and I’m not offended by the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the Minnesota Vikings, etc. etc. What makes Wahoo problematic is the combination of two things: (1) the cartoonish caricature and (2) the fact that it’s a caricature of a minority race. The Notre Dame logo was designed by Irish Catholics with a pretty good sense of humor; the Vikings logo was designed by Nordic types like me with a seriously inflated opinion of themselves (I mean, what upper-midwestern white dude would complain about looking like that?).
    And again, you’re taking something that directly caricatures a tiny-minority race and comparing it to something that kind of loosely, arguably, caricatures the 66% of people in this country who are white. These sorts of comparisons just fall ludicrously flat.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that, as Liscio said, it’s time to retire Chief Wahoo. It’s silly, and at least a little embarrassing, and it’s just not a thing meant for this age. Much like those old minstrel shows.

Catch Bill being much less controversial at The Platoon Advantage, and about as controversial but much less serious on Twitter.